Schedule of Champions
By Joe Levit
Obviously, every team that plays the Patriots will be working hard to push them off their pedestal with an upset, since that outcome will bring about some short-term notoriety for the club that accomplishes it, and could serve to be the confidence booster necessary for a few teams to morph from mediocre to contender. The Patriots will have a bulls eye firmly ensconced upon their jerseys all season. To make matters worse, if you look at the rest of their schedule, there does not appear to be a single cakewalk game in the group. Let's go through each matchup they will face:
Week 2: Carolina Panthers - It's great for America that the Saints came marching in last week, but the Panthers are desperate for a win now, even without Kris Jenkins, or their season could be a bust.
Week 3: at Pittsburgh Steelers - If Parker keeps running the ball this well, Pittsburgh will choose to simply pound the ball right up the middle against a Patriots linebacking unit that looks overmatched so far this season.
Week 5: at Atlanta Falcons - Against another tough running team, this looks like a sure loss for the Patriots, away from home versus the cream of the NFC crop.
Week 6: at Denver Broncos - Denver did not look good against Miami, but it doesn't help to have to play the team in Mile High stadium.
Week 7: BYE
Week 8: Buffalo Bills - McGahee could be trouble for New England's defense, and the Bills are no slouches defending their own end zone.
Week 9: Indianapolis Colts - The difference this year appears to be that the Colts actually have a defense to speak of. The always-overbearing offense will be especially difficult to handle if the team decides to use Edgerrin James.
Week 10: at Miami Dolphins - Whether this team can keep up the early momentum remains to be seen, but it is clear that new coach Nick Saban will always put up a fight.
Week 11: New Orleans Saints - It will be interesting to see if the emotional baggage this team is carrying around has propelled them all season by this point. If it has, then this game becomes tougher, even at home.
Week 12: at Kansas City Chiefs - This is not what the Patriots need: a two-pronged rushing attack (Johnson and Holmes) that is deadly effective in an away game where the crowd becomes a factor.
Week 13: New York Jets - This is one of the easier matchups, along with the Broncos and probably the Dolphins, but just the same, all division games are tough rivalries.
Week 14: at Buffalo Bills - The Bills will be in the playoff race at this juncture, so they will be putting it all on the line too, and anything can happen on a home team's turf.
Week 16: at New York Jets - An away game in the Meadowlands in December - recipe for revenge.
Week 17: Miami Dolphins - Remember that the Dolphins were one of only two teams to beat the Patriots last year, and that was when they were a putrid unit.
Obviously a brutal schedule awaits this team. Now, that said, the Patriots are a very tough and resilient squad, one with patience and also pride. They seem to enjoy wearing down an opponent mentally as much or more than physically, and are capable of playing it both ways, depending upon the team they face. The real issue here is probably not how tough the Patriots schedule is, but the degree to which some serious competitors for home-field advantage in the playoffs have easier ones.
So who are the other contenders for an AFC championship matchup and then Super Bowl berth? In my opinion, the teams to tally win/loss totals for include the Bills and maybe Jets, Steelers and Ravens, Jaguars and Colts, and the Chiefs.
In the AFC East there will be terrific competition this year. Since these four teams face largely the same competition, I'm giving the edge to the Patriots in common opponent matchups. The Jets will face the Jaguars instead of the Colts (New England draw) as an AFC South foe, but that is not really an advantage. Plus, they have to play the Ravens in Baltimore as the AFC North matchup. Don't expect the Jets to be a serious problem for the Patriots this season, as New York's schedule is plenty tough. The Bills go into Cincinnati against the Bengals instead of playing in Pittsburgh against the Steelers (New England draw), which does seem to be a slightly easier task. If the Bills hang tough through their own hard schedule, they will be a team that is not fun to play in the postseason, but the Patriots should be able to get them at home if they meet there.
The Kansas City Chiefs, though starting out well, will no doubt get into some serious slugfests in the AFC West. Those teams typically knock each other around. Though they have a good chance to win the division and make the playoffs, like Buffalo I don't believe they will have the record to force New England out of a comfort zone.
Two teams from the AFC North present the first potential problems for the Patriots. The Steelers and Ravens are two difficult teams to face. Both present a similar problem for the Patriots. They each have a good offensive line and power back to chip away at the Patriots' run defense. And, they both have outstanding defenses. On top of that, they have relatively easy schedules this season. They both face the Browns twice, and the Texans. They both play against the weak NFC North division, where three of four teams lost opening weekend, and the only one that won (Lions) was playing another division team, so somebody had to win. That adds up to about six easier contests, and the Ravens get to play the Titans this weekend, right after the Steelers destroyed them, which could be another win.
The AFC South opponents also present difficulty for New England. The Jaguars and Colts have a lot of easy matchups on their schedule. Both face the weak Texans and Titans twice by virtue of being in the same division. On top of that, they both play the Browns, 49ers, and Cardinals. It is clear that the Colts and Jaguars, when not beating up on each other, have a great chance to roll up an impressive record, with at least seven teams that are imminently beatable on the docket. Their record of course will determine seeding in the playoffs.
One of the factors that has helped the Patriots put Peyton Manning in his place the last few years is the fact that the Colts have had to come outside the comfy confines of their dome and deal with the winter weather. That is not likely to be the case this season. The probable postseason scenario pits New England against the Colts in Indianapolis. That may be the small measure of momentum change necessary to propel the Colts past the Patriots and into the Super Bowl. I would not bet against the Patriots, but the tough New England schedule has already ensured that this will be a postseason to remember.
Based in Boston, Joe Levit is a longtime contributor to Patriots Insider and columnist for Sports Illustrated (SI.com) and thehuddle.com. He provides fantasy football entertainment for corporate or client appreciation events (fantasyfootballspeaker.com). A member of the PFWA and FSWA he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read Joe's Profile
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