By now, everyone has a pretty good idea who the Patriots' 2009 opponents are. I won't go as far as saying I know WHEN we play a particular team (at the time of this writing, Bills and Bucs are the only definites), but the opponents are locked up. In fact, this is no mystery. Since the Texans joined the NFL in 2002 as the 32nd franchise, the formula has stayed the same. From wikipedia.org, the regular season schedule works like so:
- Each team plays the other three teams in their division twice: once at home, and once on the road (six games). This one's fairly straightforward. We're all used to six games out of our schedule being played against division rivals. Dominating your division is all important as division record is one of the first tie breakers in determining division champion or wildcard berths. Divisional games are very high on the priority scale. (This accounts for an away and a home game with Bills, Dolphins, and Jets).
- Each team plays the four teams from another division within its own conference once on a rotating three-year cycle: two at home, and two on the road (four games). Check out the future schedules section in the wikipedia.org article to get a handle on which intra-conference division we're playing now. You guessed it: the AFC South (This accounts for away games Colts and Texans while we take on Titans and Jaguars at home).
- Each team plays the four teams from a division in the other conference once on a rotating four-year cycle: two at home, and two on the road (four games). Again, take a look at the future schedules section of the wikipedia.org article to figure out which inter-conference division we take on and you'll come up with the NFC South (This accounts for away games Buccaneers and Saints while we face Falcons and Panthers on our own turf).
- Each team plays once against the other teams in its conference that finished in the same place in their own divisions as themselves, not counting the division they were already scheduled to play: one at home, one on the road (two games). Looking at the 2008 regular season standings and taking the AFC South out of the picture (as you may recall, they are this year's intra-conference division and we play every team in that division), we take on the second place teams in the AFC North and West (Ravens at home and Broncos away).
So, why is this of any interest at all? First, the schedule is not some random thing made up at the end of the previous season based on the whims of Roger Goodell or the competition committee; it is a predictable formula that can be counted on to operate the same way every year, except for the two teams in each conference with the same record rule (bullet #4). Second, you can win bets at a bar by predicting, with absolute certainty, 14 of the Patriots' 16 rivals: six will be in the AFC East and, starting in 2009, the four intra-conference games will be played in a South/North/West rotation while the four inter-conference games will be South/North/East/West.
As a service to the Pats Pulpit readership (actually, it's because I have no life), I've calculated out the Patriots' 14 known opponents for the next 50 years and uploaded it as PDF and XLS files (of course, an 18 game regular season will render all my spreadsheet wizardry a total and complete waste of time). Tomorrow, in Part II, I'll discuss why the heck we play the Colts soooooooo much as well as how home and away games are determined.