Several of my fellow Pulpiteers have already analyzed the schedule and, most recently, ventured some predictions about wins and losses. I'll try not to repeat what they've said--and I won't make any predictions about results--but I do have some thoughts to offer about various ways we can look at this year's schedule after the jump.
Here are a variety of ways of slicing and dicing the 17 week slog that begins next Monday night in Miami.
- The 4-8-4 package: By one glance, the schedule seems bookended with four relatively easy games to start, four relatively easy games to end, and eight near-murderous games in between. Inevitably, some of the "easy" games in the two sets of four will be much harder than they look. And some of those eight games in the middle will be much easier than they appear now. But the schedule does seem set up for a potential fast start and a strong stretch run. A sweep of the two four-game sets and a split of the eight games in the middle would equal a 12-4 record.
- The 6-6-4 package: A variation of the above, but one built around the first six games until the bye week, then the remaining 6 duck-and-cover games, then the final four. Viewing it this way provides a nice way to break up that difficult stretch, as it includes the Jets and Cowboys games. By the bye week, with two weeks to prepare for the Steelers, we should know a lot about our team. Three divisional games will be in the books. So will three road games. Home games against the Jets and Cowboys will have provided a final, pre-bye week tuneup for our very tough stretch of games to follow. And by December, we should know whether we'll be taking a victory lap like last year, or needing to win every single game to grab a playoff spot.
- Games that look easy now that might not be: The opener at Miami. Last year excepted, the Dolphins always seem to play us close, beat us regularly, and challenge us every single time. Signs out of Miami are not encouraging this preseason. Smart people pick them last in the AFC East. But it's the first game, the Dolphins embarrassed themselves last season, especially against us (think Tony Sparano won't be showing them tapes of the Monday Night Football blowout from Week 4 last year for motivation? The one that was so bad that it got their special teams coach fired?). Miami doesn't seem like a tough opener; but neither did Buffalo in 2009 and that took a miraculous Brady-esque comeback to win 25-24. I''m worried that a similar overconfidence might play into the Dolphins' hands. It's the first game; anything could happen. Most all of the preseason predictions I've seen have the Kansas City Chiefs (November 21) taking a step back this year. Maybe that will happen. But something tells me that the return of Scott Pioli, Romeo Crennel, and Matt Cassel to Foxboro for Monday Night Football will be an occasion for the Chiefs to bring their "A" game. Besides, this looms as a classic trap game for the Patriots: a home game sandwiched around titanic road games at the Jets and at Philadelphia. Finally, the Patriots have always struggled with Denver (December 18), particularly on the road. I know the Broncos are down this year but John Fox is a pretty good coach and Denver is due for some good injury luck. The Broncos may not have much to play for that late in the year, but New England must be on guard against coasting, having just recently come off that brutal 8 game stretch. This could be a game that sneaks up on the Patriots and the Broncos might be looking to make a statement.
- Games that look tough now that might not be: On paper these four games I've highlighted look like tough ones but the reality might be much different. On the surface, the Dallas game (October 16) might seem very tough (and some will tout it as a Super Bowl prequel). But are the Cowboys really that good? They were actually a very bad football team last year and I wonder if they've got all the problems fixed, or at least patched. The last time we played the New York Giants in a game that mattered, the G-Men broke our hearts. This year's New York game (November 6) shapes up as another toughie. To be sure, the Giants have the things that can hurt us: a punishing pass rush, a formidable defensive line, a running game, and a quarterback who seems to regard himself as Tom Brady's equal (even if no one else does). Still, the Giants have been hugely disappointing post-Super Bowl 42. They have already sustained some devastating injuries. They might not have much left in the tank for this one.Is it also possible that the game at the New York Jets on November 13 will not be tough? What? Blasphemy! But I wonder if Gang Green haven't hit a ceiling the past two years with back to back AFC title game appearances. Getting there twice and losing twice has got to take something out of a team that was built for the short term, to win now, not two years from now. Rex Ryan guaranteed Super Bowl trophies, not conference title game appearances. This year's Jets team is, arguably, weaker than the one they put on the field last year. Ryan's emotional style has worked well in the short run the last two seasons. But has it already reached its shelf life? Is there a fast-approaching expiration date on Ryan-mania? I think--maybe it's wishful thinking, maybe I'm delusional--that the Jets may go to Ryan's emotional, us-against-the-world well a few too may times this season and come up empy. By mid-November, even against the Patriots, a team they regard with painful envy even while they attack them as the Great Satan, perhaps the Jets will already be reeling and discovering that they missed their best chances to get to a Super Bowl the past two seasons. Ryan seems to think the Jets can automatically be counted into the AFC title bout and all they have to do is figure out how to finally win that game. Ryan's approach has had good success the last two years. But it requires a constant emotional fever pitch that will be very difficult to sustain for a third season, not to mention over a decade or more. Maybe the Meadowlands game ends up being much easier than it looks now. And speaking of blasphemy, dare I suggest that the annual Indianapolis Colts game (December 4) might not be that tough? We have no way of knowing what Peyton Manning's true condition is, how fast he'll recover, and what it means for the Colts this year. In contrast to previous seasons, their team seems older, slower, much less deep, and far more vulnerable than usual. If Manning is sub-par, too, things might have already snowballed so far out of control by December that the Colts and Manning will already be planning their comeback season in 2012. Or so this Patriots boy can dream.
- Super Bowl preview?: Patriots at Eagles the Sunday after Thanksgiving. This one will be tough regardless. Even a quick glance at the schedule for possible losses would put this game at the top of such a list. We might lose, but it has the potential to a game like the regular season loss to the St. Louis Rams in 2001. The Patriots used that game to figure out what DIDN'T work against the Rams and to calculate what could (and did) work out for them in the Super Bowl rematch. A similar thing happened in 2004 with that Halloween loss to the Steelers, who lived to regret that come AFC championship game time. And, of course, it worked in reverse when the Giants did that to us in 2007, losing the regular season finale but then shocking the world by getting to the Super Bowl and then upsetting us, fueled with confidence they could beat us from nearly doing so the first time around. But even if neither the Patriots nor the Eagles makes the Bowl this year, this game is certain to have the hype and the atmosphere of a Super Bowl preview to it. Think of the teaser promos: Belichick vs. the Dream Team--I mean the Heat--I mean the LeBrons--oh, nevermind.
So, any way we break it down, this year's schedule is intriguing and likely to get more so in ways we can't even imagine yet. Let the games begin.