There will be plenty of time to break down and analyze the Patriots' 2013 schedule over the coming weeks and months, but I thought I would offer up some initial reactions now that the times and dates have been finalized.
Biggest surprise: at Balitmore, December 22nd. I had New England pegged as Baltimore's home opener the minute they won the Super Bowl. Even when it was announced that the Ravens would be opening up on the road, I still thought it would be Pats vs. Ravens in Week 2. Surprising, then, that the two teams won't play until late December; the thinking here must be that the game will have both playoff and homefield implications at that point, and so if the two teams can't play to open up the season, they may as well put the game in primetime during the home stretch.
Biggest disappointment: at Carolina, November 18th. New England only gets one Monday Night game this year, and it's against the Panthers - a game they should win. Carolina is a team on the rise, and Cam Newton is fun to watch, but I feel like this is a waste of a MNF game, as there are no real storylines (as of yet, at least). Give me Patriots/Broncos or Patriots/Falcons on Monday night any day of the week. Well...on any Monday of the week, at least.
Biggest plus: Week 10 bye. The later the bye, the better. The Patriots will be finishing up an absolutely brutal six week stretch that pits them against the Falcons (away), Bengals (away), Saints (home), Jets (away), Dolphins (home) and Steelers (home) leading up to that bye week, and they are really going to need it - especially with the Texans and Ravens still to play.
Toughest Game: vs. Broncos, November 24th. Manning vs. Brady, Welker returns to Foxboro, blah blah blah. Forgive me for waiting until November to start beating those storylines into the ground. What make this game tough right now is that it will be the second primetime matchup in a row coming off a short week following a classic trap game that could potentially have left the Patriots out of sync. Monday night games and Sunday night games are a deviation from what is a highly rigid and regimented schedule, and having both games one after the other will be a great test of the team's mental toughness.
Easiest game: vs. Browns, December 8th. Cleveland will be good in a couple of years - but not yet. Coming into Foxboro, in December when the Patriots are usually playing their best football, shouldn't be much of a contest. Obviously, anything can happen, and who knows what these teams will look like eight months from now, but on paper this is a huge mismatch.
Overall: A whole lot can change between now and then, but this looks like a pretty tough schedule at the moment. Much will depend on how the AFC East shapes up, as those could be six very easy or six very difficult games. I don't see much downtime for the team at all, and I wouldn't designate any part of this schedule as an "easy stretch." I like opening and closing against Buffalo, as it's a chance to both start and finish strong as well as build some real momentum going into the season and then into the playoffs.