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A Preview of the Season Preview

A Look at the First Half of 2006
"Easier" Schedule Not Quite That Easy

Now that we're through the draft, we can take a legitimate look at the Patriots 2006 schedule and perform the age-old folly of looking way too far ahead and predicting the season outcome. So un-Belichickian.

But as we go through this, you'll see why a lot of what I would have said pre-draft has changed dramatically. OK, maybe not "dramatically," but there's certainly a lot more gray than there was, and a few games that looked like cakewalks (not that Bill Belichick would ever call them that) may not be so.

The first thing to note is that for the first time I can remember, New England is not playing any teams during the regular season that they face during the preseason. Personally, I don't like it. It seemed to me that, like a great poker player, Belichick could always glean the opponent's "tells" in those games while not even hinting at the cards he was holding. You don't get that "advantage" this year.

Belichick, of course, will tell you it matters not. But if it were up to me, they'd play all their preseason games against all their regular season out-of-conference opponents. But that's me.

So, for the sake of comprehensiveness, the Pats play at Atlanta on Aug. 11 (Friday night at 8 p.m.), home against Arizona on Aug. 19 (Saturday night at 8 p.m.), home against Washington on Aug. 26) (another Saturday night at 8 p.m.), and in New Jersey against the Giants on Aug. 31. That's Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Who comes up with these schedules?

Evidently, the NFL decided to have all the preseason games at night this year. I guess commissioner Paul Tagliabue wanted to royally screw up one more thing before his ended his administration. He's obviously not from Maine. (You know, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it.")

First, here are a few more general observations about the regular season schedule. Despite the preseason slate, most teams, including New England, will still be playing a majority of their games on Sunday afternoon. The Patriots have but three night games all season -- two on Sunday, one Monday. They also have only two late afternoon games on Sunday, and all of these games come in bunches, as you'll see. Otherwise, New England has 11 one o'clock games, including the entire last half of the season,

Like last year, the schedule is front-loaded with some pretty good teams, although it probably didn't look that way a couple months ago. Unlike last year, the schedule is pretty balanced home and away with no huge stretches of road games against the cream of the NFL crop. Three of the last four are on the road, and a few of the teams are tough, but nothing like September and October last year. There's a nice stretch of 4 out of 5 at home through October right before that, so that could build some momentum before the playoff push.

The Pats bye week is Week 6. Not great, Not bad. But it does come after the early-season flurry of Bronos-Bengals-Dolphins, so it's probably a really good time for a break.

One last non-schedule related note: One of the major keys to New England's success remains Rodney Harrison. The Pats can probably make it a few games without him, but they will need him during the Bye week at the latest.

Week 1: New England opens at home on Sunday, Sept. 10 (one day before the 5-year anniversary of 9/11) at 1 p.m. against the Buffalo Bills. The way Buffalo played last year, and they way they've pursued (or not) free agency, and the what-could-they-possibly-be-thinking approach to their draft would lead just about anyone to conclude that this game is a 6-inch put for Tiger Woods. Unfortunately, `tis not so.

History tells us, and NFL historians like Belichick are well aware, that Buffalo just plays New England tough. Almost always. If these teams played this game in Week 3 or 4, I'd say "piece of cake"; but it's Week 1, and a lot of strange things happen in Week 1. On paper, the Pats win hands down. In real life, Buffalo has a chance -- not much of one, but a chance, nonetheless. Remember: The Pats barely won the "Return of Bruschi" game last season.

The good news is, barring preseason catastrophe, New England should go into the game healthy, as they were not in that game, and Buffalo could possibly be even worse than they were last year. The Patriots should win by about 40, and they'll probably win by at least 14, but I have to at least try to make it interesting.

Week 2: New England heads back to the Meadowlands for the second time in three weeks, this time for real, as they meet the New York Jets for the first time this season on Sunday, Sept. 17 at 4:14 p.m. The Jets will benefit from the draft in the long run, but their picks probably won't make much difference in the second week of their first season.

Again, this should be a joke. Depsite some fairly close scores, the Pats dominated the hapless Jets last year. The green machine has replaced some old parts with some heavy potential (D'Brickashaw Ferguson among others). Perhaps the best news for the Jets is Herman Edwards is gone, replaced by Belichick prot?g? Eric Mangini (not that we know what to expect from Mangini, but at he's not Herman Edwards). But is it enough to make the Jets competitive? Can Curtis Martin continue to carry this team? Will New York ever field a legitimate starting quarterback? Will I eat my words?

The answer to all these questions is "No." New England will have whoever is calling signals running for his life. Roosevelt Colvin will start becoming the guy we bargained for. Not even Fireman Ed can help them. Pats by a bunch (10 or so).

Week 3: It's the first Big Game of the year a -- rematch of the AFC Divisional Playoffs. The Denver Broncos come to town on Sunday, Sept. 24 for an 8:15 p.m. start, possibly with a brewing quarterback controversy. Will Mike Shanahan stick by Jake Plummer and make Jay Cutler carry a clipboard for a year or two? Denver should be 2-0 after early wins over St. Louis and Kansas City.

This should be a pretty good game. Belichick will preach "no revenge" all week, but you know what the players will be thinking. The media, of course, will blow the rematch totally out of proportion. If he's healthy, don't expect Rodney Harrison to get screwed like Assante Samuel did in January. Expect Belichick to stick to a similar game plan. God help us if Gregory Steed is anywhere near Foxboro.

This one is too close to call right now, but if you're keeping track, call it 3-0 or 2-1.

Week 4: Remember that all home-away-home-away stuff last year? It's back this year. And for the third straight week, the Pats have a late start. This time New England heads to Cincinnati on Sunday, Oct. 1, for a 4:15 p.m. kickoff. For the second straight week, the Patriots face a division winner. The Bengals will be coming off an interesting trip to Pittsburgh.

Cincinnati loaded up on defense in the draft, but I don't think many of the newbies will contribute much this early in the season. Is Cincy really for real? Will they recover from their emotion run and devastating collapse? Will Carson Palmer be as good as he was last year, or will he be conscious of his rebuilt knee?

This is another tossup. At least, I'm not ready to call it the week before June. Possible 4-0, 3-1 or 2-2. I'll lean toward 3-1.

Week 5: Remember how New England didn't face a divisional opponent until Week 8 last season? Well, in Week 5, on Sunday, Oct. 8 at 1 p.m., the Patriots face their third divisional opponent of the season as the new-look Miami Dolphins visit Gillette Stadium. After opening the season in Pittsburgh, Miami coasts for three weeks with Buffalo and completely rebuilt Tennessee and Houston.

Head coach Nick Saban is the best thing to happen to the Dolphins since Ricky Williams (before he went ... um, up in smoke. He'll be bringing another tandem backfield, a big upgrade at quarterback (if Daunte Culpepper's knee is healed), and a six-game winning streak to finish 2005. This is not when we really want Miami up north, but this is when the game is scheduled.

It's the battle of the rebuilt knees, and it should be a beaut. Hopefully, the Pats won't be coming off back-to-back losses; and, hopefully, they'll be healthy; and, hopefully, the Homeland Defense will be in midseason form. So where are we? 5-0? 4-1? 3-2? 2-3? I'd be happy with 4-1, satisfied with 3-2. Anything less would be very disappointing.

Week 6: Bye week. A week earlier than last year. Timing is everything. How will this affect this year's team?

Week 7: New England met Buffalo for the first time last season in Week 8. The Pats will play them for the second time this season on Sunday, Oct. 22 at 1 p.m., this time in upstate New York. Buffalo should be limping in with a sub-.500 record, and New England should be looking to make a statement heading to midseason.

Fortunately, the weather shouldn't be too much of a factor. The Pats just seem to have a bad time in Ralph Wilson Stadium. Of course, New England won 35-7 there last year, and this should be a repeat performance. Call it 4-2, to be on the safe side.

Week 8: The Patriots face their first non-conference opponent on Monday Night, Oct. 30 at 8:30 p.m. when they travel to Minnesota. The Vikings are seriously rebuilding this year, starting with head coach Brad Childress. Minnesota also has a bye in Week 6, but the Vikes have to contend with a trip to Seattle before they host New England.

The Vikings are improved, but they're still soft on defense, and they still have journeyman Brad Johnson at quarterback. A Patriot team in midseason form should have no problem with Minnesota. The artificial turf bothers me, though. I hate that stuff.

Week 9: Once again, New England has back-to-back night games. Indianapolis returns to the Northeast on Sunday, Nov. 5 at 8:15 p.m., just-so-coincidentally catching the Patriots on their only real short week. Oddly enough, the Colts also have a Week 6 bye and come off back-to-back tough games vs. Washington and at Denver.

Depending on the records of these two teams, this game could have major playoff seeding implications. Has Peyton Manning really broken his Foxboro curse? Or was it just New England's basketful of injuries that gave him a break last year? Can Dominic Rhodes and Joseph Addai replace Edgerrin James? Is the Colts defense going to maintain the level of excellence it reached last year? Are the Colts, as a team, over their 2005 late-season collapse (We should know by Week 9, ya think?)? This should be a great cap to the first half of the season. But there's no break here, so only we fans and the media will mark this game as a significant landmark. If New England is still healthy before and after this game, they should be 6-2 (5-3 at worst).

With that record, the Patriots should be neck-and-neck with Miami, with New York still nursing slim playoff hopes and Buffalo wishing they still had Scott Norwood to kick around.

Next: The second half of the season ...


After the first half of the 2006 season, New England will be ...

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