The Second Half of 2006
Prediction: A 12-4 to 14-2 Season
To this point, 51 percent of you agreed with my (early) assessment that the New England Patriots should be 6-2 following their first eight games of 2006. About half that figure the Pats will be even better at 7-1, and the rest were split between 8-0 and 5-3. Any way you slice it, we have high expectations.
The confidence we professed in our first-half predictions may be grounded in the fact that we're very familiar with most of the teams our boys will be facing, with four of the eight against mostly inferior teams in our own division, and all but one within our conference.
Not so in the second half. There are only two division opponents, three non-East AFC opponents, and three NFC opponents. As we discussed, New England is playing Minnesota in the first half, so you may have guessed that the rest of the non-conference opponents are from the AFC North -- Green Bay, Chicago and Detroit. That's how it works. The odd thing is that they play them all in three consecutive weeks.
Every game is scheduled for a 1 p.m. start for the rest of the season. Note that they are "scheduled." Starting in Week 10 (marking the second half of the season), one of the games scheduled for 1 or 4 p.m. Sunday will be declared the Sunday Night game and will be played at 8 p.m. That's except for Week 16, when Sunday is Christmas Eve, and there is no Sunday Night game. (There will, however, be a Sunday Night game the following week -- New Year's Eve -- and that will be the final game of the regular season.). So, it's possible the Pats will have another night game or two. (Quick note: There are no bye weeks after Week 9, either.)
OK, let's have at it.
Week 10 vs. Jets (Nov. 12): Again, while we'll be calling this game "the start of the second half," to Belichick and Co., this is no landmark at all. It's just another game on the schedule, another team to face, another beating on the Jets. Eric Mangini and Co., on the other hand, can call it the start of the second half -- they'll be coming off their bye week, right at midseason.
There's no telling who will be New York's quarterback by this time, whether Curtis Martin will still be in one piece, if Ty Law will be on either team. The only thing we may find out is what kind of impact Eric Mangini is having on both teams. All we know with near absolute certainty is that this should be a W for New England.
Week 11 @ Green Bay Packers (Nov. 19): Following back-to-back road games at Buffalo and Minnesota, the steadily declining Packers, who make the fall of the Roman Empire look like it took forever, try to defend the not-yet frozen tundra. The Pack have a potentially creampuff schedule to this point, so maybe they won't look as bad as they should be, and maybe they'll be relatively healthy.
But Lambeau Field isn't as ominously hostile as it was in the early Favre years. And then Green Bay drafted heavily at wide receiver, so maybe Favre will have a few targets, if he isn't running for his battered, tumultuous life. You can't win if you don't score. Another W.
Week 12 vs. Chicago Bears (Nov. 26): The Lovie Smith Bears, much like the Dick Jauron Bears, collapsed in the first round of the playoffs after reaching the tournament with one of the easiest schedules in NFL history. It still amazes me that people who supposedly know football voted both of these guys Coach of the Year. Anyway, the Bears come to New England after back-to-back trips to the Meadowlands. Who comes up with these schedules?
Smith had a more Belichickian draft than Belichick did, selecting mostly defense. The guy is absolutely determined to field a defense that allows the fewest points in the history of the game. Of course, New England's offense could be even better than last year's.
Week 13 vs. Detroit Lions (Dec. 3): Matt Millen is still in charge.
Week 14 @ Dolphins (Dec. 10): Wouldn't we all rather that the location of the Dolphin games were reversed. Alas, `tis not so. Miami has Jacksonville at home before New England and they're at Buffalo the week after. So there will be nothing distracting them from this game. Knowing New England's history down South, especially at this time of year, and knowing that Miami should be a pretty good team this year, means that this is going to be a tough game.
Hopefully, the Pats will have avoided the traps of the last three games (especially the last one) and have maintained a healthful state. This will be a good candidate for a Sunday Night appearance.
Week 15 vs. Houston Texans (Dec. 17): The happiest guy in Houston is Domanick Davis. That leaves a couple million others who would rather have Reggie Bush in the backfield. So we'll hear endless discussion about the Bush-Mario Williams difference, at least locally. The Texans have a fairly tough schedule early on, but it lightens up heading to this game.
This will be the Patriots first trip to Houston since beating Carolina there on Feb. 1, 2003, and the first time facing the Texans since squeezing past them 23-20 in overtime earlier that year in the same stadium. Assuming Williams doesn't have the impact that Bush would have, New England should be in good shape. But assuming does some strange things, so they say.
Week 16 @ Jacksonville Jaguars (Dec. 24): How do you think Jacksonville is going to like coming here on Christmas Eve after boasting the cold wouldn't affect them last January? The last five games of the Jags schedule looks like this: Miami, Indy, Tennessee, New England and Kansas City. No rest for the weary there. The temperature probably will be below freezing in only one of those games. I haven't decided what I think about the Jaguars yet, but the odds look like they're stacking against them in December.
Week 17 @ Tennessee Titans (Dec. 31): If the Patriots haven't solidified a specific seed in this game, rendering it as useless as last season's finale against Miami, it could be a fairly interesting game. Can Vince Young and LenDale White become Steve McNair and Eddie George incarnate? And if so, will it be McNair and George of the late 1990s or the mid-'00s?
So there you have it. I expect the Patriots to be 7-1 in the second half, 6-2 at worst (and a way outside shot at 5-3 if they dominate the first half of the season and Week 17 is irrelevant). We're looking at a potential 12-4 to 14-2 season, barring the Plagues of Egypt or the ride of the Four Horsemen. Excuse the hyperbole. I'm really taking about the `I' word ... but I'm not going to say it.
I guess the schedule does still look "that easy," after all.
Eleven weeks until Patriots open the preseason against Atlanta. Just so you know.