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The NFL released the 2010 schedule on Tuesday, and the Patriots have a sandwich of sorts. It’s easy enough in the early and later weeks, but gets tricky in the middle. Based on 2009 records, they have the league’s 6th hardest schedule, which will actually help them out in tie-breaking scenarios; the Titans and Texans are tied for toughest, then the Cowboys, Bengals, and Jaguars. But, to get to that point, the Pats actually have to get through some brutal games.
It’s their turn to face both North divisions, and we all know how deadly Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre (assuming he waffles back into action) can be, in addition to Ben Roethlisberger (who will be back from suspension when the Pats visit Pittsburgh). And we all know how the Ravens turned out for the Pats in January. It’ll be tough, but the Patriots can win. Even without home field advantage, a decent game plan and positioning would do wonders, provided road games won’t be an issue this time around.
So how does everything stack up for Tom Brady and Co. this season? When San Diego and Miami are the only two long road trips, at least jet-lag won’t be an issue. So without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, the 2010 New England Patriots:
The Bengals started good last year, but faltered at the end. They were quite fortunate that Pittsburgh and Baltimore didn’t gain any more ground on them, actually, and they finished with just 34 touchdowns and scored just 14 more points than they allowed, both lows amongst all 12 playoff teams. If Tom Brady heals from his knee issue and his multitude of problems from last year, he’ll decimate Cincinnati. If not, he still played through it all pretty well, and Brian Hoyer did well against the Giants in the preseason, just in case. This isn’t a bad game for the Patriots to jump off to a good start.
Road games were murder for the Patriots last year, and they didn’t even get one touchdown in this game last year. If anything, Mark Sanchez is still a little green (and white), and the Jets are a running team in a passing league. The New York (okay, New Jersey) Jets had the league’s best defense, allowing a league-low 236 points, but only scoring 348 (with just 37 touchdowns). For this match-up, the Patriots could use some decent pass rushers to fluster the Jets’ rushing game and pressure Sanchez, and maybe a safety of two to take care of the passing game. To neutralize the Jets’ defense, the Patriots really need to revamp their running game, i.e. don’t just plow head-forward into defenders. And run the ball more often to confuse expectations for Tom Brady’s passing. Defenders should be the higher priority in the draft; current rushers can just alter their strategy if need be.
The Bills are a poor team, but they’ve shown they can be a thorn in our paw now and then. That being said, this game is in New England, and as Brady has shown against the 2007 Colts and 2009 Bills, there is no better five-minute man in the NFL. With that kind of insurance, and with T.O. still a free agent, The Pats should come out on top.
This will be the hardest game yet. The Dolphins have been the only severe divisional problem for the Patriots in recent years. They had a decent offense, with 360 points and 41 touchdowns, but gave up 390 points. After being 1-15, then 11-5, then 7-9, the Dolphins are trying to settle at around a .500 team. This would be a good year to get back on track against Miami, but let’s not forget about New England’s road troubles. And Brandon Marshall is a Dolphin now, so that will be tough. The Patriots may have only given up 285 points, but they’ve also given up some big plays. And Marshall is capable of delivering a big play.
The Patriots have an unusually early bye week this season, and it helps kill off one of the two long road trips for the Patriots. In addition, it provides a great chance to get some extra rest for the tough middle schedule.
The only home loss for the Patriots last season was this very game in the Wild Card Round. It was a flop, really. The Ravens have a better defense and an offense almost as good in their own right. Joe Flacco can sort of be considered Tom Brady Lite. With a team building itself around a young quarterback, the best way to go is to disrupt that strategy and stifle any offense before it starts while working to avoid falling into the same trap yourself. That being said, the same strategy used against the Jets will work well here. Plus, Brady never runs with the ball. He’ll throw the ball into traffic before rushing into a wide open end zone. Changing that will make a huge difference.
This one is never easy, and gaining three hours won’t help. Philip Rivers leads a lethal passing game that vaulted San Diego to a bye via 11 straight wins. They actually have the better offense than New England, but gave up 320 points along the way. Allowing 20 points/game isn’t good, but I suppose it doesn’t need to be with such a powerful offense serving as the best defense. In a game that’s sure to be a high scoring affair, controlling turnovers will provide a crucial edge, as will pressuring the quarterback and eating up time by preventing big plays.
Before Favre, the Vikings were more of a rushing team. Their passing game has certainly improved, but there was some dissension among the ranks in Minnesota over how much Adrian Peterson should be used compared with Favre. That is definitely something that can be exploited. Focus can be given to Favre, Peterson, and a few key receivers. Shifting focus about here and there would further undermine the Vikings’ efforts to develop a working game plan. Favre is not very good at playing in cold weather, and this game may be taking place on Halloween, but it can get nippy then. New England weather never knows what it wants to do, anyway.
The Browns won their last four to finish 5-11, which saved Eric Mangini his job. Mike Holmgren has been completely shaking up the Browns during the off-season, which could do one of two things: either the Browns will be a contender or they’ll have major chemistry issues with all the new players. It’s very difficult to turn things around in one season, and if the Patriots win just one road game, it’ll be this one. Aside from the obvious Detroit, that is.
The Patriots finish up their only back-to-back road series of the season in Pittsburgh, which sounds difficult, and it will be, but not as bad as some may think. Roethlisberger missed a game last season with a concussion, which could always linger. After he serves his suspension, the Steelers might be unwilling to put the spotlight squarely on him. That would render him not as effective as he could be. And we’ll see how well professional shampoo salesman Troy Polamalu does after returning from a torn PCL that kept him inactive for 11 games. As long as the Pats keep up the relentless pressure, switching fresh guys in and out as needed, they’ll do fine.
Here it is; the most evil match-up in all of football. At least it’s in Foxborough for the first time in umpteen years. Short of pulling a Matt Cooke on Peyton Manning, there’s not much that can be done to stop the Colts. If we’re lucky, the Colts will have already clinched a good playoff seed and they’ll rest Manning, but probably not. Maybe the best solution here, if the Patriots don’t have a good enough pass rush, is to let Manning throw. Concentrating more defenders on this purpose will result in more incompletions, more interceptions, and hopefully make Manning look mortal. That would at least give New England a shot.
Seriously, it’s the Lions. Thanksgiving or not, we all know what’s going to happen.
After a two-month hiatus, divisional games are back. The Jets are, anyway. An early game in New Jersey lets both teams feel each other out, and what better way to take momentum into this home game than by thrashing the Lions like they owed Belichick money? The Jets will be coming off a Thanksgiving game at home against Cincinnati, who will undoubtedly be looking for payback after last year. If the Jets get beaten up badly enough then, the Patriots will continue the job. If not, the fans will.
The Bears were 7-9, behind 327 points, 375 surrendered points, and only 36 scored touchdowns. But, with Julius Peppers now manning the line, how well will Brady do? He’ll probably have to get off a bunch of passes more quickly than he would like, which will hurt his stats and provide Jay Cutler a chance to strike. Then again, Peppers only helped the Panthers to an 8-8 record, including a 20-10 loss in New England. Quick passes and stealthy rushes will help neutralize Chicago’s defense, and pressuring Cutler will help transfer his ugly 2009 stats to 2010.
Aaron Rodgers is quickly becoming a dangerous quarterback to face, which makes the Packers something like the Chargers. Just like that game, controlling turnovers and the clock will be the keys to a high-scoring game. The difference is that Rodgers has half the starting experience as Rivers, and this game will be in Foxborough. On December 19, the weather is bound to be chilly, if not snowy, so Rodgers had better be used to it from Lambeau if he hopes to win.
After all the tough games from the middle of the season, the Patriots should be grizzled enough to defeat Buffalo, provided they stay healthy. If they’re too banged up, Buffalo could make things interesting. We saw what Buffalo did to the Colts’ backups last season, so it’s in New England’s best interest to play their regulars. Unless it snows. The Patriots can’t lose in the snow.
Again, a healthy, battle-tested Patriots team wouldn’t have a problem. Week 17 features only divisional games, in an effort to prevent teams from resting starters, but we’ll see if that non-binding resolution works. If nothing else, a tropical team playing football in New England in January? I like New England’s chances anyway.