By Gregory Hunt
Coming out of their bye week, the New England Patriots are now entering the toughest part of their 2013 schedule. However, during the month of December, New England won’t face a single team that is currently above .500, so there’s a good chance the Patriots will head into the playoffs with a great deal of momentum. Three of the remaining seven games will be played in prime time, so the entire country will be getting a good look at what the Patriots have to offer.
Carolina Panthers (6-3) — Monday, Nov. 18 at Bank of America Stadium
The Patriots are averaging 34.8 points per game over the last four games, but this Monday night contest will truly indicate if New England has solved its offensive woes. The Panthers are the only team in the NFL with a defense that is ranked in the top ten in each of the following categories: rushing defense, passing defense, total defense and scoring defense. The Panthers are currently riding a five-game winning streak, including a hard-fought 10-9 road victory over the San Francisco 49ers in Week 10.
Denver Broncos (8-1) — Sunday, Nov. 24 at Gillette Stadium
America loves a good duel between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, and this Sunday night game is shaping up to be an entertaining one. The Broncos are setting all sorts of offensive records this season (surpassing some set by the 2007 Patriots), but this team has struggled defensively. The game will also feature the return of wide receiver Wes Welker to New England. Don’t be surprised if the teams combine for more than 80 points.
Houston Texans (2-7) — Sunday Dec. 1 at Reliant Stadium
The Texans were already struggling this season when they lost head coach Gary Kubiak to a transient ischemic attack (mini-stroke) at halftime of their Week Nine game against the Indianapolis Colts, but he is expected to return by this game. Statistically, the Texans are much better than their record indicates; they are currently ranked 9th in the league in both total offense and total defense.
Cleveland Browns (4-5) — Sunday, Dec. 8 at Gillette Stadium
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is 4-2 against his former team, but the most recent game was an out-of-nowhere upset in 2010 in which the Browns manhandled the Patriots 34-14 at FirstEnergy Stadium. In Week Eight, the Browns benched starting quarterback Brandon Weeden in favor of Jason Campbell, and Campbell has played relatively well since then.
Miami Dolphins (4-4) — Sunday, Dec. 15 at Sun Life Stadium
While the Dolphins have played very well on occasion this season, the bullying controversy regarding Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin threatens to tear this team apart. Incognito remains suspended indefinitely and Martin has yet to return to the team. There is also speculation that the jobs of head coach Joe Philbin and general manager Jeff Ireland may be in jeopardy. The Patriots beat the Dolphins 27-17 at Gillette Stadium in Week Eight.
Baltimore Ravens (4-5) — Sunday, Dec. 22 at M&T Bank Stadium
The defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens are fighting just to qualify for the AFC Playoffs this season. After losing several key players from last year’s elite defense — particularly linebacker Ray Lewis (retirement) and safety Ed Reed (free agency) — the Ravens are now ranked 14th in total defense this year. Things are even worse on offense, where the Ravens are ranked 21st in scoring and 30th in total yards. This Sunday night game will be New England’s final appearance in prime time.
Buffalo Bills (3-7) — Sunday, Dec. 29 at Gillette Stadium
The Bills looked fairly competitive early in the season when they got off to a 2-2 start, including a tough 23-21 loss to New England at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Week One. However, the Bills have currently lost five out of their last six games, and rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel has looked terrible at times. To be fair, Manuel did miss four games with a knee injury before returning to action in Week 10, but in his last four games his passer rating has not been above 74.8.
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Gregory Hunt is a Boston native and a life-long fan of the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics. He’s also particularly fond of lacrosse, IndyCar racing and women’s college basketball. He currently works for Examiner.com where he serves as the Senior Manager of Content and Media Access. He also writes for Examiner.com as the New England Patriots Examiner. His work can be found on Examiner.com.