BOSTON (CBS) — The 2014 New England Patriots are among the favorites to make a trip to Arizona in February, but of course, they have those 16 regular season games to play first.
The Patriots went out and bulked up their defense with the addition corners Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner (who will have to sit out the first four games of the season), and they still have a man named Tom Brady under center, so even before they play a meaningful game it’s hard not to see them as Super Bowl contenders, if not favorites. But right now this is all just on paper and not on-field accomplishments, so we’ll turn to the only piece of paper that offers anything at the moment: the schedule.
In addition to playing their AFC East foes and the three other AFC Division winners, the Pats will square off with the AFC West and NFC North — with both divisions offering their share of formidable opponents. Based on their opponents’ 2013 records, 131-123-2, the Patriots have the 10th toughest schedule in the NFL this season.
Their schedule is sprinkled with a few cupcakes, a trap game or two and potential playoff matchups, but here are the five toughest games on the Patriots’ docket for 2014:
Week 5 vs. Bengals
The Bengals shut down the New England offense last season in Cincinnati, prior to the return of Rob Gronkowski. Tom Brady and company were held out of the end zone in the 13-6 loss, ending Brady’s 52-game streak with a touchdown pass. He was sacked four times by the Bengals D, and the game ended on an interception by Adam Jones as the Patriots were knocking on the door of the end zone. A near-monsoon didn’t help the Patriots’ cause late in the game, but the bottom line was the offense was stymied throughout the afternoon.
Things will be different this year, with the game at Gillette and Gronkowski (hopefully) suiting up. But the Bengals, as much as they struggle in the postseason, are a pretty good team in the regular season thanks to a solid defense led by the likes of Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap on the line, and A.J. Green spreading the field on offense. The wild card is Andy Dalton, the NFL’s new $115 quarterback, who will either throw for four touchdowns or be responsible for a number of puddles on the Gillette turf.
We’re not saying this will be a loss for the Patriots, but the Sunday night tilt likely won’t be a walk in the park either.
Week 7 vs. Jets
The Jets should be better this season, and Rex Ryan has shown that he can indeed get into Tom Brady’s head. But the most challenging part of this one is the fact it’s a Thursday night game, giving the Patriots just a few days to recover from their Week 6 game against the Bills and prepare for the Jets.
Week 9 vs. Broncos
Could this really be the final Brady-Manning regular season meeting ever?!?!
That will surely get some of the headlines in the week leading up to yet another epic matchup between the two, but the most difficult part for New England will be dealing with an improved Denver defense. Aqib Talib will be roaming the defensive backfield and DeMarcus Ware will be aiming for Brady off the line — with Von Miller not too far behind. Not much has to be said about Denver’s offense, but how they match up against the new Pats’ D will be as entertaining as it gets in the NFL this season.
The Patriots needed a historic comeback (and muffed punt by Wes Welker) to pull off a dramatic win in Week 12 last year, and this one should be just as exciting.
Week 13 at Packers
The Packers are another Super Bowl favorite ahead of the season and it’s never easy to slow down an Aaron Rodgers-led offense at Lambeau Field. This game will mark the fifth straight contest in which the Patriots go up against a strong to very strong quarterback, with matchups against Chicago’s Jay Cutler, Manning, Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck and Detroit’s Matthew Stafford (only on the list because of Calvin Johnson) preceding this one, with their bye week mixed in the middle. That’s a pretty tough stretch for any defense.
Week 14 at Chargers
To make that stretch even tougher, the following week the Patriots head to the west coast to take on Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers. Trips out west are always tough, though no one should really mind it in early December, and the Chargers always seem to have some extra motivation when they face off against the Patriots (even though most of the faces have changed and their “rivalry” ended years ago).
Rivers had a monster year in 2013, throwing for nearly 4,500 yards and 32 touchdowns, and if he can replicate that production in 2014, this will pose a great late-season test for the Patriots.
Tune in to Sunday’s Patriots season opener against the Miami Dolphins on 98.5 The Sports Hub and WBZ-TV — the flagship stations of the New England Patriots. Pregame coverage begins on 98.5 at 10 am, with three full hours of postgame coverage following the game. WBZ-TV’s pregame begins at 11:30 am with Patriots GameDay, and tune in to myTV38 following the game for Patriots 5th Quarter!
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