The National Football League moved the draft from April to May starting this season in order to capitalize on their immense popularity and have “events” to highlight each season: In February it is the Super Bowl; In March there is the spectacle of free agency; Now in April there is the “schedule release” day as the newest event. With the draft in May and rookie camps and mandatory preseason work to take up the rest of the time until training camp kicks off in earnest in July, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has the league positioned for a full year of headlines and news-making.
For the New England Patriots their “schedule release” again showed the popularity of a winning team with a superstar quarterback with five prime-time night games. The Patriots have a Thursday night game during week seven versus the New York Jets, a Monday night game in week four versus the Kansas City Chiefs, and three Sunday night games starting with week five against the Cincinnati Bengals, week eleven at the Indianapolis Colts, and week fourteen in San Diego. In addition, week nine against quarterback Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in an AFC Championship rematch is a nationally televised 4:25 p.m. game as is week thirteen in historic Lambeau Field against All-Pro quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.
Beyond the seven prime-time or nationally televised games there are a number of other interesting match-ups as part of the Patriots schedule in 2014. First off, there is the sweltering sun of Miami and the converse of the cold of December in New England with the two games against division rival the Miami Dolphins. Expected to be the top competition in the AFC East, the Patriots open the season in the early September heat and sun at 1 p.m. in South Florida. That game potentially becomes a big advantage to the Dolphins. Of course, December in New England usually favors the Patriots when playing a warm-weather team and the Dolphins could be walking into snow, rain, wind, cold and whatever Mother Nature throws at them with the AFC East on the line.
With the Miami match-up in New England in week fifteen, the schedule also closes out with nothing but divisional games. After playing Miami at home, the Patriots go to New Jersey to face the Jets in week sixteen and then come home to close out the regular season against the Buffalo Bills in week seventeen in Foxborough, MA. The NFL is banking on the improved Dolphins, improving Bills, and the always-interesting Rex Ryan led Jets to push the Patriots and have important divisional games to close the season.
Another interesting aspect of the Patriots’ schedule is the heavy road game stretches. They open the season with three of their first four games on the road travelling to Miami in week one, Minnesota in week two, home against Oakland for week three, but back on the road for Kansas City in week four on Monday night. A Monday night game at Arrowhead Stadium is no picnic for any opposing team, and for a perennial powerhouse like the Patriots the Kansas City faithful will out in force and LOUD.
The Patriots bye week is in an excellent spot at week ten. The Patriots do not have to worry about looking past their final opponent before the bye as it Denver coming to Gillette Stadium in week nine. Coming out of the bye week, the Patriots get to recharge for their next run of tough road games with three of the next four coming on the road.
In week eleven the Patriots travel to Indianapolis to play a prime-time Sunday night game in a loud dome and face-off against star young quarterback Andrew Luck once again. The next week they are at home, but it is no picnic. In week twelve the Patriots face the Detroit Lions at home. The best wide receiver in football in Calvin Johnson faces off against the best cornerback in the NFL in Darrelle Revis. If both players remain healthy and at their normal top level of play this is a game that conceivably could be flexed to a night game to showcase that great individual match-up.
After facing Detroit, the Patriots stay in the NFC North and travel to Green Bay for their week thirteen match-up against Aaron Rodgers and company. Then in week fourteen they make their only cross-country trip to play Sunday night against an AFC playoff team, the San Diego Chargers. Just like at the beginning of the season, the Patriots come out of the bye week with three of four games on the road. These are pivotal games that will test the mental toughness of the New England squad.
For the Patriots fans, they have to wait until week seventeen to boo former Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes–presuming his car is not stuck in the snow of the Buffalo winters and is suspended for the game. The Jets at home on a Thursday night should be electric in week seven.
Two games already flying under-the-radar are Cincinnati on Sunday night in week five and the Chicago Bears in week eight. The Bengals beat the Patriots last season with an impressive defensive performance in week five in Cincinnati. The Patriots never found the end zone and lost 13-6. New England managed only 15 first downs, was 1 for 12 on third down, and had less than 250 net yards of offense against the Bengals.
The Chicago Bears are an interesting match-up if only because they are a team the Patriots have not played often. Add in fellow NFC North teams Green Bay and Detroit to that mix as well as the Patriots scouting staff will have their work cut out for them getting the players ready to face-off against these strong teams. The Patriots have had some bad performances against Detroit in the preseason including the Lions feasting on the Patriots in a 40 to 9 shellacking. Preseason or not, it was a devastating performance by Detroit against the Patriots as quarterback Tom Brady was hammered relentlessly by the Lions pass rush.
As usual, the New England schedule appears to be a loaded with prime-time and nationally televised games, tough stretches, playoff teams, and difficult games on the road. Of course, with the team’s sustained success since 2001 this is nothing new for New England. As always there will be match-ups that looked tough but are not, and games thought to be easy and instead a grind. This year looks particularly interesting with the three division games to end the season. Hopefully, these games will live up to the preseason expectations.