Right now, the NFL is busy trying to figure out how to schedule the 256 games of the 2012 regular season.
Fortunately, they'll have the ability to base their decisions on the first few weeks of free agency, to try and put together the best possible schedule.
Before that happens, let's take a look at the Patriots' 13 opponents. Each game is rated in terms of its prime time potential—that is, how appealing the matchup will be to the schedulers when deciding which games are shown in high-profile slots (i.e., Sunday 8 p.m. ET). Games are ranked on a scale from one (almost zero chance) to five (almost guaranteed).
Patriots-Jets games are often in prime time.
As always, the Patriots will play home and away games against each of their AFC East foes.
Buffalo Bills—The Bills-Patriots games in 2011 were unusual. In the game at Buffalo, the Bills ended their 15-game losing skid versus the Patriots. At Foxboro, the Patriots became the first team in NFL history to win a game by double digits after trailing 21–0 in the first quarter.
The fact that anything might happen is about the only thing these games have going for them. Prime Time Potential: 2.
Miami Dolphins—At the moment, the Dolphins are probably the team closest to challenging the Patriots for the AFC East title. But there are definitely more exciting games on the schedule than this one. Prime Time Potential: 3.
New York Jets—One could write thousands of words on the Jets-Patriots rivalry. But here's the key fact to know: in nine of the last 10 seasons, at least one Jets-Patriots game has been scheduled in a high-profile slot. (Surprisingly, the one exception is 2007.) Expect the trend to continue. Prime Time Potential: 4.
Colts-Patriots probably won't be in prime time in 2012.
The Patriots will visit Jacksonville and Tennessee, while the Texans and Colts will make the trek to Foxboro this year.
Houston Texans—The Texans made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history last year, and get quarterback Matt Schaub back from injury. The Patriots' offense versus the Texans' defense has the potential to be one of the most exciting matchups of the season. Prime Time Potential: 5
Indianapolis Colts—How the mighty have fallen. While the Colts will probably draft quarterback Andrew Luck, Patriots-Colts is no longer the guaranteed draw it was in the heyday of the Tom Brady-Peyton Manning era. Prime Time Potential: 2
Jacksonville Jaguars—At this point, this is probably the least appealing game on the schedule. The Jaguars were unquestionably one of the worst teams in the NFL last year, and it may not improve anytime soon. Prime Time Potential: 1
Tennessee Titans—There really isn't anything to say about this game, either positive or negative. Just not particularly exciting. Prime Time Potential: 3
Will 49ers-Patriots be on Fox this year, or will NBC/ESPN steal it?
As a result of the NFL's TV deals, in interconference games, the Patriots' road games against NFC opponents are normally broadcast on CBS, while their home games are slated for Fox. The Patriots will host the San Francisco 49ers and Arizona, while the games against the St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks will on the road.
Arizona Cardinals—Fox doesn't get many Patriots games, so it tries to keep them whenever possible. But, at the moment, about the only excitement here is seeing their offensive skill players against the opposing team's secondary. Prime Time Potential: 2
San Francisco 49ers—Fox will almost undoubtedly seek to protect this game between top-tier teams in the AFC and NFC. They may not be able to, as this game has prime time written all over it. Prime Time Potential: 5
St. Louis Rams—This game will be the first game for the Rams in London, and the Patriots' second, as part of the NFL's international series. Given the intrigue surrounding Josh McDaniels' departure from the Rams and Brandon Lloyd's possible defection to New England, this could be a very high-profile game.
Still, as a result of the International Series, the game will be broadcast at 1 p.m. ET. Prime Time Potential: NA*
Seattle Seahawks—Right now, CBS probably won't put up too much of a fight if NBC or ESPN asks to take this game off their hands. Prime Time Potential: 1
*Although at 1 PM, this game has generally received high publicity from the networks and the NFL.
The Patriots will visit Baltimore in 2012.
Baltimore Ravens—A rematch of the 2012 AFC Championship Game, which came down to the wire. The schedulers will be hoping this year's game will be just as exciting. Patriots fans, of course, hope otherwise. Prime Time Potential: 5
Denver Broncos—This one depends on Tebow. If Tebow is still winning games as he was last season, this will be a high-profile game. If he gets benched, not so much. If the Broncos sign Peyton Manning, this will almost certainly be a prime-time scale. Prime Time Potential: 4
The Titans didn't enjoy their last game against the Patriots.
NFL teams are limited to at most six prime time slots a year.
Here's the final ranking, before the start of free agency.
Likely: Baltimore Ravens, Denver Broncos, Houston Texans, New York Jets, San Francisco 49ers,
International Series (1 PM, but high-profile): St. Louis Rams (International Series)
Possible: Arizona Cardinals, Miami Dolphins, Tennessee Titans
Unlikely: Buffalo Bills, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Seattle Seahawks
With the NFL's flex scheduling, much of the schedule is not etched in stone. But it'll be interesting to see what they think of the schedule now when it comes out next month.