With the NFL schedules released on Tuesday night, the Patriots were expected to come out as "winners," but they may have to settle for chicken dinners in at least one of their stretches.
It's not the opponents, so much as it's the construction of the schedule that gives the Patriots a little cause for concern.
Here are five big picture observations from the schedule.
1. Tough Start Made Easy By Soft Pass D's
Making projections based on future performances is always a tricky business, but the Patriots first four games could be trick or treat. Three of them are on the road (at Titans Week 1, at Ravens Week 3, at Bills Week 4) but three of them are against some of the worst pass defenses in the league from 2011.
The Cardinals yielded a defensive passer rating of 82.4, while the Titans gave up 85.1 and the Bills gave up a whopping 90.4 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks. The Bills have made significant improvements up front, which could help their numbers on the defensive side of the ball, but Tom Brady could get into an early rhythm against their secondary if he has time in the pocket.
2. Two Toughest Stretches
There are two notably tough stretches of games for the Patriots.
Weeks 3 through 7: At Ravens, at Bills, vs. Broncos, at Seahawks, vs. Jets. The Ravens are always a tough opponent, the Bills always play tough and should be much tougher this year than in year's past, the Broncos have Peyton Manning, the Seahawks have the 12th man and the Jets are a talented team that always gives New England all it can handle.
Weeks 12 through 15: At Jets, at Dolphins, vs. Texans, vs. 49ers. The first two games are on the road against division opponents that always seem to play the Patriots a lot better at home than at Gillette. The final two teams won their division in 2011, and are both primed to make a good run for it again in 2012.
3. The Road Less Traveled
With a road game against the Seahawks followed by a home game against the Jets and a trip to London to play the Rams at Wembley Stadium, the Patriots will be making a trip halfway across the earth in the span of about three weeks.
They get a bye week following that, which gives them time to rest, but will be much needed at that juncture as the team will likely be working with quite a bit of jet lag.
4. Prime-Time Contrast
In 2011, the Patriots played prime-time games against the Miami Dolphins, New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs. All three were considered tough opponents at the time, but none of which posed a very tough challenge.
It speaks to the difficulty of projection, but it's also interesting to point out how much more difficult the Patriots prime-time schedule is this year. With four prime-time games, two at home and two on the road, against three playoff teams, the Patriots will have to bring their A-game when the lights go on.
5. No Teams Have Byes Before Facing Patriots
This comes from Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston:
No team will face the Patriots with two weeks to prepare, as no teams have their bye week scheduled before their matchup with New England. On the other hand, the Patriots will not face any teams coming off a short week of preparation after a Monday Night Football clash.
I guess the league finally caught on that giving Belichick extra time to prepare just isn't fair.