Patriots 2012 Schedule: Power Ranking the Games from Easiest to Toughest

Marc FreshmanContributor IApril 20, 2012

Patriots 2012 Schedule: Power Ranking the Games from Easiest to Toughest

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    There's only a sliver of time that separates Sunday afternoon and Monday night. And yet, in that brief period of time, everything in the football universe can change. A struggling team suddenly emerges as a contender. One of the best players in the league is suddenly lost for the season. One minute, your team is the king of their division, the next, they're plummeting to the depths of despair.

    That's why football is America's game. Every game is crucial, every moment is essential, every play is profound. This sport means something special to us. In this game, details matter.

    For the New England Patriots, attention to detail is an art form. Bill Belichick is the master of game planning for specific opponents. They prepare the specifications of their attack and counterattack maneuvers for each duel, but some games demand more than just Xs and Os, and those are the games that are the hardest to win.

    No game on the 2012 schedule is easy, but some have more emotional resonance than others. The difference between "easiest" and "toughest" can sometimes be summed-up from a physical angle, but it's often best explained from a mental standpoint. Some games test your brain and your will more than others.

    That's the purpose of this ranking. 

    These are the games New England will play in 2012, ranked from easiest to toughest.   

Patriots vs. Rams (October 28, in London)

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    Bill Belichick will prepare his players to treat this game as a business trip. A crew of assassins headed to London to perform a hit. Most guys on the roster will prescribe to that disciplined mode of thinking.

    But, really, does anyone expect Rob Gronkowski to treat this like a business trip?

    Gronkowski will be a quintessential tourist, posing in the streets with fans and he'll fully embrace this trip as a vacation. And you know what? That's exactly why we love him. It's also why he'll catch three touchdowns.

    This game will have a fair amount of hype because of the setting, but it'll probably be the least competitive game of the season. Expect the Patriots to put on a dazzling show for their fans overseas.

    New England's offensive onslaught will be so spectacular that a fourth-quarter appearance from Brian Hoyer is probably in the cards. Garbage time in London is a beautiful thing.

Patriots vs. Titans (September 9, in Tennessee)

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    Fresh legs. Excellent health. Sharp mindset. A newly invigorated spirit. The Patriots will put a beat-down on the Titans in their opening game of the season.

    Had the Patriots won Super Bowl XLVI, I might be mildly concerned about an opening-game hangover.

    But with an entire offseason to chew on a tough loss, the Patriots will come out with laser-focus and a true intention to burn through this season on a rampage.

    This will be a blowout. 

Patriots vs. Jaguars (December 23, in Jacksonville)

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    Lee Evans, this is Sterling Moore. Sterling, this is Lee. Wait, you two have already met?

    Evans and Moore will meet again next season, this time with Evans wearing a Jaguars jersey. But aside from a fashionable upgrade of their jersey, the Jaguars have done little in the offseason to boost their danger factor in 2012. 

    Knee-deep in the holiday spirit, the Patriots will bring their own form of Christmas joy to Jacksonville. That joy will be in the form of four or five touchdowns, perfectly wrapped and with a nice bow on top.

    There isn't any personal gain here for Patriot Nation, other than a standard victory; the Jaguars simply have no identity and won't be able to compete with a team that just went to the Super Bowl. Hopefully, this will be one of those rare games that allows Patriots fans to relax and just enjoy the show.

Bills vs. Patriots (November 11, in New England)

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    The 2011 Bills took a few lessons from the Dallas Cowboys' yearly playbook; they played extremely well, everybody got all excited and yelled, "Here come the Bills! They're for real!" It sounded a lot like, "Look out! Tony Romo is finally becoming elite! The Cowboys are dangerous!"

    And then, nothing. Nada. Squat.

    The NFL has become a passing league. It's essential that you have a top-tier slinger in order to be successful for the long-haul. Mario Williams can hit Tom Brady all he wants, but he won't be able to make Ryan Fitzpatrick a better quarterback. So, in the long-run, what have the Bills really fixed?

    I just don't see the Patriots being intimidated by this showdown. If anything, I see them being irritated by the acquisition of Williams and making this personal. The Patriots should dominate this game.

Jets vs. Patriots (October 21, in New England)

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    I expect Tim Tebow to have an excellent season, but I can't envision a scenario in which Tebow's achievements would help fix Mark Sanchez's sense of self-worth. 

    The Jets are simply in shambles right now.

    Odd thing is, it didn't have to be this way. The Jets are a skilled collection of football players whose collective mindset has simply been warped by a coach who overcompensates for the team's second-tier status in New York. With a more disciplined coach and a better quarterback, this would be a team to seriously worry about.

    But for one reason or another, they're glued to Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez. This franchise can't get out of its own way.

    Tebow will find some success as a running back and as a receiver, even as a backup quarterback. I suspect he'll shed a lot of the baggage he acquired last season.

    But when he sheds that baggage, where will it go? It won't vanish into thin air. That baggage will fall on the rest of the team. It'll fall on Sanchez.

    There's too many clashing ingredients to ever make this soup taste good.

    This game will be a simple matter of chaos vs. order. The Patriots are too organized and too confident to be lured back into the teeth of this rivalry. They have enough on their plate with the return of Peyton Manning and another potential rendezvous with the Giants in the Super Bowl.

    This is a rivalry for another time, not for 2012.  

Dolphins vs. Patriots (December 30, in New England)

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    Last season, Miami performed pretty well against New England. They played with heart and certainly fought as best they could. They gave admirable performances.

    But they lost Brandon Marshall over the offseason, which doesn't bode well for their danger-level heading into 2012. Losing out on the Peyton Manning sweepstakes probably squeezed any optimism out of the equation. They simply don't have enough firepower to beat good teams. 

    This game will be another grind-it-out victory for New England, which will make Patriots fans sweat for no reason. It'll be just close enough for Patriot Nation to bite their nails, even though they know the Patriots will win in the end.  

Cardinals vs. Patriots (September 16, in New England)

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    Last season, the Cardinals pulled off a gutsy win over the Eagles. It was actually pretty dramatic to watch. Arizona isn't a great team, but they're more than capable of flashing brief glimpses of excellence on the field.

    The Patriots are clearly a better team, but they have a nasty knack for going down-to-the-wire with teams they should maul.

    This is one of those games that feels like a tremendously easy win, and yet, these are the games which always make my stomach hurt. There's nothing worse than playing a team that has nothing to lose. Especially when that team has Larry Fitzgerald.

    Nevertheless, the Patriots should win this game. I'd like to say it'll be a blowout, but it'll probably be closer than we're comfortable with.

Patriots vs. Dolphins (December 2, in Miami)

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    Tough one.

    It's the last stretch of the season and I expect the Patriots to be struggling through some injuries. Nothing serious, but they'll probably be overly cautious with a few banged-up guys, so they'll give those players a breather. That could make the Patriots slightly vulnerable.

    I expect New England to win this game, but I also expect to slightly dread the simpleness of this game all week and worry from start to finish. This is one of those matchups that can take the rug out from under your feet.

    I see this game being the result of a huge comeback and resting on the foot of Stephen Gostkowski. Another Patriots win, but too close for any Patriots fan to feel really satisfied. 

Colts vs. Patriots (November 18, in New England)

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    Analysts with a tendency to over-hype everything will find an explanation to justify any outcome of this game.

    If the Colts win, they'll say, "Andrew Luck is for real! This kid is the future! This team could go all the way this year! Watch out for the Colts!"

    If the Patriots win, they'll say, "See? That's why you can't jump the gun on rookie quarterbacks. Tom Brady just proved that wisdom and experience outweighs the noise of hype."

    Either way, this will be one of the most hyped-to-death games of the season. I expect Brady to take this "past vs. future" angle personally and come out swinging.

    This one has the makings of a vintage two-minute drive by New England to win the game. 

    As usual, Brady will follow his venomous destruction of the opposing quarterback with grace. He'll meet Luck at midfield and offer some encouraging words and commend Luck on his brilliant performance.

    Classic Brady: Total ruthlessness, immediately followed by total class. 

Patriots vs. Jets (November 22, in New York)

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    Balancing the relationship between Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow will be like walking across a balance beam. It's a fine-tuning process that's destined to meet its fair share of failure.

    By the time Thanksgiving rolls around, the Jets may have carved out some strange and inexplicable formula for winning. It won't be enough for long-term success into the playoffs, but it may pay off in the short-term. If the Patriots aren't sharp as a razor, they may run into this temporary buzzsaw.

    Rex Ryan will view this game as the ultimate test of his team's progress. Ryan does a thousand things incorrectly, but he does one thing very well: He prepares his players to play hard. The Jets always charge into games with a profound belief in themselves.

    Their game plan is often sabotaged by poor chemistry and disappointing execution, but their energy is always there. Energy can be dangerous. 

    Ryan will prepare his guys for this duel and have them ready for war. This could be their finest performance of the season.

    The question is: Will it be the finest performance for the Patriots, too? Possibly. However, the Jets will have more to lose in this game, which makes them the desperate team. Desperate teams are dangerous, as we saw from the Giants' late surge last season.

    This will be a tough game. A potential loss for New England.

Patriots vs. Seahawks (October 14, in Seattle)

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    As of now, Matt Flynn's thunder is getting robbed by the hotshot quarterbacks in the upcoming draft. But when the draft waves settle, Flynn will emerge as the true dynamic talent of the 2012 season. 

    Flynn is extremely confident and he has several years of Aaron Rodgers' teachings tattooed on his brain. Money can't buy that kind of wisdom. Plus, he's already performed on the professional stage, which means he won't buckle under the pressure. This kid has a bright future.

    Flynn's two biggest opportunities to shine will be in Week 3 against the Packers and Week 6 against the Patriots. It might be too soon for him to upstage the Packers, but he could be firing on all cylinders by the time New England rolls into town.

    This is a game which the Patriots should win, but Flynn may have a standout performance that's simply too much to overcome. It'll be a very tricky game to win. 

Patriots vs. Bills (September 30, in Buffalo)

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    Mario Williams should've arrived in Buffalo with a sign around his neck saying, "I'm here to slow down Tom Brady."

    Williams won't be enough to cure the Bills' of their many woes, but his presence may be emotional enough to energize the home crowd and steal a few big wins. Beating the Patriots would be an immediate (yet fleeting) indication that Buffalo's massive investment might actually pay off.

    For that reason, I wouldn't be terribly surprised if Williams had a monster game against the Patriots. Williams will be out to prove that he's worth all the money they paid him. Sacking Tom Brady two or three times in front of the home crowd will be a priority for him.

    Could be a disappointing afternoon for Patriots fans, but certainly not a long-term concern as far as the division is concerned. Eventually, the Bills will trip and tumble into the holes which they haven't yet filled. 

Broncos vs. Patriots (October 7, in New England)

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    By the time the Broncos and Patriots finally kick off, I'll be thankful that a conclusion to the maniacal hype is within reach.

    Without a doubt, this is the most heavily anticipated game of the season. It's the rekindling of a truly historic rivalry. Knowing Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, this seems destined to be one of the best games in recent memory.

    This will be a dogfight. The outcome is totally up in the air, simply because both Manning and Brady are capable of such magical things.

    Without a clear favorite in mind, this is shaping up to be one of the Patriots' roughest tests of the season.

49ers vs. Patriots (December 16, in New England)

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    The 49ers were the breakout surprise of 2011. At the start of the season, they were nobodies. By the end of the season, they were a Super Bowl favorite. Great things are expected of them next season.

    And yet, despite their impressive offseason acquisitions, the 49ers have failed to upgrade themselves at the quarterback position. Same problem as the Bills and Jets. These are good teams with mid-level guys throwing the ball. In a passing league, your quarterback needs to be your biggest strength, not your biggest hindrance.

    I anticipate the 49ers hitting a bit of a decline in 2012. But knowing their coach, the team will rally at certain parts of the season to make bold statements and cement their legitimacy. This game against the Patriots would be one of those golden opportunities.

    This might be the 49ers' best game of the season. I wouldn't be surprised to see them play some brutal football and wrestle this victory away from the Patriots. 

Patriots vs. Ravens (September 23, in Baltimore)

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    The taste of last season's AFC championship is still in the Ravens' mouths. They quite literally had a trip to the Super Bowl in their arms, then had it wrenched out of their grasp at the last second.

    Plus, Billy Cundiff's missed field goal is the stuff of ever-lasting nightmares.

    The Ravens and the Patriots are engaged in a bitter rivalry. It's a rivalry that never really sprouted the media legs of the Colts and the Patriots, but has nonetheless been equally profound over the years.

    That rivalry will escalate in 2012.

    The Ravens will be extremely angry and ready to win this game. As difficult as it was for the Patriots to beat them last year, it'll be even more difficult this year. Of course, health issues pertaining to Ed Reed and Ray Lewis will play a factor; but assuming they're healthy, Baltimore will play an incredible game.

    This is one of those games that the Patriots must win. It's a statement game. The Ravens can't be allowed to have an increased conviction next season.

    The Patriots must make it clear that the Reed-Lewis era in Baltimore is finished forever. Burn this rivalry down. Force them to retire. Hand them the towel and force them to throw it in.

Texans vs. Patriots (December 10, in New England)

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    I'm not a Texans fan by nature, but I love how they've constructed their team. I really respect them. They don't have many superstars, but they play superstar football together as a team.

    They're a band of misfits with no business winning anything, yet they've made winning a new part of their culture. That's extremely admirable.

    Arian Foster is one of the five best players in the NFL right now. He's a man to fear and respect. All of his teammates should be feared and respected. This is an excellent ballclub.

    The Texans have a serious shot at a first-round bye next season. Beating the Patriots would plant a seed of doubt in New England's mind that could resurface in the postseason. They will bring the heat for this game.

    This will be the toughest battle of the year. There's no rivalry between these two teams yet, but a rivalry is about to be born.

    Houston is about to take Indianapolis' place as New England's greatest enemy.