September 9th is probably already circled on your calendar, but is September 23rd double-circled? It should be. On that night, the Patriots will enter Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium for their toughest road game of 2012.
Last year's AFC Championship between the Ravens and Patriots can be summed up with three names: Bernard Pollard, Sterling Moore and Billy Cundiff. You know the rest, so you know why this rematch is important.
This will be a violent rematch, but Patriots fans should feel confident.
The Patriots know how to win this game. They'll be prepared. There isn't a single Ray Lewis speech on earth that can push the Ravens to a level that the Patriots aren't already anticipating.
They understand that the Ravens will treat this game like the Super Bowl. For the Patriots, their Super Bowl will be, well, the Super Bowl.
The Ravens will come out swinging. The Patriots know the hits are coming. Taking a page out of Muhammad Ali's playbook, the Patriots will accept the blows. In the end, skill and agility will win.
The edge goes to the team that's been to five Super Bowls in 10 years.
On to Buffalo.
The Bills are a tricky team because of their unique intent. They aren't striving for a Super Bowl, they're striving for their division. That's a reasonable goal for any professional football team to have.
However, it's tough to see that goal ultimately coming to fruition. Mario Williams was a terrific pickup, but they still have Ryan Fitzpatrick throwing the football.
In this modern passing league, a great defensive unit can take you to the cusp of greatness, but you need a guy like Eli Manning to push you over the top. Ryan Fitzpatrick is not Eli Manning.
New England wins this one, bumping their record to 4-0.
There's an issue of chemistry here. It'll take time for Manning to gel with his new teammates, especially with his receivers. Heading into this showdown with the Patriots, the Broncos are likely to own a 1-3 record with early losses against the Steelers, Texans and Raiders.
With a 1-3 record, I really don't foresee Manning playing into the inevitable media hype or caring too much about renewing a rivalry with Tom Brady.
Manning's priority will be to improve his chemistry with his teammates, step-by-step, even if those steps are baby steps. That's the right approach.
This legendary quarterback battle will undoubtedly be hyped to death, but the game will more than likely pass by with a whisper.
The Broncos will do some things right, they'll do some things wrong, mixed messages will result in a costly pick which will swing the game in New England's favor, Manning and Brady will meet at midfield and exchange warm pleasantries, and that'll be that.
Next up: The Seahawks. The 5-0 Patriots easily become the 6-0 Patriots.
On to the Jets.
Similar to the Manning-Brady rivalry, the Patriots-Jets rivalry will most likely diminish in 2012. Yes, there's a divisional element here, but the Patriots have already proven their superiority. It's over.
I can't imagine Tom Brady cares about this rivalry anymore. The dude's about to be 35 years old and he just lost to the Giants again. I really don't think he spends much time contemplating the finer details of Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez.
The bad blood will always be there, but I see this rivalry taking a big step back this season.
After dispatching Gang Green, the 7-0 Patriots will have their easiest victory of the season in London against the Rams. The glitz and glamor of the international stage will set the tone for a scoring massacre from Rob Gronkowski.
It could be Gronkowski's breakout game of the year. I use the term "breakout" because I'm expecting Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd to get off to quicker starts than Gronkowski.
Welker and Lloyd are at the point in their careers where they're hungry for a ring. Lloyd's fingertips are probably itching with anticipation, even as we speak. Welker's ongoing contract drama has probably placed a healthy chip on his shoulder. I see Lloyd and Welker as 2012's "instant impact guys."
Gronkowski, on the other hand, will probably have some initial trouble meeting the lofty heights of his mind-boggling season in 2011 and his brand new contract. Heading into London, I wouldn't be surprised to see Aaron Hernandez carrying bigger stats than Gronkowski.
But once Gronkowski has his breakout game, he'll be back, and he'll dominate for the rest the season. This London game sets up the perfect scenario for Gronkowski to catch a pair of touchdowns on the big stage and re-establish himself as "the man." New England bumps their record to 8-0.
After that, the Patriots will host the Bills.
If the Jets are a game of Jenga, then the Bills are a house of cards. By this time, it'll be November and Buffalo's cards will be shaking in the winter wind. Mario Williams could be battling more health issues, while Ryan Fitzpatrick will continue to demonstrate the severe limitations of his game.
Patriots boost their record to 9-0.
On to the Colts. With Andrew Luck gearing up to be this year's headline-gobbling version of Tim Tebow, this game has all the hallmarks of the Patriots vs. Broncos games from last season. Expect a media circus, then expect Brady to pop the hype bubble with five touchdowns.
The 10-0 Patriots will then travel to New York for another showdown with the Jets.
At this point, Mark Sanchez will be on his last leg. He can't keep holding Gang Green Nation in suspense with his "potential." This is a make-or-break game for Sanchez.
By halftime, he'll be broken. Rex Ryan will panic and start the second half with Tim Tebow at the helm, which will cement the team's scattered fate for the duration of the season.
The 11-0 Patriots will then travel to Miami. An easy victory for New England.
After the Dolphins, the 12-0 Patriots will face a serious challenge when they host the Texans.
The Texans are a team to respect. They have skill, depth and chemistry. In spite of any injuries or setbacks they endure, they always play with heart and soul. They are the greatest threat to New England's AFC crown.
This is shaping up to be a loss for the Patriots.
After that, the 12-1 Patriots will host the 49ers.
This will be hyped as the ultimate test of offense (New England) vs. defense (San Francisco). However, I see this game unfolding in the opposite direction. New England's defense will see this as a statement game and they'll turn the tables on the 49ers.
A less-than-stellar game for Brady, but a coming-out party for Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower. Also look for Sterling Moore and Devin McCourty to flex the backfield's muscle and grit.
After overcoming the 49ers with a dominant defensive showing, the 13-1 Patriots will return to their usual game plan and mount an offensive onslaught against the Jaguars. All the receivers and tight ends will get their touches. Easy win for New England.
In Week 17, the 14-1 Patriots will storm past the finish line by smashing the Dolphins.
And there's your 15-1 season.
Bring on the playoffs.
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