The New England Patriots' 2013 schedule is set, and with five nationally televised games the Pats will once again take center stage with some great games. Perhaps most daunting will be facing the other three top AFC playoff seeds in the final six weeks of the regular season.
It's one of the most difficult slates that the Pats have faced in a long time, and with their new-look passing offense, and much uncertainly surrounding Rob Gronkowski's early season availability, they will be tested by teams no longer worried about having to stop the Brady-to-Welker connection.
Opening the season with back-to-back divisional games against the Bill and Jets will put the pressure on the Pats right out of the gate. Things don't get any easier later in the month with back-to-back trips to Atlanta and Cincinnati.
It's a competitive schedule and should make for a great 2013 campaign.
Here are the top must-watch games for the upcoming Patriots season.
Former Patriots front office member Thomas Dimitroff has constructed an Atlanta Falcons team that is among the elite of the NFC. Dimitroff's history with Belichick goes all the way back to Cleveland in the mid-'90s, and there's no question that much of Atlanta's team-building philosophy has evolved from what Dimitroff learned under Belichick.
The Falcons were the top seed in the NFC playoffs last season, losing in the conference championship to the 49ers 28-24 after holding an early 17-0 lead. With new additions Osi Umenyiora and Steven Jackson, they should be primed for another playoff run.
Atlanta's explosive offense, especially at home with Matt Ryan just entering his prime, will put New England's secondary to the test. Aqib Talib will likely have his hands full with Julio Jones, while the Pats front seven will have to contain the hard-running Jackson.
There are few better tests for a team playing a tough opponent on the road, and the Falcons game should be an excellent building block for the Patriots to close out the first quarter of the season.
It doesn't take an NFL expert to know that anytime the Patriots and Steelers meet up it's must-watch TV. The two teams didn't play in 2012, but in the two previous seasons they traded dominations, with the Pats winning 39-26 in 2010, and the Steelers returning the favor 25-17 in 2011, where the score makes it seem a lot closer than it was.
Both of those games were in Pittsburgh; now the series shifts back to Foxborough for the first time since 2008.
The 2011 Patriots struggled defending the deep ball, and though Mike Wallace is now a Dolphin, the Steelers still have Antonio Brown and almost-Patriot Emmanuel Sanders, who both have the speed to challenge New England's secondary.
If the Steelers offensive line is still healthy by early November, Ben Roethlisberger could give the Patriots defense problems.
But the most interesting area to watch will be how New England's new offense moves the ball. In the past, they've had much success putting up yards and points against the vaunted Steelers defense. By November they should be starting to hit their stride.
Regardless of the personnel, these are two teams that have a rich history over the past decade, and this will surely be another physical battle.
The Patriots-Jets rivalry is one where it doesn't really matter if the Jets are in total transition, and may trade Darrelle Revis (h/t SI.com's Don Banks).
Let's not forget, their meeting earlier in the season went to overtime.
The Patriots will face the Jets in their home opener on Thursday Night Football in Week 2. Both teams will be coming off a short week, but it will already be the second divisional matchup for New England.
Most intriguing about the matchup is how Ryan's defensive game plan for Brady evolves without Wes Welker in the picture. The Patriots offense will shift for the second time since Ryan took over in New York, but Rex knows how to disguise his coverages against Brady better than anyone.
For the Jets, nothing could get their season off to a better start than knocking off Belichick and Brady. If the Pats are undermanned without Gronkowski and still looking for synergy with their new passing offense, this one will be interesting.
After recent seasons where the Jets and Bills were the offseason media darlings, favored to challenge the Pats AFC East superiority, it's now the Dolphins' turn.
With the signings of Mike Wallace, Brent Grimes, Dustin Keller, Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler, along with the re-signings of Randy Starks, Brian Hartline and Chris Clemons, many feel Miami has enough talent in place to finally take the Pats down.
Ryan Tannehill showed real promise as a rookie, leading the Dolphins to an unexpected 7-9 season, but this isn't the first time an AFC opponent went on an offseason spending spree only to see the Pats take the division yet again.
Ideally, the Dolphins would have wanted to see the Patriots as early in the season as possible. For the Dolphins to have a real shot at the AFC East they have to beat the Pats in Foxborough, something they haven't done since the Wildcat game of 2008.
Now the Dolphins don't see the Pats until the end of October, and then host them Week 15. If the Dolphins do need to win that one, it will be good to be at home instead of in Foxborough in late December.
The Dolphins could take a major step with a win at New England, so it's vital that the Patriots hold serve.
The Patriots beat the Texans twice in 2012, once in December by a convincing score of 42-14, and then again in the divisional round of the playoffs 41-28.
The Texans are still a talented team that will welcome back Brian Cushing and say hello to Belichick-favorite Ed Reed to complement all-world defensive lineman J.J. Watt.
And this time the Texans will be happy to host the Pats in Houston.
Cushing would've been a helpful tool against the Patriots tight ends, and his presence, along with Ed Reed's back-end experience against Tom Brady, could make a big difference when the two teams meet again in early December.
It should be another contest that has a big impact on the AFC playoff picture. If the Texans want to be considered one of the elite teams in the AFC, they will have to knock off the Patriots.
Matt Schaub looked overmatched his first time against the Pats defense and slightly better the second time. The Patriots defense poses a good challenge to the Texans because of how well the Pats stop the run. If the Texans can abandon the run game like they did in the playoffs, their best bet might be to take to the air early and often.
By this point, this will be a proving game for the Pats. They'll have had some good wins and likely some tight losses. When they travel to Houston, they'll be looking to make a statement.
Are they a team that elevates their play after Thanksgiving like Belichick preaches?
Or are they one that fades like they did in 2009?
The Patriots will be looking for some redemption when they travel to Baltimore to face the Ravens, though the rematch doesn't come until Week 16.
The Ravens convincingly dismantled the Pats in the second half of the AFC Championship Game in January, en route to the Super Bowl, but with some major turnover on the defensive side of the ball, the Ravens of 2013 will be a different team.
Ozzie Newsome can make the tough decisions required to keep a team competitive—he learned that from Belichick. So while the Ravens lost some key pieces, they should be back in the hunt.
However, they'll be reminiscent of the 2009 Patriots, a team that lost veteran leadership. Technically a player like Jerod Mayo was a speed upgrade over the old-and-slow Tedy Bruschi, but there's a lot to be said for how teams rally around veterans.
Ray Lewis and Ed Reed weren't as physically dominating in 2012, but their leadership void must be filled. The Ravens must find a new heart and soul to their team, and that can be difficult and often lead to disappointing losses.
For both teams this game should be excellent playoff preparation, especially in front of a national audience. This one will have an impact in the AFC standings, and possibly homefield advantage.
The NFL scheduled this one on Week 16 for a reason, and it makes sense.
The Patriots-Ravens games are always close, physical battles, and this one should be no different, but the Pats' new-look offense against the Ravens' new-look defense might be the most intriguing matchup of all.
The Patriots and Broncos matchup could be the highlight of the NFL calendar, at least on the AFC side, as the storylines are plentiful, and as we all expected, it's a nationally televised affair.
First and most obvious is Wes Welker switching sides between arguably the two best teams in the conference, while also going from one legendary quarterback to his career rival.
Manning vs. Brady is always a circus of hype unto itself, but with time running out on both Hall of Fame careers, the games between the two become even more important. Add in Welker, and we know the buildup to this one will be intense.
The Patriots offense has throttled Denver's defense in each of their last three games. Can they do it again without Welker? By this point in the season we should have a pretty good idea of how good Danny Amendola and whoever else are.
On defense, the Patriots struggled stopping slot receivers in 2012. How will they fare against the best one in the NFL in Welker?
With the matchup coming just before Thanksgiving, it will be a huge test for both teams to see who is ready to make the push to the playoffs. There will still be enough time to for the loser to make it up in the standings, but far enough along in the season to get a true sense of who the better team is.
This one should be an all-time classic.