It's time to play the prophet and prognosticate about next season.
Of course, New England's schedule last year proved to be a lot less of a cakewalk than expected with the emergence of the NFC West, which accounted for three of the Patriots' four losses.
This year, the Pats will have five primetime matchups, including a Sunday Night Football rematch of last season's AFC championship against the Ravens in Week 16. Their strength of schedule is tied for 11th in the NFL, or just above average in terms of difficulty.
Let's break down that schedule game by game, ranking them from easiest to hardest.
The Pats went 6-0 in division games in 2012. Don't anticipate that happening again this year, but this should be one of the ones they do win.
The two biggest matchup problems the Pats had with the Bills last year came from C.J. Spiller and Scott Chandler. Spiller will continue to be the Bills' most effective weapon next year, but the Pats should be better equipped to handle Chandler with Devin McCourty and the Wilsons (how's that for a band name?) manning the safety slots in place of Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory.
Plus, the guy who did this switched uniforms this year. So, there's that.
The X-factor in this matchup may well be new Bills coordinator Mike Pettine, who has had some (relative) success in giving Pats QB Tom Brady problems in the past. The Bills have generally been able to keep shootouts with the Pats respectably close in the recent past, so if Pettine can maximize the performance of the Bills' defensive weapons (Mario Williams, Mark Anderson, Stephon Gilmore and company), they might have a shot.
Still, it remains to be seen whether Kevin Kolb can beat the Patriots without a banner day from his defense (and a missed field goal). I'm going to opt for a "no" on that one, and I don't think the Bills' middling defense (27th in the NFL by DVOA last year) can stop the Patriots even with a good game plan from Pettine.
The only saving grace for the Bills is that this game is in Week 17, and circumstances may dictate that one or both of these teams rest their starters, lending a degree of unpredictability to the outcome.
The Pats were beaten handily by the Browns in 2010, though the faces in play have changed dramatically in the interim. The Browns have since said goodbye to Eric Mangini, Rob Ryan and Colt McCoy and welcomed Rob Chudzinski, Norv Turner and Brandon Weeden.
The Browns' stellar offensive line should be able to quiet the Patriots pass rush, but New England's defense isn't really predicated on consistent pressure anyways.
The Pats front seven is equipped to stonewall second-year RB Trent Richardson and make horrible QB Brandon Weeden (38th in the NFL last season, if you're going by ProFootball Focus' grading metrics) try to keep the Browns in it.
The Pats fell into the Browns' trap like a Scooby Doo villain in 2010. Don't expect it to happen again.
The Buccaneers' recent acquisition of Darrelle Revis might well swing this game higher in the power rankings, but I'm going to wait until we see how Revis responds to move it higher than I originally planned.
There's a few reasons why this game favors the Pats.
First, the Pats have three extra days to rest and prepare for this one following a Thursday night matchup with the New York Jets.
Second, the Buccaneers' pass defense was susceptible to the pass last year (93.5 opponent QB rating, 27th in the NFL), and ranked just 25th in the league when it came to defending tight ends, per Football Outsiders. That's not a recipe for stopping a team with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, assuming they're healthy to start the season.
Adding Dashon Goldson and Revis boosted the Bucs' secondary, but pass-rusher Michael Bennett bolted for the Seahawks, weakening their front seven.
The Pats will look to jump out to a lead and force the ball out of the hands of Doug Martin, a Ray Rice-type back with the build of a fire hydrant.
If they can force the Bucs to rely heavily on their average-at-best passing attack (18th in the NFL in offensive DVOA), New England should win handily.
It feels strange to rank the road matchup before the home game, but circumstances warrant it. Besides, the Patriots barely slipped by the Jets at Gillette Stadium last season before proceeding to trounce them in the Meadowlands.
The Jets should be entering a rebuilding phase next season if they hope to emerge from the cap hell former GM Mike Tannenbaum left them with. New GM John Idzik has done a good job thus far in helping the Jets reset their roster, but don't expect New York to be a top-tier contender next season.
The Jets still haven't figured out who their starting QB will be next season or if Darrelle Revis is in their plans (UPDATE: He's not). While those issues will be ironed out by Week 7, New York won't be equipped to score consistently enough against the Pats to win this one.
Next year may be a blip in what has otherwise been a consistently entertaining Patriots-Jets rivalry for a half-decade.
At least we'll always have the Butt-fumble.
We've done the bookend thing with the Bills before. Remember 2003, Lawyer Milloy and the dueling 31-0 games?
The Bills have a new coaching staff and QB, and they'll be looking to prove themselves in this one. There will be added motivation for the Bills after last season's sweep by the Patriots.
But this is a season opener, and New England has those down pat. They've got the longest active NFL winning streak in season openers, taking the last nine. In fact, it was the aforementioned Lawyer Milloy game that marked their last opening loss.
The X-factor in this game may be the service at the Buffalo hotels, especially if a member of the cleaning staff decides to shortsheet Brady's bed after last season's comments and the Patriots' subsequent 52-28 beatdown at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
The Carolina Panthers are no pushovers, and that's a testament to the relative difficulty of this schedule.
Granted, this game would likely be ranked among the more difficult matchups if it weren't preceded by a bye. The Pats are tough enough as it is in the regular season, with a sterling .716 winning percentage in games not preceded by a bye.
When they get that extra week to prepare? That percentage rises to .769 (10-3).
Carolina, like many of the teams ranked low on this list, simply doesn't have the firepower to keep up with the Pats. QB Cam Newton is a dynamic player who will be able to take advantage of the weak edges of the Patriots defense (the Pats ranked 30th and 31st on runs to the right and left ends, respectively, per Football Outsiders).
But the Panthers don't have enough weapons beyond Brandon LaFell to chew up the Patriots secondary, especially if CB Aqib Talib can keep his hamstrings loose.
On defense, the Panthers boast a strong pass rush led by Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy (23.5 combined sacks in 2013), but the Pats can throw two of the league's best tackles in Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer (along with an elite blocking TE in Rob Gronkowski) at that problem.
Expect a respectable game from a Panthers team poised to surprise next year, but don't be shocked when the Patriots win by two scores.
The Jets have, in recent history, played the Patriots fairly tough at Gillette Stadium—recall last year's 29-26 Pats win in overtime in which the Jets actually claimed a late fourth-quarter lead.
And, of course, there's that gray January evening in 2011 that I would prefer not to speak any more about.
That history, coupled with the short rest leading up to this game (a Thursday Night Football special) make this game a bit of a wild card.
Still, it remains to be seen how the Jets will regroup from last year's debacle. It's eminently possible that the Pats will sweep the Jets again next season.
But if New York takes one, I'd actually expect it to be in Gillette rather than the Meadowlands.
The Dolphins made a splash (pun intended) in free agency this offseason, bringing in WR Mike Wallace as their bona fide deep threat and swapping in Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler for Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett at the LB position.
It remains to be seen whether their success in garnering offseason headlines will equate to regular-season wins. But, for the time being, the Dolphins are the Patriots' chief competition in the AFC East.
Free-agent moves aside, the success of the 2013 Dolphins rests chiefly on the shoulders of second-year QB Ryan Tannehill. Tannehill showed promise last year as part of a phenomenal rookie class, but he was mistake prone in his first season—including against the Patriots.
If Tannehill takes a step forward, the Dolphins will have a potent offense with Wallace, former Jet TE Dustin Keller, Brian Hartline and Davone Bess (or whoever the Dolphins choose to replace Bess—Tavon Austin?).
If not, they'll be stuck in neutral, acquisitions be darned.
This will be a fascinating year to watch the Saints. They're emerging from a cocoon of sanctions for their bounty program, and they'll be returning their head coach Sean Payton as they attempt to recover from a lost year.
I'd be surprised to see them go 7-9 again, but they're far from a Super Bowl contender either. Their defense was ranked dead last in DVOA last year, and Drew Brees led the league in interceptions with 19.
Still, Jimmy Graham is a deadly weapon and a tough cover for a Pats team that ranked 29th at covering TEs, per Football Outsiders. The Pats are going to need a strong performance from their safeties in this game.
Look for a big game from the two-headed monster of Stevan Ridley (assuming his full recovery from concussion) and Shane Vereen in this one—the Saints ranked just 30th in the league in DVOA against the run.
This won't be a repeat of the Saints' 2009 thrashing of the Patriots, I can assure you of that.
If the Pats lose just one division game next year, I'd bet it was this one.
On the one hand, the Pats generally improve as the season progresses, and this game is deep into the season's back nine.
But on the other, Tom Brady has (relatively) struggled against the Dolphins in his career, particularly when he's visiting Miami. He's just 6-5 in Sun Life Stadium, though he has won his last three games there. In those five losses, Brady's QB rating was just 69.9.
The Dolphins have a chance to steal this one and make a statement in the division hunt, but the Pats should be well-prepared for a team they will have already faced once.
The Steelers are one of the league's banner franchises, a playoff mainstay with more Super Bowl wins than any other organization.
But for the first time in the Ben Roethlisberger era, they're also a team that appears poised to stumble through back-to-back down seasons.
Pittsburgh ferried right down the river Styx and into salary cap hell this offseason, and it cost them some key contributors. Solid players like CB Keenan Lewis and NT Casey Hampton departed (or aren't in the teams plans) due to the tight cap.
Mercurial deep threat Mike Wallace also bolted for the Miami Dolphins, though the Steelers were able to retain Emmanuel Sanders after matching an offer sheet from the Patriots.
The turnover (including two offensive linemen along a line desperate for consistency) could hurt the Steelers next year. We'll see if the Steelers can keep Roethlisberger upright against even the Pats' middling pass rush, but it's unlikely the defense will have the firepower for a redux of the Steelers' suffocating 25-17 victory back in 2011.
Maybe I'm disrespecting the Texans. After all, they were in line for the AFC's top seed prior to a late-season collapse.
But here's the thing: That collapse was sparked—and, in the playoffs, completed—by New England's thorough domination of the Texans not once, but twice.
The Texans get to be this high in the rankings in part out of respect for their talent, and in part because the AFC East beyond New England isn't any good. But I don't see them as an especially difficult matchup for the Patriots unless something drastic changes.
Sure, they added Ed Reed, who at 34 still demonstrated center fielder range for the Ravens last season. But he's replacing Glover Quin, an underrated safety who isn't much (if at all) worse than Reed at this point.
Beyond that, they just don't scheme well for the Patriots. The Texans live and die by their blitz, and against the Patriots, they die. Brady torches them when they send more than four rushers: to the tune of 27 for 41 passing, 375 yards, and six touchdowns, per Bleacher Report's Erik Frenz.
Maybe the Texans take a step forward next year and become as adept at finishing the season as they were at starting it. But if things stay the same, I don't see Houston beating the Pats.
The Bengals are going to be a very, very tough matchup for the Pats next season.
Their offense is efficient, and their defense generates ferocious pressure. That's as good a combination as any when it comes to beating the Patriots.
Cincinnati's defensive line, led by monster interior rusher Geno Atkins, tied for the league lead in adjusted sack rate, per Football Outsiders.
On the other side of the ball, A.J. Green will be able to test the Patriots secondary and Andy Dalton will likely have all the time he needs to make smart decisions behind the clean pocket generated by his strong offensive line (11th in NFL in QB hits allowed per Advanced NFL Stats).
Both Brady and the Pats interior line are going to have to have a strong game if New England hopes to win this one.
The reigning Super Bowl champs have been decimated by free-agent losses before and come back strong. As such, it's best to assume they'll be contenders again until further notice.
The Ravens have lost seven starters from last year's team, with two more (Bryant McKinnie and Ma'ake Kemoeatu) still free agents.
But they've also made several key additions, including DB Michael Huff and LB Elvis Dumervil. Plus, they're as good a team as any when it comes to replacing departed free agents. People who lament the loss of Paul Kruger forget that he and Courtney Upshaw replaced Jarret Johnson, another loss that was supposed to cripple the Ravens.
Somehow, GM Ozzie Newsome finds a way to replace impact players time and again. I'll assume he'll be able to do it again this season, until we see something less from the Ravens than a top-tier contender.
That, coupled with Brady's relative struggles against the Ravens (83 QB rating vs. Baltimore in the regular season, 13.3 points below his 96.3 career rating) is why I'm ranking Baltimore among the toughest matchups for the Pats next year.
You've got the storylines down, so I'll mention them in passing only.
Yes, it's Brady vs. Manning again, and Welker switched sides.
That's all very nice and interesting, but this game will be decided in the trenches. That's especially true when the Pats have the ball—will their quick-fire offense and strong offensive line (fifth in the NFL in adjusted sack rate allowed) be able to stop the Broncos' fierce pass rush (first in the NFL in adjusted sack rate—all stats per Football Outsiders)?
Moreover, will that Broncos rush be as fierce with the departure of Elvis Dumervil?
Any game against Manning and the Broncos' fifth-ranked defense by DVOA will be a tough one. But the Pats handled the Broncos last year, and if they can protect Brady, they'll be able to do it again.
This certainly won't be a New England squad that lacks opportunities for signature wins.
After three relatively easy games to kick off the season, the Patriots travel to Atlanta to face a Falcons team capable of laying a haymaker on the Pats defense.
Atlanta will test the Patriots defense through the air in every possible way. The return of Tony Gonzalez will put immense pressure on the Patriot LBs and safeties, while Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard will need monster games to slow Roddy White and Julio Jones.
The Pats' best chance will be to run the ball against a defensive line that struggles up the middle (18th in the NFL in A gap run defense, per Football Outsiders). This may be a game in which the Pats rely on a big game from Stevan Ridley to dominate time of possession and keep Matt Ryan's offense off the field.
Neither defense is especially tenacious—Atlanta ranked 12th in the NFL in defensive DVOA and they've lost a number of defensive starters, while the Pats ranked 15th—so this could be a shootout of epic proportions.
It's far too early to prognosticate about these things, but this game could be a Super Bowl preview. If the Pats come away with a win in this game, they'll likely have established themselves as one of the teams to beat in the AFC.