The Patriots head into the 2010 season as the reigning AFC East champions.
As they look to repeat as division winners and work deeper into the playoffs to return to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 2007-08 season, when they lost the chance at a perfect season when they were defeated by the New York Giants, the Patriots face a difficult road.
The Patriots face a tough schedule, as their opponents’ 2009 combined record stands at 114-94, a .548 winning percentage. Seven of the team’s 10 non-divisional games are against teams with winning records in 2009, six of which went to the playoffs, and two that made the NFL’s final four.
However, of those seven games, only two of them are away contests. If the Patriots are as dominant at home as they were last year (8-0, tied for best record in the NFL), they could be in good shape.
Here are the five most important games of the Patriots season.
Baltimore Raven's running back Ray Rice
The Patriots will come into this game fresh off a bye week and having finished the first quarter of their season. This contest pits them against the team that absolutely trounced them in the playoffs, not only ending their season but also inspiring talk that they ended the Patriots’ dynasty.
Raven running back Ray Rice rolled over the Patriot defense in Baltimore’s 33-14 Wild Card weekend win over New England. Rice ran for 159 yards and two touchdowns.
The game was also played at Gillette Stadium, where the Patriots had won eight regular season games without losing.
This year, Baltimore got a boost when it added Anquan Boldin and Donte Stallworth to its receiving corps, as quarterback Joe Flacco continues to develop into a star. These additions make Baltimore’s offense much more balanced and allow them to make plays and hurt opposing defenses in a number of different ways.
In the Patriots' favor is that New England has won the game after their bye seven straight years and has won eight of the last 10.
Look for Tom Brady to test a suspect Ravens’ secondary as he hopes to not only avenge the playoff loss, but to also show Mr. Flacco that he is not quite yet up to Brady’s level as a passer and winner.
San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers
There is no rest for the weary.
Week 6 is sure to be a slugfest, and the Pats will not get a break the following week as they travel cross-country to visit the defending AFC West champions.
The Patriots have won two of their last three matchups with the Chargers, but the loss came the last time the teams met in 2008.
San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers has become one of the top statistical players in the entire league. Last season, he threw for a career-high 4,254 yards to go along with 28 touchdowns, a 104.4 QB rating, 65.2 completion percentage, and only nine interceptions, his lowest total since 2006.
The Patriots’ secondary was questionable last season, but New England hopes that Leigh Bodden, a more-experienced Darius Butler, and first-round draft pick Devin McCourty will be able to form a much improved unit.
Pitting an inconsistent secondary against a top-ranked passer, after a cross-country trip away from the friendly confines of Gillette and one week after the defense is tested against one of the NFL’s most improved offenses, means that the Patriots will have their hands full.
This game will show how the Patriots handle adversity, especially on the road, and who emerges as team leaders, specifically on the defensive side of the ball.
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning
Throughout the new millennium, the Patriots and Colts have established a strong rivalry.
Last year’s clash was another memorable game, or on the Patriots’ end, extremely forgettable.
There was the infamous call by Bill Belichick to go for it on fourth down with two minutes left, even though his team was winning by six points. The Patriots—on a play that even if connected wouldn’t have recorded a first down—failed to convert, handing the ball to Peyton Manning with only 28 yards to go to win the game. Which he racked up quickly.
Whether he admits it or not, Belichick has this game circled on his calendar.
Up until that moment, Belichick was widely considered one of, if not the best coach in the game. Yet that one play caused a lot of people to reconsider that opinion. He now has control of the offense and defensive play-calling duties and he’ll be on a mission to outsmart Indianapolis.
The only question is will he outsmart himself?
Another interesting wrinkle to this matchup is that both Manning and Brady are playing for new contracts. Considered the two best quarterbacks in the NFL, their ownerships will be looking to see how the other player’s contract situation shapes up.
Between Manning and Brady, this game has the makings of an old fashioned western-style duel.
New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez
Hated division-rival New York Jets have stolen a lot of the media attention away from the Patriots this offseason with big-name acquisitions and their Hard Knocks show. Now the Jets have high expectations and a big target on their back, particularly after their surprising postseason run last year.
The Week 2 matchup at the New Meadowlands will be big. However, neither team will be playing their best football at that point, and a lot can change in 11 weeks.
That’s why the Week 13 matchup will be huge. The game could go a long way in determining who comes out on top of the AFC East. It will also have the spotlight, as it is currently slated to be that week’s Monday night game.
One interesting aspect of this matchup involves one of the Jets’ new acquisitions, Jason Taylor.
Formerly of the Miami Dolphins, another division rival, Taylor has a history of coming out against the Patriots and really pressuring Brady. The Jets have a lot of talented individual defenders that will take a lot of attention, so the older Taylor may get free, which would be disastrous for Brady and the Patriots passing game.
If Matt Light isn’t healthy and/or Sebastian Vollmer does not continue to develop properly, then the New York pass rush could really expose a weakness in the Patriots’ offensive line.
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers
If the Patriots were to make the Super Bowl, a rematch of the 1996 Super Bowl with Green Bay could be in order.
The Packers are one of the top contenders in the NFC and are a big matchup problem for New England.
The Patriots strength on offense is their passing game. In 2009, the Packers were, statistically, a top-five defense against the pass. They also were first in interceptions (30) and tied for eleventh in sacks (37). They have what it takes to stand toe-to-toe with the vaunted New England aerial game.
So the Patriots could need the running game to step up. However, the running game is the most inconsistent part of the Patriots’ team. Shaky performances, injuries, and a revolving door of starters makes the position one of weakness for the Patriots.
Now take the likes of Laurence Maroney, Fred Taylor, Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis and put them up against Green Bay’s top-ranked run-defense, who also boasted the best takeaway total (40), and it could be a rough day on offense for the Patriots.
Meanwhile, the New England secondary, another position of concern for the team, will have to go up against Aaron Rodgers, who has developed into one of the top passers in the league. Rodgers threw for an astonishing 4,434 yards, 30 touchdowns, a 64.7 completion percentage, a 103.2 QB rating, and only seven interceptions.
The cliché is that a group is only as strong as its weakest link. Against the Packers the two weakest positions on the team will be put to the test.