5 Must-Win Games on New England Patriots 2016 Schedule

Erik Frenz@ErikFrenzSenior Writer IApril 20, 2016

5 Must-Win Games on New England Patriots 2016 Schedule

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    Every time the New England Patriots play a football game, it has a big-game feel to it. 

    That's because the Patriots have been one of, if not the best football team in the league since the year 2000. But let's face it, even though every team might circle the Patriots on their schedule as one of their biggest games of the year, the Patriots treat every game like it's their biggest game of the year.

    But which games are the biggest?

    As we look ahead to the 2016 season, there are several games that could carry a little more weight than others, whether it's because of playoff implications or simply because they give the Patriots a chance to measure themselves against elite opponents.

    Let's look past the usual six games against AFC East rivals in this list—not because the Patriots should check those off as wins (that would have backfired last season, when they lost to the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins in the final two games of the year), but because those games are always important, given the impact of wins and losses on the divisional standings.

    Here are a handful of the biggest games on the Patriots' schedule.

Week 1: At Arizona Cardinals

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    These are not your father's Arizona Cardinals. They're not even your older brother's Cardinals. The franchise has been mired in mediocrity for the better part of its existence, but with the hiring of head coach Bruce Arians, a winning culture has taken over the organization.

    The Cardinals finished the 2015 season with an impressive 13-3 record and capped it off with a trip to the NFC Championship Game, which they lost to the Carolina Panthers

    So, in a sense, this is the Super Bowl 50 matchup that might have been. 

    Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer had one of the best seasons of his career, with 35 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, and the Cardinals fielded one of the league's top 10 scoring defenses for the third consecutive year. They even had a top-10 rushing attack, making them one of the most complete teams in the league.

    The last time the Patriots took on the Cardinals, things did not go so well for New England. Arizona wasn't yet a contender, and head coach Ken Whisenhunt was still leading the organization. Fast-forward four years, and the Cardinals are riding a streak of three straight winning seasons and back-to-back playoff appearances.

    This will be a prime-time meeting between the league's standard-bearer of the new millennium and a team on the rise. 

Week 6: Vs. Cincinnati Bengals

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    In 2015, the Patriots were neck-and-neck with the Denver Broncos and Cincinnati Bengals in a three-team race for the top two seeds in the AFC. The Patriots came out with one of those two seeds, but the Bengals made it interesting almost to the very end.

    The Bengals are in the highly competitive AFC North, but they have won the division two of the past three years and finished second in 2014, just a half-game behind the Pittsburgh Steelers that year.

    Their success has been due mostly to a stout, stifling defense that has ranked in the top 10 in scoring four out of the past five years. The Patriots became familiar with that unit in 2013, when they could only manage to score six points at Cincinnati. 

    The Bengals have also fielded an explosive offense, which is led by quarterback Andy Dalton distributing the ball to wide receiver A.J. Green and tight end Tyler Eifert. However, they've lost a couple of their biggest weapons this offseason in wide receivers Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones.

    The last time these two teams met, the Patriots laid a shellacking on the Bengals in a 2014 Week 5 matchup that set the Patriots on a path to a Super Bowl victory. Surely, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick would welcome a repeat of that performance.

Week 10: Vs. Seattle Seahawks

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    Matt Rourke/Associated Press

    For two teams in separate conferences, there sure is a lot of history between the Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks.

    Of course, there are the ties between Belichick and Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll—Carroll coached the Patriots from 1997 to 1999 before the hoodie arrived on the scene in 2000but anyone who follows the two teams will tell you that the beef is much juicier than your average burger.

    There's the whole "You mad bro?" incident, when Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman sent a sharply worded tweet including a picture of him verbally assaulting Patriots quarterback Tom Brady following their their 2012 regular-season showdown.

    There's also the whole "worst play call in NFL history" incident, when Carroll decided to throw the ball instead of run it with Marshawn Lynch at the goal line in the final seconds of Super Bowl 49, resulting in an interception.

    This time around, Carroll won't have that choice, as Lynch announced his retirement earlier this offseason. But Seattle still boasts one of the best young quarterbacks in the league in Russell Wilson, and one of the best defenses of our generation.

    Some of the characters have changed, but the narrative remains the same: This is a showdown between two teams that have dominated their respective conferences. There's some tension between these two teams, and this will be the rubber match of a rivalry that has spanned five years.

Week 14: Vs. Baltimore Ravens

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Who could forget the last time the Patriots squared off with the Baltimore Ravens? It was among the most exciting and nerve-racking games the Patriots have been involved in, with two 14-point comebacks by New England on their way to a four-point win and a trip to the 2014-15 AFC Championship Game.

    It was just the latest chapter in a heated rivalry spanning nearly a decade. 

    The Ravens were competitive in 2015, despite finishing 5-11. Seven of those 11 losses were by five points or fewer, and nine were by eight points or fewer. Safety Eric Weddle and wide receiver Mike Wallace join the Ravens in hopes of helping to make a difference in some of those close contests and to help the Ravens recover from their first losing season of the John Harbaugh era (2008-present).

    Weddle should provide a huge boost to a defense that allowed 30 touchdown passes against just six interceptions. Wallace could help add an explosive element to a passing attack that averaged just 6.1 net yards per attempt last season.

    But in truth, their biggest problem in 2015 was turnovers. As a team, Ravens quarterbacks threw 21 interceptions, and although there was a carousel of quarterbacks after Joe Flacco's season-ending injury in Week 10, Flacco himself was throwing quite a few interceptions last year (12 in 10 games). 

    The Ravens are typically a well-coached team, and if they can patch up some of their self-inflicted wounds, this matchup should be no different than the other hotly contested showdowns between these two teams over the years. 

Week 15: At Denver Broncos

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Of course this game makes the list. Why shouldn't it?

    Even without Peyton Manning, the Denver Broncos are still a force to be reckoned with. Denver's defense was among the best in the league in nearly every area last year: first overall against the pass, third overall against the run, fourth in scoring, second on third down and the list goes on.

    The real question will be who's throwing the football. Right now, the Broncos' answer seems to be Mark Sanchez, but he's been ineffective throughout his career and has not proven himself as anything more than a backup up to this point (59 percent completions, 30 touchdowns, 33 interceptions in the past four seasons). 

    With that said, the Broncos won last year in spite of Manning—not because of him. And although they lost one key ingredient in Manning, they hung onto another in running back C.J. Anderson, who was part of a rushing attack that produced 179 rushing yards and three touchdowns against the Patriots in the Week 12 meeting last season.

    There's no guarantee the Broncos can continue that method with a quarterback like Sanchez under center, but don't put it past them. And with so much talent at so many other positions on the roster, the Broncos could once again be a competitive team week-in and week-out regardless of who is throwing the football.