We New England Patriot fans know a thing or two about counting chickens. Nearly everyone east of Connecticut thought that Super Bowl XLII was in the bag, and the Patriots were 12-point favorites.
There's no need to remind a true blue Patriots fan how that turned out.
With that in mind, many are declaring the Patriots' 2012 schedule the easiest in the league. After all, they only play four teams that made the playoffs last year and three out of four play the Pats at Gillette Stadium. Not so fast, Patriots faithful. Many of those non-playoff teams were a lot more formidable than their fate indicates.
After the last two Super Bowl losses, counting chickens has left New England with egg on our faces. Let's take a look at each of the first eight games and handicap the Patriots' chances. The second half's forecast will come tomorrow.
Week 1, Patriots at Tennessee Titans (9-7 in 2011): One has to wonder whether Jake Locker or Matt Hasselbeck will get the nod as starter after pre-season, but either way this one will be more challenging than some may think. Tennessee has Chris Johnson coming off of a dud of a season, and it would not be foolish to expect CJ2K to hit the ground running looking to prove any doubters wrong. I still think the Patriots win this one, but it will be closer than expected with an upset not outside the realm of possibility.
Week 2, Arizona Cardinals (8-8 in 2011) at Patriots: The Cardinals have a lot of question marks. They have arguably the best receiver in the league in Larry Fitzgerald, but at times it looked like Philadelphia had pulled a fast one on them in the Kevin Kolb deal. John Skelton will battle him for his job, just as Hasselbeck will have to contend with Locker. The QB questions for both the opening games mean the Patriots will likely start the season 2-0. This one will not be as close as the first one.
Week 3, Patriots at Baltimore Ravens (12-4 in 2011): This one is the game that will separate the men from the boys. Baltimore really should have ended the Patriots' season last year in the AFC Championship Game, but Bill Cundiff did not just drop the ball, he kicked it a mile off target on a chip shot field goal. I think Baltimore gets their revenge in this game, given that they play at home. The Patriots could always pull it off, but I think the Ravens will be hungry for a win.
Week 4, Patriots at Buffalo Bill (6-10 in 2011): Buffalo's collapse last year is fairly inexplicable other than a combination of some bad luck and the league figuring out Ryan Fitzpatrick. Regardless, the Bills managed to shock the Patriots in the opening round last year. I don't see that happening this year, but division games are always a crapshoot. The Patriots should take this game too.
Week 5, Denver Broncos (8-8 in 2011) at Patriots: This is a circle-your-calendar kind of game. Peyton Manning returns to Gillette with horses of different racing colors. Question marks remain about Manning's health and ability following his neck surgery, but this game will take place with a quarter of the season in the books. He is likely to have shaken off all of the rust by then if it is removable. The Broncos defense, not Tim Tebow, was what really got them to the Promised Land last season, so this one figures to be a classic. This race is too close to call if Manning and the Broncos are running at full stride.
Week 6, Patriots at Seattle Seahawks (7-9 in 2011): Pete Carroll has done some nice things in Seattle, among them knocking off the Saints in an epic playoff match. An upset from a Carroll-led team can never be ruled out after that. However, the Seahawks will still be finding their sea legs in Matt Flynn's first year with the team. The Patriots should handle their former boss' squad in this game.
Week 7, New York Jets (8-8 in 2011) at Patriots: Whether this is a game to bring your popcorn to or a bust depends largely on the state of affairs with Gang Green at the time. If Sanchez struggles early in the season and the locker room is in disarray as calls for Tim Tebow mount, this will be a cakewalk for the Patriots. If Sanchez and the Jets can recapture the magic of his first two seasons, this one should be another epic division game. The outcome depends largely on circumstances that must play out before prediction becomes anything more than a fool's errand.
Week 8, Patriots at St. Louis Rams (2-14 in 2011) in London: There is not much to say about this one. It will not feel like a home game for the Rams; the poor blokes have to play New England in old England. The last time the Patriots got in touch with their roots, they manhandled a hapless Tampa Bay Buccaneers squad 35-7 at Wembley. That piece of history should sound familiar after this one is over; the result should be very similar.
The Patriots have their bye week in the league's ninth week. That seems like a perfect place to stop for now. The rest of the season's slate is set for review tomorrow. What do you think? Will the Patriots start 8-0, or will teams other than the Ravens, Broncos or Jets pull an upset? Time will tell, but one thing is for sure: this season will not be as easy as many think.
As NFL philosopher Chris Berman always says, "That's why they play the games."
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