The Patriots will spend a lot of time on the road in the first month of the season, will play nearly a third of their games under the bright lights of prime-time television, and will have to go through their division rivals to clinch their 11th AFC East title in 12 seasons.
The NFL released the 2014 schedule Wednesday night, and the Patriots will be opening the season with two road games — at Miami and Minnesota. The Patriots have faced the Dolphins seven previous times in Week 1 games, including a 38-24 win in Miami in 2011. The Week 2 game at Minnesota will be played outdoors at TCF Bank Stadium, the Vikings’ new temporary home as they await their new stadium to be built.
The home opener will be Week 3 against Oakland, the Raiders’ first visit to Foxborough since 2005.
Thoughts and observations on the Patriots’ schedule:
■ The Patriots play four of their first six games on the road. They also play their final preseason game on the road, meaning they will go about a month between home games.
■ New cornerback Darrelle Revis will face his former Jets teammates in Week 7 (home) and Week 16 (road). He also played at the Jets last year in Week 1 as a member of the Buccaneers.
■ The Patriots play five prime-time games, though not against the rival Broncos, who defeated the Patriots in last year’s AFC Championship Game. The Patriots play three games on Sunday night (Week 5 vs. Bengals, Week 11 at Colts, and Week 14 at Chargers), one on Monday night (Week 4 at Chiefs), and one on Thursday night (Week 7 vs. Jets). It will mark the third year in a row that the Patriots will face the Jets on a Thursday night — they defeated them, 13-10, last year in Week 2 in Foxborough. The trip to Kansas City will be the Patriots’ first since 2005.
The prime-time games could change, as the NFL is instituting flex scheduling as early as Week 5 this year. A team cannot play more than five prime-time games, however. If the Patriots’ game vs. the Broncos is flexed to Sunday night, for example, then their prime-time game against the Colts or Chargers would likely have to be flexed out.
■ The Patriots will also finish the season with three straight divisional games — vs. Dolphins, at Jets, and vs. Bills. It will mark the second straight year that the Patriots wrap up the regular season with the Bills at home.
■ The Patriots will face six playoff teams from 2013 — the Bengals and Broncos at home, and the Chiefs, Colts, Packers, and Chargers on the road.
■ The Patriots will have their bye in Week 10 for the second year in a row.
■ The opening stretch of the schedule appears quite manageable, as the Patriots avoid playing any of the top-flight quarterbacks through the first seven weeks of the season. They will likely face Ryan Tannehill, Alex Smith, Andy Dalton, EJ Manuel, and Geno Smith or Michael Vick, plus whoever the Vikings and Raiders put under center.
This works out well for new cornerback Brandon Browner, who will be suspended for the first four games of the season because of violation of the league’s drug policy. Browner will be back for the Week 5 matchup against AJ Green and the Bengals, and Browner will be eligible to play against most of the top receivers facing the Patriots this year: Stevie Johnson (Week 6), Brandon Marshall (Week 8), Demaryius Thomas (Week 9), Reggie Wayne (Week 11), Calvin Johnson (Week 12), Jordy Nelson (Week 13), and Mike Wallace (Week 15).
■ However, the Patriots will face a gauntlet of gunslingers in Weeks 8-14 — Jay Cutler, Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck, Matthew Stafford, Aaron Rodgers, and Philip Rivers. But the Patriots then wrap up the regular season with Tannehill, Smith/Vick and Manuel.
■ A five-week stretch from Weeks 11-15 could prove to be quite tough – at Colts, vs. Lions, at Packers, at Chargers, vs. Dolphins. The Patriots also play just one road game between Weeks 7-12 (at Colts), with home games vs. the Jets, Bears, Broncos and Lions, plus a bye after the Broncos game.
■ The Patriots will only play one game indoors — Week 11 at Indianapolis — and as of now nine of their games are slated to kick off at 1 p.m. Eastern. The Week 9 showdown with the Broncos — the 16th career meeting between Manning and Tom Brady — will still be a national TV game, but will kick off at 4:25 Eastern at Gillette Stadium on CBS. Another premium game will also kick off at 4:25 p.m. — Week 13 at Green Bay.
■ The Patriots will face the Colts for the 12th consecutive year (10 regular-season games, four playoff). It is the longest active streak for non-division opponents.Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin