Jim Davis/Globe Staff
As the Patriots return from their bye week, they officially enter the second half of the season. They are 6-2, including 3-1 against the NFC South. They open up the second half of the season with a pair of road games against teams from the AFC West, Denver and Oakland, then play five of their last six games against AFC East opponents.
If they take care of business, a division title and even home-field advantage in the playoffs are well within reach. But it won’t be easy.
Here’s a look at the Patriots’ remaining schedule.
What to know: This game looked a lot scarier earlier in the season when Denver jumped out to a 3-1 record. Then the Broncos returned from a bye and dropped four straight as they head into Sunday’s primetime showdown. Quarterback Trevor Siemian was benched in favor of Brock Osweiler for Sunday’s game at Philadelphia.
In seven games, Siemian threw for just nine touchdowns and was picked off 10 times. He also fumbled five times, turning the ball over twice. Osweiler did not fare much better in the Eagles’ 51-23 win, leaving a big question mark for the Broncos heading into this week’s game.
The game could hinge on which Osweiler shows up. Would it be the 2015 version, who looked poised on Sunday Night Football and made just enough plays as the Broncos handed the Patriots their first loss of the season, rallying to win 30-24 in overtime in Week 12? Or will it be the 2016 version, the one the Patriots handled rather easily in his one year with the Houston Texans, in a win in Week 3, as well as the playoffs.
Matchup to watch: Linebacker Von Miller vs. the Patriots’ offensive tackles. When he’s not busy making Old Spice commercials with Mac from “Night Court”, the Super Bowl 50 MVP is terrorizing opposing quarterbacks. He was a one-man wrecking crew in the 2015 AFC Championship, recording 2.5 sacks and an interception in Denver’s 20-18 win to dethrone the Patriots.
The Patriots will look to tackles Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon to keep Brady upright. Cannon did not finish the game against the San Diego Chargers in Week 8, and was replaced by LaAdrian Waddle. Tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen will also offer support on the outside.
Historical nugget: Tom Brady is 3-7 playing at Denver, although he and the Patriots prevailed last season, 16-3. It was not exactly a stellar performance for Brady, who completed just 16 of 32 passes for 188 yards, and did not throw a touchdown.
What to know: While not the first international Patriots game (they played in London in 2009 and 2012), it is New England’s first trip to Mexico City for a regular season game. (They played the Cowboys in an exhibition game in 1998). It will be the second straight year the Raiders have played a regular season game at Estadio Azteca (they defeated the Texans 27-20 in 2016).
The Raiders (4-5) will enter the game coming off a bye, and 2-1 in their last three. Despite getting off to a disappointing start following a preseason full of expectations, the Raiders will try to use a win in Mexico City as a springboard for a strong second half. The Patriots will spend a week in Colorado following their game against the Broncos, training at altitude in preparation for the 7,200-foot elevation of Mexico City.
Matchup to watch: Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree vs. Patriots defensive backs. If Oakland quarterback Derek Carr can get on target with his two leading receivers, it could be a long day for the Patriots. But if Malcolm Butler and the Patriots’ secondary can clamp down, the Raiders offense will grind to a halt.
Historical nugget: Estadio Azteca has hosted two World Cup finals, including Diego Maradona and Argentina’s winning team of 1986. That tournament was famous for Maradona’s singular greatness, but also arguably the most infamous goal in international soccer history. Argentina triumphed over England thanks to both Maradona’s brilliance, but also his “Hand of God” goal.
What to know: The Dolphins also appear to be trending in the wrong direction, having lost two in a row after starting the season 4-2. A 40-0 drubbing at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens in Week 8 resulted in Miami shipping Jay Ajayi to Philadelphia at the trade deadline. The Dolphins followed with a 27-24 loss to the Raiders Sunday.
After starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill went down with an injury in preseason, Miami lured Jay Cutler out of retirement and handed him the starting job. He’s delivered steady but uninspired play, throwing for 10 touchdowns and five interceptions.
Matchup to watch: Ndamukong Suh vs. the Patriots offensive line. The defensive lineman has been a thorn in the Patriots’ side since he came into the league with the Detroit Lions. Two years ago he gave the Patriots a good scare when he rolled up on Brady’s ankle in the season finale. Miami prevailed that day, costing the Patriots home-field advantage in the playoffs, and ultimately, Super Bowl 50. He and teammate Kiko Alonso were up to their old tricks in the loss at Baltimore. Alonso knocked Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco of the game with a hit to the head. Alonso was fined for the play, but avoided suspension. Later in the game, Suh grabbed Baltimore quarterback (and former Patriot) Ryan Mallett by the throat.
Historical nugget: The second matchup in Miami will fall one day shy of the 35th anniversary of the infamous snowplow game. On Dec. 12, 1982, the Patriots and Dolphins were locked in a scoreless battle on a frozen field at Schaefer Stadium. Late in the fourth quarter, as the Patriots lined up for field goal, Patriots coach Ron Meyer instructed a stadium worker to drive a snow plow out onto the field and clear a spot for John Smith to kick the ball. It worked, as Smith’s attempt sailed through, giving the Patriots a 3-0 win.
What to know: The Patriots’ second-half schedule includes both of the annual clashes against the Bills (5-3). Buffalo made it through the first half of the season at 5-3, somewhat surprising considering the series of early trades that prioritized draft picks in return over established talent. Yet first-year coach Sean McDermott (formerly the defensive coordinator of the Panthers) has the Bills playing efficiently with a healthy turnover margin.
These games could be in cold weather or snowy conditions. although both rank in the top five in fewest turnovers.
Matchup to watch: LeSean McCoy vs. the Patriots’ front seven. With 788 yards from scrimmage so far in 2017, McCoy has amassed more than three times as many yards as any other member of the Bills. He’s also the team leader in receptions and is tied for the lead in touchdowns.
Historical nugget: The Patriots’ signing of two Bills (Stephon Gilmore and Mike Gillislee) in the offseason received its fair share of headlines, considering that player movement between division rivals is always notable. However, Patriots-Bills has seen high profile players change uniforms before. Drew Bledsoe and Lawyer Milloy are perhaps the best known, but also Doug Flutie (indirectly), Antowain Smith, Brandon Spikes, and Chris Hogan all have done so too.
What to know: It feels like the top seed in the AFC will be on the line when these two teams face off, and it could very well be the toughest game remaining on the Patriots’ schedule. The Steelers were inconsistent at the start of the season, including a befuddling 23-17 loss at Chicago in Week 3 and a 30-9 Week 5 loss to Jacksonville. Since then, Pittsburgh has won three in a row, including handing the Chiefs their first loss of the season, in Kansas City.
Matchup to watch: Ben Roethlisberger vs. the Patriots secondary. Roethlisberger has thrown for 2,281 yards with 17 touchdowns in eight regular season meetings against the Patriots. After the loss to Jacksonville, Roethlisberger suggested that maybe he doesn’t have it any more, but then he completed 48 of 80 passes for 793 yards and four touchdowns as Pittsburgh won its next three games. Defensive backs Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe, if healthy, could have their hands full with receivers Antonio Brown, Juju Smith-Schuster, and Martavis Bryant.
Historical nugget: Brady has had little trouble against the Steelers, going 10-2 in his career, although both losses came at Heinz Field in the regular season. He is 3-0 against the Steelers in the playoffs, all in the AFC Championship game, with two victories coming at Pittsburgh.
What to know: The Patriots face the Jets (4-5) in the regular season finale. New York has surprised prognosticators by not being the unmitigated disaster that many foresaw. In fact, in the first Patriots-Jets matchup of the year, each team entered 3-2, and in that Oct. 15 game, the decisive play was one of the year’s most controversial. An apparent Austin Seferian-Jenkins touchdown was instead ruled a fumble and touchback.
For the Patriots, Week 17 has often been a debate over who plays and who rests in years past. There’s no guarantee that conversation will be happening again in 2017, though New England is 1-2 in its last three regular season finales (all of which came against AFC East opponents).
Matchup to watch: Tom Brady vs. the Jets’ secondary. In the first Patriots-Jets game of 2017, the young New York secondary spoke of Brady with admiration bordering on awe. For many of them, it was their first test against Brady. Now, they have a little experience, and could present a challenge for the Patriots offense.
Historical nugget: While many of the games have been decided by a touchdown or less, the Jets have not won at Gillette Stadium since the famous divisional round playoff victory in January, 2011. It seems like so long ago, but in that contest, Mark Sanchez led the Jets in a 28-21 upset. Rex Ryan’s defense held the Patriots to only three points in the first half, and New York marched to its second straight AFC Championship Game appearance.
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