Now that the Patriots schedule for next season is out, we can assess exactly what it is they’re up against in their bid for a third straight trip to the Super Bowl. Here’s a game-by-game look:
Sunday, Sept. 9, vs. Houston, 1 p.m.
Houston went 4-12 last season, and finished with the worst defense in football by points allowed, but the Texans were hit harder by injuries than all but three other teams, according to Football Outsiders’ “adjusted games lost” statistic. The Texans’ five best scoring games last season came with Deshaun Watson playing quarterback, including a shootout loss to the Patriots. If Watson, J.J. Watt, and Whitney Mercilus are all back and in regular form, this should be a competitive game, and it will be interesting to watch how Bill Belichick handles the ultra-dynamic Watson now that he’s seen him face-to-face once before.
Sunday, Sept. 16, at Jacksonville, 4:25 p.m.
This AFC Championship game rematch is on the road, and Blake Bortles played much better in Jacksonville than he did elsewhere in 2017. Bortles’s splits: 64 percent completion rate, 265 yards per game, and a 15-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio at home; 55 percent completion rate, 184 yards per game, 6-8 TD-INT ratio on the road. Bortles’s best road game last season may have come in January in Foxborough, but with the strength of the Jags’ defense, they don’t need much from their quarterback. He usually gives it to them at home.
Sunday, Sept. 23, at Detroit, 8:20 p.m.
The first meeting between Bill Belichick and his former defensive coordinator, Matt Patricia, as head coaches comes in Motor City. Patricia inherited a solid offense, so his major task will be to improve a defense that was 27th against the pass last season, not where you want to be against the Patriots.
Sunday, Sept. 30, vs. Miami, 1 p.m.
For as much trouble as the Patriots have on the road against Miami, they do just fine at home. New England is 14-2 in the Brady era against the Dolphins at Gillette Stadium, including a 35-17 win last season that was more lopsided than the score suggests.
Thursday, Oct. 4, vs. Indianapolis, 8:20 p.m.
Is the rivalry back on? That probably depends a lot on Andrew Luck’s health. Luck had surgery in January 2017 to repair a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder. The Colts had the 30th-ranked offense and the 30th-ranked defense by points last season, so general manager Chris Ballard is going to need a healthy quarterback performing at a high level to make up for significant holes all over this roster. Of course, a major story line for this game will be offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who spurned Indianapolis at the last second after he’d agreed to become coach. The Colts wound up with the other Super Bowl offensive coordinator, Frank Reich, instead.
Sunday, Oct. 14, vs. Kansas City, 8:20 p.m.
Alex Smith is out, Patrick Mahomes is in. The Patriots, though, may have their eyes set on revenge after Kansas City torched them, 42-27, in Week 1 last year. Andy Reid is great at tailoring his offense to his quarterback’s strengths, so the Patriots defense will likely have to handle a ton of spread-out packages. Having Kareem Hunt, Travis Kelce, Sammy Watkins, and Tyreek Hill to work with makes that scary.
Sunday, Oct. 21, at Chicago, 1 p.m.
The Patriots head to Chicago to catch a glimpse of second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, who should have a solid supporting cast around him, including running back Jordan Howard and Allen Robinson, the top wideout in this year’s free agent class. The Bears needed that upgrade on offense, as their defense was already solid, with 42 sacks and the ninth-ranked unit by points allowed last season.
Monday, Oct. 29, at Buffalo, 8:15 p.m.
Neither Patriots-Bills game in 2017 was competitive, but Buffalo did take a big monkey off its back in making the playoffs last year. The catch is that they did that with Tyrod Taylor, who’s gone to Cleveland to compete with the No. 1 overall pick this year (probably). The secondary, with cornerback TreDavious White and safety Micah Hyde, is promising, but quarterback is a huge question here.
Sunday, Nov. 4, vs. Green Bay, 8:20 p.m.
Here’s something absolutely crazy: Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers have played against each other only once before. They haven’t faced off since 2014, when New England lost a 26-21 decision at Lambeau Field. This time, the Patriots have home-field advantage, and the Packers will be coming off a 7-9-0 season, though that was mostly without Rodgers. Given Brady’s age, this could be the last time these two greats go head-to-head.
Sunday, Nov. 11, at Tennessee, 1 p.m.
This game, the first meeting as head coaches between Bill Belichick and former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel, will be a mini-reunion. Malcolm Butler, Dion Lewis, and Logan Ryan will all be on the other side. With Butler joining Ryan and Adoree’ Jackson at cornerback, and 2017 Pro Bowler Kevin Byard at safety, this is a tough secondary.
Sunday, Nov. 25, at NY Jets, 1 p.m.
Will it be Josh McCown? Teddy Bridgewater? Baker Mayfield? Other? The Jets are still searching for a quarterback, but they do have a strength in the middle of the defense: middle linebacker Demario Davis and the two young safeties, Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye, are tough matchups.
Sunday, Dec. 2, vs. Minnesota, 4:25 p.m.
This matchup with last year’s NFC runner-up should be one of the toughest on the schedule. Kirk Cousins is in at quarterback, but it’s more about who remains: wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, and the league’s top-ranked defense by both points and yards allowed last season. Oh, and did we mention Minnesota got within a game of the Super Bowl without running back Dalvin Cook, who should be back from an ACL tear?
Sunday, Dec. 9, at Miami, 1 p.m.
Hard Rock Stadium is one of the few true houses of horrors for the Patriots. New England is 8-10 on the road against Miami since 2000, including a 27-20 loss there last season after which some Dolphins players marveled out loud about how much trouble Tom Brady has playing there. Instead of Jay Cutler, who put together a throwback performance that night, the Dolphins hope it’ll be Ryan Tannehill back in action. At least the threat of Ndamukong Suh has gone west.
Sunday, Dec. 16, at Pittsburgh, 4:25 p.m.
The Patriots will make a trip to Heinz Field for the third straight regular season, and if this game is anything like last December’s classic, it’s one to circle on the calendar. Pittsburgh’s defense took a big step back late last season without linebacker Ryan Shazier, particularly against the run, and Shazier, who will miss the season with a spinal injury, will be tough to replace. On offense, though, Ben Roethlisberger still has an incredible array of talent around him. This is a game in which there could be some Malcolm Butler seller’s remorse.
Sunday, Dec. 23, vs. Buffalo, 1 p.m.
The road results for Buffalo against the Patriots since Gillette Stadium opened are disheartening: a 2-14 record and 15 touchdowns/21 interceptions for Bills quarterbacks. The Patriots won this divisional matchup, 37-16, at home last season.
Sunday, Dec. 30, vs. NY Jets, 1 p.m.
The Jets finished 5-11 last season, actually a positive surprise given predictions. The catch is that it wound up costing them a lot of future draft capital to be able to move up to No. 3 overall this year to take a quarterback. New York lost both matchups with the Patriots last season, and while New England needed a late comeback to win at MetLife Stadium, the score at Gillette was 26-6.
Nora Princiotti can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @NoraPrinciotti.