According to the gambling gurus at Bovada, only one other team — the Denver Broncos at 11.5 — is predicted to win more games in 2014 as the 11 forecasted for the New England Patriots. Armed with new acquisitions, healthy All-Pros and, of course, Tom Brady, the Patriots are ready to attack one of the NFL‘s most formidable schedules.
The five-time defending division champions have not begun the season with a one in the “L” column since they got shutout 31-0 to Drew Bledsoe, Lawyer Milloy and the Buffalo Bills in 2003. New England went on to win Super Bowl XXXVIII that year, but that was still 11 season ago. Opening at the Miami Dolphins should be a good test out of the gate for an offense that still may not have Rob Gronkowski. It makes no sense to play Gronkowski, back from an ACL and MCL tear, in Week 1, and without the All-Pro, the Patriots very well could lose another nail-biter in South Florida.
A Week 2 visit to the Minnesota Vikings and a Week 4 trip to the Kansas City Chiefs should represent little adversity for New England, for those may be the only two teams in the league that rely more on their running backs than their quarterbacks. Chalk up three-straight wins as the Patriots host the seemingly eternal struggle that is the Oakland Raiders in their Week 3 home opener.
After what should be at worst a 3-1 start, the Patriots will be favored for all games in the second quarter of the season: hosting the Cincinnati Bengals, at Buffalo, hosting the New York Jets and welcoming the Chicago Bears for their first visit since their NFC title-winning year in 2006.
Then comes the annual showdown: Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning, Super Bowl 48.5. I still believe that the Broncos and Patriots are still in a class of their own in the AFC and no team can do anything to stop either in 2014. And by this point in the calendar, the Patriots should be 7-1 and the Broncos, with the second hardest schedule in the NFL (.570 opponent winning percentage in 2013), could have several blemishes.
Denver will also be working a “mini-bye” after hosting the San Diego Chargers in Week 8. However, New England will be home with what should equate to an improved defense, led by the newly-acquired Darrelle Revis. The Patriots also haven’t lost a home game versus an AFC opponent (playoffs not included) in 30 games, when Matt Cassel was behind center. (The stat with Brady quarterbacking stretches even further, to Nov. 12, 2006, when the Eric Mangini-led Jets won 17-14 in the last game ever played on grass at Gillette Stadium, a streak of 37 games).
The Denver game represents the most challenging five-game stretch in the season and a win there would go a long toward securing home-field advantage in January. But it doesn’t stop there. Following a Week 10 bye, New England travels to play at the Indianapolis Colts, where the Colts beat powers like the Broncos and the San Francisco 49ers a year ago and should beat the Patriots. After a likely home triumph over the inconsistent Detroit Lions, the Patriots are back on the road at the Green Bay Packers and the Chargers.
Green Bay is always a stiff opponent at home and Aaron Rodgers should out-sling Brady in what will be (barring any Super Bowls) their only game against one another. After losing to Rodgers, the Patriots should bounce back under the bright lights, something they love to do after a tough loss. That should happen against a shaky San Diego team that, unless Mike McCoy has changed things, we will have no clue what to expect of come December.
By this point, I have the Patriots at 10-3 with three division foes to wrap up the season. A Week 15 game hosting the sun-baked Dolphins (give me snow!) represents no dilemmas and the season finale against Buffalo should be cake. But keep your eye on the Week 16 matchup at the Jets. I rated it as my second most important game of the Patriots’ season, for the division may not be locked up and the Jets have won three of the last five in the Meadowlands.
I do envision the Patriots winning in New York which should culminate a 13-3 season, a division championship and home field for the AFC playoffs. From there, it is Super Bowl XLIX or bust.