The New England Patriots are preparing for the 2013 season as training camp and the preseason have ended. The 53 man roster is set (for now) and although head coach Bill Belichick has his squad focused only on week one and the Buffalo Bills, anyone not in the employ of the New England football team can look ahead without fear of the icy glare of Belichick silencing their long-term view.
Every season, the media starts to predict the downfall of the New England Patriots as players allowed to leave in free agency, let go, or young players not stepping up sets off a maelstrom of excitement as the fans in the New York/New Jersey area, Southern Florida, and upstate New York dreaming of an AFC East title.
This season was no different, as the Miami Dolphins took the crown from last season’s media darlings, the Buffalo Bills, after an offseason of churning through the roster and signing many big name and high cost free agents.
Like last season when the national media proclaimed Buffalo as the squad to knock off the annoyingly consistently excellent New England Patriots, this year much has been written of the resurgence of the Dolphins from the depths of the AFC East.
This season the Patriots face another tough test as the NFL schedule makers pack their matchups with quality teams. Although the NFL manages strength of schedule by having teams play against their counterparts in other divisions based on order of finish, there are also divisional matchups which rotate throughout the league each year. After a tough matchup against the strong NFC West last season which saw the Patriots lose three games to that division, New England faces the very strong NFC South this year. With that in mind, here follows a preview of the five top matchups for the 2013 New England Patriots:
Week 4 at Atlanta Falcons:
The Atlanta Falcons are a solid Super Bowl contender coming out of the NFC. The New England Patriots have to travel to the extremely loud Georgia Dome where the football crazy fans will be hyped to welcome quarterback Tom Brady and company to their intimidating home. This figures to be a tough road matchup as the Patriots offense is heading inside a dome to play a very strong defense headed by creative defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. Defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux is a test for any offensive line, and bringing in defensive end Osi Umenyiora negates any pass rush drop-off after John Abraham left as free agent. Add in quarterback Matt Ryan and the rest of their explosive offense, and this could be a Super Bowl preview. With the signing of running back Steven Jackson to replace an aging and slowing Michael Turner, the Falcons will challenge the Patriots defense with a strong running game to add to their explosive big play wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones. If that is not enough, the Falcons bring back star tight end Tony Gonzalez. This is a matchup of two NFL heavyweights and figures to be a great game for NBC on their Sunday night game.
Week 5 at Cincinnati Bengals:
The schedule makers had a laugh putting back-to-back road games against 2012 playoff teams on the calendar for the New England Patriots. The Bengals see themselves as a legitimate contender in the AFC this season and fans hope this is the season they finally get past the world champion Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC North. With a superb young quarterback in Andy Dalton and superstar wide receiver AJ Green, the team was missing only a strong running game to complete their explosive offense. This offseason, the Bengals added explosive running back Giovani Bernard to the offense in the draft, and the offense should be explosive now in all phases behind their stout offensive line. The Bengals also have a strong defense anchored by the best defensive player in the NFL last season, defensive tackle Geno Atkins. The Patriots interior offensive line of center Ryan Wendell and guards Dan Connolly and Logan Mankins will have their work cut out for them attempting to keep Atkins off of quarterback Tom Brady and the running backs. This game figures to be a battle of the AFC heavyweights and big scoring offenses and a tough test for the Patriots.
Week 6 vs. New Orleans Saints:
Atlanta, Cincinnati and New Orleans makes for an intense early season three game stretch for the New England Patriots. For the NFL, it is showcase game for their Fox television partner as they feature two of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, Tom Brady of the Patriots and Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints. The Saints are playing with a chip on their shoulder after having head coach Sean Payton back on the sidelines after a one season suspension. Fortunately for New England, the Patriots are back at Foxboro, MA and not travelling to the Big Easy as they take on Drew Brees and the high octane New Orleans Saints offense. The Saints, as always, should prove to be a handful on offense, as Payton’s play calling and game planning are second to none on the offensive side of the ball. Although their defensive play is up in the air after a rough season last year, expect former Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to make an immediate impact on that squad. On offense, New Orleans has a dynamic tight end in Jimmy Graham who could give the Patriots linebackers and safeties more than they can handle. After tough road tests against Cincinnati and Atlanta, this game should make for a third straight playoff caliber team and entertaining matchup for the fans.
Week 12 vs. Denver Broncos:
Ho-hum: another year, another quarterback Tom Brady against quarterback Peyton Manning spectacle, this time on a fall day in late November on NBC. Add in the return of wide receiver Wes Welker to New England, and this primetime Sunday night game should have the feel of a playoff game in chilly Foxboro, MA. Expect Denver quarterback Peyton Manning to be extra motivated to square off in a chess match with head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. With both teams expected to be among the favorites to make the playoffs this season, expect this game to be important to both teams if not for bragging rights but for tiebreakers and playoff seeding. In the end, the game could come down to which defense steps up and makes the big play to swing momentum and the game. Expect New England tackles Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder to have their hands full with the explosive Denver linebacker Von Miller. It should be a close game, and like any matchup of future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, it should be high quality entertainment.
Week 16 at Baltimore Ravens:
For the last two seasons, New England has played the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship game, winning in 2011 and losing last season. A December Sunday night in Baltimore screams playoff football, and once again NBC executives must be rubbing their hands together in excitement thinking of the ratings a rematch between these squads will result in. Baltimore will be highly motivated at home and likely be in need of a victory with what could be a three way race in the AFC North between the Ravens, the much improved Cincinnati Bengals and the likely resurgent Pittsburgh Steelers. The Ravens defense lost all-time great middle linebacker Ray Lewis to retirement, safety Ed Reed to Houston in free agency, safety Bernard Pollard to Tennessee in free agency, middle linebacker Dannell Ellerbe to Miami in free agency, and pass rushing specialist Paul Kruger to Cleveland in free agency. Despite these losses, general manager Ozzie Newsome has restocked the shelves and the Ravens look to again have an even younger and more aggressive defense to attack NFL offenses in 2013. The Ravens resigned last season’s breakout star quarterback Joe Flacco, and although he lost two of his top weapons in slot receiver Anquan Boldin (via free agency to San Francisco) and emerging tight end Dennis Pitta (to a hip injury), but top wide receivers Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones are both dangerous weapons who take advantage of Flacco’s strong arm and lead to quick scoring strikes. Also the Ravens still have their strong running game, which is now a two-headed monster with young Bernard Pierce stealing carries from an aging, but still effective, Ray Rice, and with their strong offensive line intact, the Ravens will continue to be a tough matchup for New England, especially at home in M&T Bank Stadium.
Other games of interest in 2013 beyond the divisional rivals–although facing Miami for the first time in week eight may be a fascinating matchup–include a look at former New York Jets and long-time nemesis of quarterback Tom Brady cornerback Darrelle Revis in week three when the Patriots host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Pittsburgh Steelers, who come to New England in week nine, is always an entertaining matchup. Week eleven following the Patriots bye week features the electric young quarterback of the Carolina Panthers, Cam Newton. Finally, week thirteen features a squad with revenge on their mind, the Houston Texans, as the Patriots whipped them soundly twice last season, including knocking them out of the playoffs.
Despite the turnover of the pass receivers on offense this season, the New England Patriots still have a strong offense and remain exciting to watch with quarterback Tom Brady behind the center and head coach Bill Belichick on the sidelines. With a young defense and some continuity in the defensive secondary, the Patriots defense could take a big step forward behind second year defensive end Chandler Jones and a stout front seven. Whether the Patriots streak to the division, fall short in making the playoffs, make another run at 16-0, or find themselves in the big game in February 2014, there are certainly a number of entertaining and exciting matchups to look forward to on the schedule.