It's been quite an offseason for the New England Patriots. But even murder scandals and public contract disputes won't keep Tom Brady and the Pats from being the clear-cut AFC East frontrunner. And since scheduling plays a huge role in the outcome of every NFL season, Athlon is analyzing every team's 16-game slate.
New England Patriots 2013 Schedule:
Week 1: at Buffalo
Week 2: New York Jets (Thurs.)
Week 3: Tampa Bay
Week 4: at Atlanta
Week 5: at Cincinnati
Week 6: New Orleans
Week 7: at New York Jets
Week 8: Miami
Week 9: Pittsburgh
Week 10: BYE
Week 11: at Carolina (Mon.)
Week 12: Denver
Week 13: at Houston
Week 14: Cleveland
Week 15: at Miami
Week 16: at Baltimore
Week 17: Buffalo
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Out of the Gate: There should be little doubt that the Patriots will start the 2013 season 3-0. But a 4-0 first month will be difficult as New England will visit one of the NFC's best in Week 4 when it heads south to Atlanta. A 3-1 start looks like the worst possible scenario while a 4-0 first month wouldn't be far fetched at all.
Toughest Stretch: Tom Brady and his squad will face the other three projected AFC division winners over a four-game stretch. Games with Pittsburgh, Denver and at Houston will be tell-all tests in the conference that could have huge seeding implications. A road trip to take on Cam Newton mixed in makes the heart of the Pats' schedule the toughest of the year. There is good news, however, as the off weekend falls right in the middle of this run (Week 10).
Easiest Stretch: The final four weeks provide some easier games but the first three weeks of the '13 slate look about as "easy" as an NFL schedule can get. Home games with the Jets and Bucs could get ugly quickly while a road test in Buffalo could feature the NFL debuts for both the head coach (Doug Marrone) and quarterback (EJ Manuel).
Circle The Calendar: Huge AFC tests with Pittsburgh, Houston, Denver, Cincinnati and Baltimore will all carry playoff seeding import. But the date to circle will be the visit from New Orleans and Drew Brees in Week 6. Should Brady throw a touchdown in each of the first five games, he will be attempting to tie Brees' NFL record for consecutive games with a TD pass at 54... against Brees himself. Coincidence? Hard to believe.
Divisional Notes: No team in the NFL may have an easier divisional slate than the Patriots. A pair of games each with Buffalo, Miami and the New York Jets mean no team has a better shot at 6-0 in their division than New England. Two of those will come right out of the gate to start the year before back-to-back AFC East games in Weeks 7 and 8. The next two come in the final three weeks with a home game against Buffalo capping the year.
Playoff Push: The Patriots have two huge road games in December with Houston and Baltimore. But Belichick's team also will have three games in which they are likely to be heavy favorites. And since the Houston game comes in Week 13, the Pats will finish with an extremely manageable final four weeks. If a 3-1 finish is the worst possible scenario, the Pats could have a big leg up in the race for the all-important first-round bye in the AFC playoffs.
Fantasy Playoff Run (Weeks 14-16): The wide receivers have changed in New England, but they still have Tom Brady throwing to them and a fantasy playoff schedule that opens against Cleveland. The Browns were the 30th-ranked fantasy defense against WRs last season. Miami (15th) and Baltimore (17th) fared better, but Brady has impressive career statistics against the Dolphins, and the Ravens have several new faces in their secondary and, more important, no more Ed Reed.
2013 Athlon Sports NFL team-by-team schedule analysis: