After another offseason spent focusing on air pressure and court documents, the New England Patriots are, at long last, ready to get back to the business of playing meaningful football.
With that in mind — and with the Patriots’ regular-season opener mere days away — let’s take a look at the most notable storylines surrounding each game on New England’s 2016 schedule. (All times Eastern.)
Week 1 at Arizona Cardinals (Sunday, 8:30 p.m.)
This battle between last season’s conference runner-ups would be a marquee matchup even if Tom Brady hadn’t been suspended for the first four games of the season. The Jimmy Garoppolo factor adds a whole new layer of intrigue. It also feature the Patriots debuts of Martellus Bennett, Chris Hogan, Chris Long and others, and will be Chandler Jones’ first game against his old team. Yeah, this’ll be a fun one.
Week 2 vs. Miami Dolphins (Sunday, 1 p.m.)
Garoppolo’s first start at Gillette Stadium, with a larger-than-life Brady literally staring over his shoulder. This game takes on much greater importance if the Patriots can’t pull the upset in Week 1.
Week 3 vs. Houston Texans (Thursday, 8:25 p.m.)
Brock Osweiler recently inked a massive contract after filling in for a legendary quarterback for part of one season. Could a similar payday be in Garoppolo’s future? Both of these teams also have great defenses, and weird stuff always tends to happen in these Thursday night games.
Week 4 vs. Buffalo Bills (Sunday, 1 p.m.)
Rex Ryan likely is coaching for his job this season, and you know beating the Patriots in Foxboro is right at the top of his list of priorities. Prediction: The Bills win in a squeaker in the final game of Garoppolo’s cameo, and Ryan promptly guarantees they will win the Super Bowl.
Week 5 at Cleveland Browns (Sunday, 1 p.m.)
Is anything interesting happening this week? Not really, right? Oh yeah, Brady returns from his suspension, and he’ll surely look to unleash a month’s worth of fury on every member of the Browns’ defense. Rob Ninkovich also should return for this one, and from a Cleveland perspective, currently suspended receiver Josh Gordon will be eligible to play for the first time since Dec. 21, 2014.
Week 6 vs. Cincinnati Bengals (Sunday, 1 p.m.)
Heard of one Patriots season-ticket holder selling his seats and parking pass for this game — Brady’s first back at Gillette following his suspension — for close to $4,000. The Bengals won the AFC North last season but have had little success in Foxboro, losing 43-17 in their most recent trip there in 2014.
Week 7 at Pittsburgh Steelers (Sunday, 4:25 p.m.)
Two Super Bowl hopefuls squaring off in the Steel City. Pittsburgh’s explosive offense — which should have running back Le’Veon Bell back by this point — against New England’s defense, which has the potential to be the best Bill Belichick’s fielded in years.
Week 8 at Buffalo Bills (Sunday, 1 p.m.)
The Patriots haven’t lost in Buffalo since 2011 and have done so just once since 2003.
Week 9: Bye
Week 10 vs. Seattle Seahawks (Sunday, 8:30 p.m.)
Before the announcement of Brady’s Deflategate ban jacked up prices for Week 5, this was the toughest ticket in town. And for good reason: These teams squared off in one of the greatest Super Bowls of all time less than two years ago, and many key players from that classic — Brady, Russell Wilson, Malcolm Butler, Richard Sherman, etc. — should be playing in this game, as well.
Week 11 at San Francisco 49ers (Sunday, 4:25 p.m.)
Brady gets to play in his native Bay Area for the first time in his NFL career. He was injured when the Patriots traveled there in 2008.
Week 12 at New York Jets (Sunday, 8:30 p.m.)
The Patriots have to wait until Thanksgiving weekend for their first matchup with the Jets, who finished just two games back of them in the AFC East standings last season and have intentions of snapping New England’s streak of seven consecutive division titles. No team has played the Patriots closer than the Jets have in recent years, with each of the teams’ last six meetings being decided by seven points or fewer.
Week 13 vs. Los Angeles Rams (Sunday, 1 p.m.)
Reunion weekend for Chris Long, who spent eight seasons with the then-St. Louis Rams before signing with the Patriots earlier this year.
Week 14 vs. Baltimore Ravens (Monday, 8:30 p.m.)
Baltimore stunk last season, but enough players remain from those heated Pats-Ravens playoff showdowns — not to mention both head coaches — that this will be must-watch TV regardless of each team’s record.
Week 15 at Denver Broncos (Sunday, 4:25 p.m.)
Denver’s defense ate Brady alive in last year’s AFC Championship Game. Will we see a repeat of that? The result of this game also could go a long way toward determining playoff positioning in the AFC.
Week 16 vs. New York Jets (Saturday, 1 p.m.)
A hugely important divisional game on Christmas Eve. The Jets beat the Patriots in Week 16 last season after Matthew Slater’s coin flip fiasco.
Week 17 at Miami Dolphins (Sunday, 1 p.m.)
Last year’s Week 17 Patriots-Dolphins tilt might have been the most boring game of the 2015 season. The entertainment value of this one likely will depend on the distance — or lack thereof — between New England and rest of the AFC East in the standings.
Thumbnail photo via Ed Mulholland/USA TODAY Sports Images