With the New England Patriots set to kick off the 2017 NFL regular season Thursday night, I posed a question on Twitter: Which game this season will represent the biggest challenge for the Patriots, who enter Week 1 as overwhelming Super Bowl favorites?
Here were the most common responses, listed in chronological order:
Week 5 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Thursday night)
With a roster featuring the likes of Jameis Winston, Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson and Gerald McCoy, the Bucs are a trendy pick to make the playoffs in the NFC for the first time since 2007. And the Patriots have to play them on the road on short rest. Plus, weird stuff always seems to happen in these Thursday night games.
Week 7 vs. Atlanta Falcons (Sunday night)
The Super Bowl rematch. If Atlanta starts the season strong, this will be one of the most anticipated dates on the NFL calendar. If a Carolina Panthers-esque Super Bowl hangover strikes the Falcons, though, it’s easy to envision this one turning into a Patriots rout.
Week 10 at Denver Broncos (Sunday night)
The Patriots finally snapped their Denver drought last season, beating the Broncos at Mile High for the first time since 2011 and just the second time since 2003. Denver’s defense, which held New England to 16 points in that loss, remains as ferocious as ever, but the Trevor Siemian/Brock Osweiler/Paxton Lynch triumvirate under center won’t strike much fear in the Patriots’ D.
Week 11 vs. Oakland Raiders in Mexico
The Pats are expected to spend a week in Denver to stay accustomed to the altitude before heading to Mexico City. Still, Estadio Azteca’s elevation — nearly 2,000 feet higher than Mile High — could be a factor in this one. Oh, and the Patriots also will be facing a tough Raiders team that looked like a title contender last season before Derek Carr broke his leg in Week 16.
Week 14 at Miami Dolphins (Monday night)
New England has lost in three of its last four trips to Miami. If Jay Cutler replicates the success he previously had under coach Adam Gase (a big if) and Jay Ajayi doesn’t regress after a breakout 2016, the Dolphins should be in contention for another wild-card spot this season and could give the Patriots a challenge on Monday night.
Week 15 at Pittsburgh Steelers
The Patriots will cap a string of three straight road games (and five in six weeks) against a Steelers team most predict will be their toughest competition in the AFC this season. Pittsburgh’s offense has the potential to be electric this season if Ben Roethlisberger stays healthy. Its defense remains questionable, though: Is it the unit that allowed 28 total points in its first two playoff games or the one Tom Brady and Co. torched for 36 points in the conference title game?
Also receiving votes: Week 1 vs. Kansas City Chiefs, Week 2 at New Orleans Saints
Thumbnail photo via Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports Images