Last year, the Patriots struggled against quality opponents at the beginning and end of the season but were bailed out by an easier stretch in the middle of the campaign.
Entering this season, all eyes were on a similar, allegedly “soft” portion of the schedule in Weeks 5 through 8. But that part of New England’s schedule no longer looks all that easy.
Beginning Sunday, Oct. 9, the Patriots will host the Detroit Lions, visit the Cleveland Browns, host the Chicago Bears on “Monday Night Football” and visit the New York Jets. The following three weeks will see New England host the Indianapolis Colts, enjoy their bye week and play the Jets at home.
In years past, you wouldn’t think twice about the stretch. The Patriots might suffer a random dud, but they otherwise would roll through a series of cupcake matchups.
But these aren’t Tom Brady’s Patriots. They’re Bill Belichick, Mac Jones, Matt Patricia and Joe Judge’s Patriots: mired in self-inflicted mediocrity.
Plus, some of those opponents are exceeding preseason expectations.
The Lions, with their once-mocked head coach, Dan Campbell, and quarterback Jared Goff, went toe-to-toe with the Eagles in a 38-35 Week 1 loss. Detroit’s offense looked dynamic and explosive in losing to a Philadelphia squad that some believe could be the NFC’s best. Then, last Sunday, the Lions scored 36 points in an easy win over the Washington Commanders. Running back D’Andre Swift is averaging 100 yards per game; Goff has thrown six touchdowns to one interception; second-year wideout Amon-Ra St. Brown already has 180 yards and three scores.
The Patriots, playing at home, likely will be favored in the Week 5 matchup. But don’t be surprised if the Lions give New England all it can handle — and more.
The Week 6 road game against the Browns looks even tougher.
Cleveland suffered an obviously concerning loss to the Jets in Week 2 after beating the Carolina Panthers in their season opener, but rebounded Thursday night with a convincing win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, who just gave the Patriots fits. Amari Cooper has come as advertised, Nick Chubb looks like the best running back in football and Jacoby Brissett is playing so well that some are suggesting the Browns should keep him as the starting quarterback when Deshaun Watson returns.
As for the Bears game, the Patriots should win that matchup. If they don’t, there will be bigger issues in Foxboro than whether New England has a winning record after seven games.
But the Jets game could be interesting. New York held its own against Baltimore in the first half of its season opener and beat Cleveland last weekend. If you want to go all transitive property, you could argue: Jets beating Browns plus Patriots beating Steelers by three plus Browns beating Pittsburgh by 12 equals Patriots-Jets could be close. That’s probably a stretch, but New York is talented and Joe Flacco has played well in relief of Zach Wilson.
The good news is that New England’s Week 9 opponent, the Colts, looked awful in their first two games. Indy tied the Houston Texans in Week 1 and got shut out by the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 2. The Matt Ryan experiment hasn’t worked, and it’s fair to wonder whether the Colts’ collapse late last season was about more than Carson Wentz being Carson Wentz.
The Patriots then get a home game against the Jets after enjoying their bye. So, even if they go 2-2 in Weeks 5 through 8, they should be favored in Weeks 9 and 10.
However, the uncomfortable reality is that the Patriots and their low-scoring offense could lose any of these games. Suggesting the opposite is to live in the past.
That said, the narrative could change if the Patriots beat the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday. That would leave New England at 2-1 through three games and gaining momentum ahead of its Week 4 game against the Green Bay Packers. If the Patriots somehow upset Aaron Rodgers in his home stadium, we could be talking about a red-hot team with a clear path toward the playoffs despite a harrowing final quarter of the season.
But the opposite scenario is on the table, too. Such is the reality of the post-Brady Patriots.