Are the Patriots still a compelling product on a national scale?
The NFL’s apparent answer: Eh, kinda.
The league showed its cards late last season, when the Week 15 matchup between New England and the Las Vegas Raiders was flexed out of “Sunday Night Football” and into the late-afternoon slot. Such a move seemed unfathomable at the start of the campaign, as the reunion between Josh McDaniels and Bill Belichick was viewed as one of the marquee matchups on the NFL calendar.
But the Patriots were 6-6 when the NFL made its decision, while Vegas was 5-7. So, the move ultimately didn’t surprise anyone.
And the league clearly held a similar view of New England while putting together the 2023 schedule. The Patriots’ now-official lineup includes just four primetime games: Week 2 “Sunday Night Football” vs. the Miami Dolphins; Week 14 “Thursday Night Football” at the Pittsburgh Steelers; Week 15 “Monday Night Football” vs. the Kansas City Chiefs; and a Sunday-night road matchup with the Denver Broncos in Week 16.
And, no, the Week 10 “home” game against Indianapolis Colts in Frankfurt, Germany, doesn’t count. That game will be played at 9:30 a.m. ET and broadcast on NFL Network.
New England’s number of primetime games (six other teams have four primetime dates) ranks middle of the road in the NFL. In total, 11 teams have more primetime games — seven with five; four with six.
However, as pointed out by ESPN’s Mike Reiss, the number could shrink. The games against the Broncos (also on NFL Network) and Chiefs are eligible to be flexed out of primetime slots, as the Raiders matchup was last season. Of course, the Patriots also could be flexed into primetime games if the NFL eventually decides any of their matchups are worthy.
None of this is to say that New England suddenly is irrelevant because it only has four primetime games. But it’s keeping with a trend in the post-Tom Brady era, a trend that seemingly ended a year ago when the Patriots were given five primetime games, including four in a row.
Here’s a recap of primetime games assigned to the Patriots upon initial schedule announcements in recent years. Note: The NFL expanded to a 13-game Thursday night schedule in 2012 before expanding further to 16 games in 2014.
At the end of the day, neither the coaches nor the players should care much about this, even though we could see Bill Belichick using it to create motivation. And the fans care more about the Patriots winning their first playoff game since Super Bowl LIII than they do dates and times for regular season contests.
But make no mistake: This is a big deal to the Krafts, especially Robert Kraft, who’s played a huge role in negotiating TV deals over the years. The Patriots were arguably the most compelling and relevant North American sports franchise for nearly two decades, and now they’re the least interesting team in their own division if you discount all the off-field drama.
The good news: Winning cures everything, and you could make a case that New England currently is underrated. If Mac Jones takes a needed year 3 leap and Bill O’Brien cures the dysfunction on offense, the Patriots will force themselves back into the national conversation — for the right reasons.