Sizing up the Patriots schedule

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Sizing up the Patriots schedule

If you haven't heard, the Patriots, at least on paper, have the NFL's easiest schedule this year. For example, their 2012 opponents had a combined .453 winning percentage in 2011. Only four of them (Texans, 49ers, Ravens and Titans) had more than eight wins.

The schedule looks so easy, in fact, that some folks around here are already dreaming of an undefeated season.

I won't go there yet, but I will take a closer look at the Pats 16 games, and offer up a few predictions:

Here we go:

Week 1: New England at Tennessee

History: The Titans moved to Tennessee from Houston in 1997, and since then theyre 1-5 against the Pats. New Englands won four straight in the series since 2003, including the last two by a combined score of 99-23. Although, its worth noting that Tennessees undefeated against the Pats under second-year coach Mike Munchak.

Question: Is Chris Johnson back?

If its all on Jake Locker to beat the Pats on Sunday, then the Pats will not be beat. Therefore, its up to the former CJ2K, aka CJ15carriesfor55yardsandnoTDs, to disrupt the Pats game plan and take the pressure off his rookie. Johnson was impressive in his one career game against the Pats, rushing for 128 yards on 17 carries. However, the performance was somewhat offset by the fact that his Titans lost the game 59-0.

Prediction: Chandler Jones picks up two sacks in his NFL debut, the second of which forces a fumble that seals the Pats 24-14 victory. On the replay, Phil Simms remarks: Ill tell you what, Jim Nantz. Jones really put Jake in the Hurt . . . Locker! followed by 15 seconds of whats best described as country club laughter.

Week 2: Arizona at New England

History: On September 29, 1991, quarterback Tom Tupa threw for 312 yards and three touchdowns in the Phoenix Cardinals 24-10 victory over Dick MacPhersons Pats. In the nearly 21 years since, the two franchises have played five times, and the Pats have won every time the last four games by a combined 128-22.

Question: Can the Pats stop Larry Fitzgerald?

If historys any indicator, then yes. In two career games against the Pats, the six-time Pro Bowler has a combined eight catches for 137 yards and a TD. (And its worth noting that 77 yards of that and the one TD came in the fourth quarter of a 47-7 loss when I believe Jonathan Kraft was in at cornerback). Although on the flip side, Fitzgeralds first game against the Pats was only the second game of his career.

Prediction: Fitzgerald finally gets the best of the Pats, to the tune of 11 catches for 145 yards and two touchdowns. Final Score: Pats, 42-14.

Week 3: New England at Baltimore

History: On October 9, 1983, the Pats dropped a 12-7 decision to the Baltimore Colts. It was a crushing defeat, but more importantly, it marks the last time that New England has lost a regular season game to Baltimore. Thats right, theyre 6-0 against the Ravens since the recently-late Art Modell snatched them up from Cleveland.

Question: Can we get a Ray Rice repeat?

Slightly lost in the commotion over last years AFC Championship, Sterling Moores deflectionLee Evans drop and Billy Cundiffs missed chip shot, is the fact that the Pats completely neutralized Rice (21 carries for 67 yardsone catch for 11 yards). Thank God Joe Flacco outplayed Tom Brady that day or the Ravens really would have been screwed.

Prediction: Its a game filled of heartbreak (Bernard Pollard will end at least two Patriots seasons) and controversy (Terrell Suggs will be arrested at halftime when hes caught stealing a pair of used underwear from Tom Bradys locker). But ultimately, New England will prevail. Final Score: 23-20.

Week 4: New England at Buffalo

History: Since Week 1 of the 2004 season (aka Bledsoes Revenge) the Pats are 16-1 against the Bills, with the only loss coming at home in Week 2 of last season. Although, in Buffalos defense . . . nah, theres no defense.

Question: Are the Bills finally for real?

Well know much more by the time Week 4 rolls around granted their at Jets, vs. KC, at Cleveland schedule isnt very daunting but for now, this road game in Buffalo looks to be the Pats most challenging division game of the year.

Prediction: Mario Williams picks up two sacks, the second of which forces a fumble that seals the Bills 31-27 victory. On the replay, Dan Dierdorf remarks: Ill tell you what, Greg Gumbel. Jones really put Tom in the Hurt . . . Locker! followed by 15 seconds of whats best described as awkward silence. Says Dierdorf afterwards: What the hell? It worked for Simms.

Week 5: Denver at New England

History: The last time Peyton Manning played against the Pats? That would be November 21, 2010, in a 31-27 loss at Gillette Stadium. No. 18 threw for 396 yards , four touchdowns and three interceptions.

Quick quiz: I will pay the equivalent of Mannings Broncos signing bonus to anyone who can name the three receivers Peyton connected with in the end zone

Answer: Reggie Wayne, Blair White and the immortal Gijon Robinson.

(It was the first and only score of Honey Gijons career.)

Question: Does Peyton still have it?

At this point, Im definitely a Peyton doubter. Then again, most of that doubt stems from a conversation I had with a chiropractor. Hes a friend of mine who claims that Peytons neck issues are going to mess with his circulation, screw with his grip on the ball and reek all sort of havoc on his accuracy. Perhaps thats not the most scientific explanation, but it made a lot of sense in the moment, and leaves me with tempered expectations for Manning in Denver.

Of course, everythings relative. Im not saying that hell be the second coming of Bubby Brister. But his days as a Top 5 NFL quarterback are long gone.

Prediction: Manning continues historic resurgence with a 350 yards and three touchdown performance, as I scramble to track down and edit everything Ive written on this page. On the bright side, the Pats still win the game, 34-24, thanks in large part to Bill Belichick having Von Miller detained at T.F. Green Airport.

Week 6: New England at Seattle

History: The Pats have only played Seattle twice since 1993, and came out on top in both games. Before that, New England had lost five straight to Seattle (dating back to the days of Raymond Berry and Chuck Knoll) but still leads the all-time series 8-7. Also, Seattle is located in the Pacific Northwest.

Question: Are we ready for Russell Wilson?

We better be. The kid's Doug Flutie 2.0.

not sure if he also still brings his glove to baseball games.

Prediction: In the postgame locker room, a jubilant Pete Carroll greets every Seahawks player with an explosive high five, an authoritative butt slap and a smile. Im so proud of you, Carroll says. That was just so much fun out there today! Final score: Pats 34, Seahawks 16.

Week 7: N.Y. Jets at New England

History: You want tight? The Pats lead the all-time series with the Jets: 53-52-1. You want tighter? Picture Rex Ryan in a body stocking. (Damn, that worked much better pre-weight loss. And we're way past funny on feet jokes. Come on, Rex. Help us out.)

Question: Who will be the Jets quarterback?

If its not Tim Tebow, then hes either injured or the world has exploded. You really think that Sanchez will survive games against Pittsburgh, Houston and San Francisco? No way. The Jets will lose, the controversy overflow and they'll have to give Tebow a shot. If not by now, then right now.

The Prediction: "It's games like this that make me realize just how close we really are to getting back to the playoffs and winning the whole damn thing." - Rex Ryan, after New York's 30-13 loss.

Week 8: New England vs. St. Louis (in London)

History: On November 18, 2001, the Pats hosted the Rams on Sunday Night Football, and lost a tough 24-17 decision. However, they wouldn't lose another game all season, and haven't lost to the Rams again since. The Pats lead the all-time series against ClevelandLASt. Louis Rams 6-5.

Question: Can Steven Jackson get some love?

Back in 2004, Jackson was drafted by a very promising Rams franchise, had the opportunity to learn under Marshall Faulk and made the playoffs as a rookie. In the seven years since? Nada. The Rams have finished 6-10, 8-8, 3-13, 2-14, 1-15, 7-9 and 2-14. They're also on their sixth head coach. Meanwhile, Jackson's been there all along, getting his ass-kicked in anonymity. He turns 30 next summer. How about one more trip to the playoffs before he's got nothing left?

Prediction: Yo soy a spot of tea. Rob Gronkowski goes global with an eight-catch144-yardthree-touchdown performance in the Pats 35-7 victory. Asked how he plans to celebrate, Gronk replies: "Thinking about tryin' to get into that Pippa chick."

Week 9: BYE
Week 10: Buffalo at New England

More History: The Pats lost nine straight games to Buffalo between 1971-75. They lost 11 of 13 from 1988-1994. Still, they lead the all-time series 62-41-1.

Another question: Which way will Stevie Johnson go?

He's perpetually teetering on the edge of stardom and diva disaster, but now that he's got his money it has to go one way or the other. If he doesn't perform, no one will have patience. And if that's the case, Johnson seems more likely to blame God than keep his act together.

Prediction: No way the Pats gets swept by Buffalo. Pats 35, Bills 0.

Week 11: Indianapolis at New England
History: Peyton Manning made his Foxboro debut on September 13, 1998, in a 29-6 loss. On November 18, 2012, a new era of Colts football arrives at Gillette. In all, and this includes the year Manning missed and the year Brady missed, the Pats were 13-7 against Indianapolis in the Manning Era. 3-1 in the playoffs.

Question: How long will it take?

Peyton took the Colts from 3-13 his rookie season to 13-3 in year two. Then again, Peyton had Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James and Bill Polian leading the charge. All Andrew Luck has is his college tight end and the sweet sounds of John Cougar Mellencamp blasting from his owner's suite.

Prediction: Luck has a respectable first date with Bill Belichick, throwing for 230 yards, two touchdowns and a pick. But Tom Brady shows the rookie who's the boss with 350 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions in the Pats 42-17 win. After the game, Tony Dungy tells a national audience: "You know, I think Luck is ready to take the torch from Brady right now." Followed by Rodney Harrison snapping and punching Dungy in the face.

Week 12: New England at N.Y. Jets

More History: As you know, Brady first arrived on the scene against the Jets on September 23, 2001. The Pats lost that game 10-3, but since then Brady's gone 17-5 against the Jets. He's also never lost consecutive games in the rivalry.

Another Question: Is this it for Rex?

Yup. He's under contract through 2014, but he's coaching for his job. Especially since, with the way things are set up with this team, it's either going to go very well or unspeakably bad. I know where my money is.

Prediction: "First of all, I'd just like to thank my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ." - Tim Tebow, during his post game press conference. "Hey, no problem, buddy." - Tom Brady, walking by after his 400 yards, four touchdown performance. Final Score: Pats 35, Jets 21.

Week 13: New England at Miami

History: On October 7, 2001, Tom Brady took the field in Miami for the second start of his NFL career. He walked off a 30-10 loser, and his numbers were indicative of the score: 12-24 for 86 yards. But since that beating, the Pats are 15-6 against the Dolphins. (Although, four of the six losses have come in South Beach).

Question: What gives?

We have to wait 13 weeks for a game against Miami? Never thought Id see the year when the Celtics would the play the Heat before the Patriots played the Dolphins. (Just kidding, Ive never considered that scenario before in my life)

Prediction: Before the game, a confident Ryan Tannehill informs reporters that theyre about to witness: The biggest upset in the NFC South history. Final Score: Pats win, 29-13.

Week 14: Houston at New England

History: This will be the fourth ever meeting between the two teams. The Pats currently lead the series 2-1. Houston's one win came on January 3, 2010, in a game that didn't matter except that it cost the Pats Wes Welker and ruined their season. No big deal.

Question: Who's still standing?

You know that Arian Foster and Andre Johnson are good to miss at least a few games this season. Put Matt Schaub down for a handful, as well. And when you consider that there's a good chance the Texans will run away with the South even faster than the Pats close out the East, you have to wonder who will be suiting up for Houston.

Prediction: I'm going to say that they all suit up, and the Pats lose in a shoot-out, 37-34. "The Texans are the team to beat!" screams everyone in the world, as Belichick laughs maniacally in his office. "Yes. YEESSS! It's all going to plan."

Week 15: San Francisco at New England

History: The last time New England lost to the San Francisco was September 17, 1995. So long ago that the Pats kicker on that afternoon, was Matt Bahr . . . whos now 56 years old. The Pats have won the three meetings since, but are still only 4-7 all-time against the 49ers.

On that note, how weird is it that the Pats and 49ers have only played 11 times throughout their entire history? I mean, I get that theyre in the NFC and all, but the Cowboys are in the NFC too and theyve played the Pats . . . 11 times. Damn it.

Question: Are the Niners built to last?

It depends how much you believe in Alex Smith. While on one hand, he looked like the real deal during last year's fantastic run (especially in that playoff win over New Orleans). At the same time, it was interesting how willing Jim Harbaugh was to throw Smith on the junk pile when Peyton Manning became available.

How much can you believe in a guy if you'd rather send him packing in favor of taking a chance on a 36-year-old quarterback fresh off multiple career-threatening neck surgeries?

Prediction: I smell a big game for Randy Moss! Too bad hell be playing for Arena Leagues SanJose SaberCats. Prediction: Pats, 21-14.

Week 16: New England at Jacksonville

History: The Jaguars beat New England in the first round of the 1998 playoffs, but thats their only win against the Pats in nine tries. Because of math, that means Jacksonville (much like the Ravens) has never beaten New England in the regular season. You also know that this is very unlikely to change in Week 16.

Question: But what if no one plays?

Week 16, right? Theres a pretty good chance that the Pats are in a position to rest some players, meanwhile the Jaguars have a first year coach, a second-year quarterback and a rookie wide receiver who will be treating every game like its the Super Bowl.

Prediction: With the division wrapped up and a first-round bye locked down, Bill Belichick rests his starters and lets the second-unit challenge the Jags. Final score: Pats 17, Jaguars 7.

Week 17: Miami at New England

More History: This will be the 95th all-time meeting between the two teams. Miami currently leads the series 50-43.

Another Question: How cruelinsane is it to hand the keys to a rookie quarterback when you don't have any receivers?

Starting Tannehill might be the greatest mismanagement of a rookie since the Wizards left Kwame Brown alone with Michael Jordan.

Prediction: "Yeah, yeah. Whatever. I was obviously joking last time. Everyone knows that the Pats left the NFC in 1995." - Ryan Tannehill. Final Score: Dolphins 21, Pats Scrubs 17.

Final record: 13-3

Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine

Brady-Ryan marks rare case of NFL's top two quarterbacks meeting in Super Bowl

Brady-Ryan marks rare case of NFL's top two quarterbacks meeting in Super Bowl

For all the flack that Matt Ryan got heading into this season, he’s been a damn good quarterback. Is his career on the same level as Tom Brady’s? Of course not, but this regular season saw him stand as Brady’s peer, making him an MVP favorite.

One of Ryan’s biggest challengers for that hardware is the same man who stands in the way of him winning his first Super Bowl. Though he missed the first four games of the season due to suspension, Brady finished second in the league in passing yards per game and threw just two picks in 12 games while tossing 28 touchdowns.  

So Super Bowl LI will pin the quarterback with the best numbers overall (Ryan finished two touchdowns behind Aaron Rodgers for the league lead but threw for 516 more yards and had a higher completion percentage) against the quarterback with the best touchdown/interception ratio ever for a single season. 

In other words, this is a Super Bowl that puts what one could argue are the season’s two best quarterbacks each other. That’s pretty rare. 

Going back the last 25 years, there are four candidates for such meetings: Manning vs. Brees in Super Bowl XLIV, Favre and Elway in Super Bowl XXXII (this one is a stretch), Favre and Bledsoe in Super Bowl XXXI and Kelly and Rypien in Super Bowl XXVI.. 

Why haven’t the two best quarterbacks squared off in the Super Bowl more often? Because Brady and Peyton Manning played their entire careers in the same conference, silly. It’s taken other players entering their echelon to even set up such a scenario, and that’s why Brees’ Saints beating Manning’s Colts serves as the only example during Manning or Brady’s career. 

The strong performances of those who dominated the regular season have often carried over into their Super Bowl meetings, but not always. Drew Bledsoe and Jim Kelly (both throwing two touchdowns and four picks in Super Bowl losses) are examples of the wheels falling off in the final game. 

Here’s a breakdown of past occurrences. Note that all four of them saw the winning team score at least 30 points, something the Pats have done just once in Brady's four Super Bowl wins: 

Super Bowl XLIV: Brees vs. Manning

Brees led NFL with 34 touchdowns in regular season; Manning finished tied for second with 33

Final score: Saints 31, Colts 17

Brees: 32/39, 288 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
Manning: 31/45, 333 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT

Brees completed a postseason in which he had no turnovers and did so in a nearly exactly average game for him that season, as e averaged 292.5 yards, 2.26 touchdowns and less than one interception per game in the regular season. The two quarterbacks also combined for just one sack. 
 
Super Bowl XXXII: Favre vs. Elway

Favre led NFL with 35 TDs in regular season, Elway finished second in TD/interception ratio

Final score: Broncos 31, Packers 24

Favre: 25/42, 256 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT, fumble lost 
Elway: 12/22, 123 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT

Again, this is the forced one because Jeff George (3,917 passing yards, 29 touchdowns, nine interceptions) had the better regular season than Elway (3,635 passing yards, 27 touchdowns, 11 picks). Elway may have been the winning quarterback, but he didn’t have anything to do with the win. Terrell Davis carried the Broncos, playing through a migraine and rushing for 157 yards with three touchdowns en route to Super Bowl MVP honors. 

Super Bowl XXXI: Favre vs. Bledsoe

Favre led NFL with 39 TDs, Bledsoe third with 27

Final Score: Packers 35, Patriots 21

Favre: 14/27, 246 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
Bledsoe: 25/48, 253 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT

Both quarterbacks took five sacks in this game. For Bledsoe, it was the most he took all season. The game was the third four-pick performance of his NFL career. 

Super Bowl XXVI: Kelly vs. Rypien

Kelly led NFL with 33 TDs, Rypien second with 28

Final score: Redskins 37, Bills 24

Rypien: 18/33, 292 yards, 2 TD, INT
Kelly: 28/58, 275 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT, fumble lost

Turns out five turnovers (and being sacked four times) is not a recipe for winning the Super Bowl. Kelly’s 58 passes thrown set a Super Bowl record.
 

Dimitroff, Pioli the first Belichick defectors to lead new team to Super Bowl

Dimitroff, Pioli the first Belichick defectors to lead new team to Super Bowl

Working for the Patriots makes you attractive to other teams. Many have left, but Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli are finally showing that major success can be attained in the process. 

Dimitroff and Pioli have built a team in Atlanta that will play for the franchise’s first Super Bowl title on Feb. 5. While many have been hired away from Bill Belichick's Patriots to lead other organizations, Dimitroff is the first of the defectors to get to the Super Bowl on his own. Adding an old friend in Pioli has played a part in that. 

Dimitroff served as New England’s director of college scouting from 2003 through 2007 before becoming Atlanta’s general manager in 2008. He hired Pioli in 2014 as an assistant GM after the longtime Patriots director and vice president of player personnel had a messy stint as the Chiefs’ GM. 

Executives and coaches (even Field Yates; yes, the fair-haired boy from the television) leaving the Patriots for better positions with other organizations has been common, but with the new positions have often come diminished success compared to New England. 

Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Bill O’Brien, Charlie Weis (in his brief return to the NFL in 2010) and Josh McDaniels make up the list of coordinators who have left winning with the Patriots to experience a dropoff without Brady and Belichick. John Robinson (Titans), Jason Licht (Buccaneers) and Bob Quinn (Lions) currently serve as GMs elsewhere, while former Pats secondary coach Joe Collier works with Dimitroff and Pioli as the Falcons’ director of pro personnel. 

It’s only fitting that Dimitroff and Pioli will have to go through Belichick in order to secure a title on their own. Winning without Belichick has proven hard enough for his former colleagues; winning against him will be even harder.