Scheduling is such an inexact science in that the 2000 schedule started worse than this one does.
Given that the 2000 Patriots had a supposed “last place schedule”, the NFL inflicted the poor saps with a literally guaranteed 0-4 start. Home against Tampa Bay, at the Jets, home against Minnesota, at Miami. The mighty Patriots got the Bill Belichick Era off to just the start everyone imagined, losing all four games by an aggregate count of 72-51.
Now that the Patriots are defending Super Bowl champs, they get a still-tough-but-much-easier-than-two-years-ago schedule that puts this team back into the national spotlight once again. Not that the Patriots have been slighted from primetime in past years during times of prosperity, but this year will hang the world champs out there often, and against quality opponents at each turn.
The worst-kept secret around Foxborough came true on Thursday, when the league released the 2002 schedule. CMGi Field will be inaugurated on Monday night, September 9th, 2002, in front of a national television audience. The opponent will be the Pittsburgh Steelers, a rematch of the ’01 AFC Championship Game. Ironically, the Patriots will have the unlikely distinction to be one of the competing teams for John Madden’s finale at Fox and debut at ABC. Madden joins Al Michaels for the ’02 season, and their first game will be at CMGi Field.
What promises to be a stellar christening for the new stadium might wind up a rugged dogfight for the Patriots. Of all the possible opening opponents, Pittsburgh might be the toughest test of all other than Oakland or the Jets. Despite the success the Patriots have enjoyed against Kordell Stewart and Jerome Bettis, and despite how poorly Bill Cowher seems to coach against the Patriots, the Steelers will be hell bent on revenge and spoiling the christening party. Add to that the hideous record the Patriots have on Monday Night Football, and the contest becomes perilous for the Patriots.
After just six days off, the Patriots have to head down to Exit 16-W. Week 2 of 2000 was right here in this venue, and the Jets rallied for two late touchdowns to beat the Patriots by one point. That game, incidentally, was also on MNF. The Jets will be seething at the sight of the Patriots, now world champs and one-point winners here at the Meadowlands last December. Expect a typical dogfight in this one, and expect Curtis Martin to restate his hatred for his former team sometime along the way.
The Patriots then get Kansas City at home, then head out to San Diego to play the Chargers. The Patriots have had success against both teams in these venues in recent years. From there they make their pilgrimage to south Florida and take on the Dolphins in muggy Miami. The Patriots will be favored in the first two of these contests and underdogs in the third.
The following week will present a most intriguing matchup. Green Bay comes to Foxborough for the first time since 1997. The Patriots are still waiting to exact revenge on Brett Favre for his role in Super Bowl XXXI. But all eyes will be on Terry Glenn, the newest Packer, as he makes his return to Foxborough. Expect an electric event, and expect Glenn to be showered in a hail of boos, as was the case when he made his last Foxborough Stadium appearance last December against Cleveland. That is, unless Glenn blows the game off for whatever reasons he seems to come up with for missing games, including disciplinary actions by the coach. The Patriots have a bye week following this contest.
The Patriots resume with still another meeting with the Denver Broncos, but this one will be at home. The Patriots had won two contests in a row against this tough squad until a 38-20 loss last year at Invesco Field, where Tom Brady suffered the first four interceptions of his brief but storied career. The health of Terrell Davis will likely decide this game.
Here begins the first of two tough stretches for the Patriots. They get three difficult road games at Buffalo, Chicago and Oakland. The Chicago game will be played on the University of Illinois campus in Champaign-Urbana, as Soldier Field undergoes renovation. The Oakland game will be played in a Black Hole, filled with angry Raider fans who still won’t have gotten over the Snow Bowl loss by the time October 17th rolls around. This game will be an ESPN Sunday night battle.
The Patriots come home to Minnesota, then turn around and revisit Detroit on Turkey Day for the second time in three years. After a long layoff, the Patriots come home for three of their last four contests, and all these three home games are in the division.
This is the second tough stretch, given the division factor and that two of the four games will be in primetime. They begin with Buffalo, travel down to Nashville to play the Tennessee Titans on MNF, and then end the season at home with the Jets and Dolphins. These last four games should decide the division, and every game will be a dogfight for the Patriots.
The game against the Titans will be perhaps the toughest test of the four, in that Adelphia Coliseum is murder on visitors not from Baltimore, and the game being on ABC as well. Miami will be extra tough if their run stoppers who were injured in 2001 are all back, and the Patriots seem to do better against the Jets on the road versus at home.
The most difficult element regarding any schedule, never mind the previous year’s placement, is that the Patriots are something they have never been in their history: defending champions. It is much easier being the hunter versus the hunted. Teams that disregarded the Patriots in ’01 won’t do such in ’02. Teams like Oakland and Pittsburgh will make for some bloody battles. Teams like Green Bay and Denver still provide matchup problems for the Patriots. And teams within the AFC East carry a built-in hatred from the get-go.
That said, here is a quick prospectus on how the season will play out if it all started this weekend:
Safe (but not sure or solid) bets: Kansas City, at San Diego, Minnesota, at Detroit, Buffalo, Miami.
Toughies: at Miami, Green Bay, at Oakland, at Tennessee, Jets.
Toss-ups: Pittsburgh, at Jets, Denver, at Buffalo, at Chicago.
There are some factors in which some of the toss-ups or toughies could be moved to the safe category. How hungry the team is after finally reaching the Promised Land will be something to keep an eye on, as it is always harder to stay on top than it is to get there. If the rest of the league begins to figure Tom Brady out, how he responds will be a major factor in the season. And don’t forget the injury factor, which outside of the quarterback position didn’t really play a huge role in the ’01 season, and the quarterback injury situation actually turned into a positive.
The inaugural season for CMGi will not be ignored by the nation. Expect the season opener against the Steelers to draw lots of national attention. But expect all the Patriot opponents to be sky high to play these guys, especially conquered foes from last year.
For those interested, Super Bowl XXXVII is in San Diego. The Patriots get a taste of that fair city on September 29th. Let’s hope the team has a craving for more of San Diego later on this year, and not before the Big Show.