A Patriots season that began with promise and prompted some predictions of a 16-0 regular season has reached its midpoint. After thrashing the Rams in London’s Wembley Stadium on Sunday, the team has its league-mandated bye this week.
Eight weeks in, it’s been a season full of suspense (one overtime game, three others decided in the final minute), surprise (anyone think Stevan Ridley would be leading the AFC in rushing?), and success.
The Patriots (5-3) are exactly where most thought they’d be – atop the AFC East standings, on pace for their 10th division title in 12 seasons. Barring a second-half slip or an injury to key personnel, they’ll be expected to qualify for the playoffs for the fourth straight year, with the goal of playing in the Super Bowl in back-to-back seasons.
Naysayers will point to the defense, the big plays given up, or the team’s struggles in close games and in the fourth quarter. Fair points. But coming off a 45-7 win against the Rams, the Patriots have an extra week to get healthy and plan for the second half. They’ll hope the momentum carries over.
The upcoming schedule, on paper, figures to be tougher.
The first eight Patriots’ opponents have a combined record of 29-32, with just three – Arizona (4-4 after Monday night’s loss), Baltimore (5-2), and Denver (4-3) – owning winning records before Monday night’s game. The Patriots lost two of those three games, including the only home loss of the season, to the Cardinals.
Fortunately for the Patriots, five of their remaining eight games are at Gillette Stadium, including what might be the toughest two-week stretch of the season. The Patriots host the Houston Texans and San Francisco 49ers in a six-day stretch, a pair of prime-time games in mid-December that could serve as a playoff preview — or damage the home team’s postseason hopes.
Bolstered by the Texans (6-1) and 49ers (6-2), the remaining eight opponents have a combined record of 31-27. More than half the games, though, will be against teams currently .500 or better: Two against Miami, plus games against Indianapolis, Houston, and San Francisco.
A preview of the Patriots’ second-half schedule:
Week 10: vs. Buffalo (Nov. 11, 1 p.m.)
The Patriots already hung 52 points on the Bills in a Week 4 rout, and have never lost to Buffalo at Gillette Stadium. The last time the Bills beat the Patriots away from Buffalo was Nov. 5, 2000, in overtime. The Patriots have owned them since, going 22-2.
Week 11: vs. Indianapolis (Nov. 18, 1 p.m.)
One of the surprises in the NFL this season would be the Colts, who already have doubled their win total from last year’s 2-14 debacle. No more Peyton Manning, but Colts fans quickly have warmed to rookie Andrew Luck, the No. 1 overall draft pick from Stanford who has thrown for 1,971 yards with eight touchdowns and eight interceptions.
Week 12: at New York Jets (Nov. 22, 8:20 p.m.)
After you finish your feast, save a slice of pumpkin pie and plop down on the couch for this prime-time Thanksgiving rematch from two weeks ago, when the teams needed overtime before the Patriots won, 29-26. The Jets are struggling, losers of two straight and sit last in the division. But they’re 4-5 against the Patriots in the past nine meetings (despite losing three straight), and get this one at home. Maybe by then there won’t be a quarterback controversy in New York.
Week 13: at Miami (Dec. 2, 1 p.m.)
A quirk in the schedule won’t see the Patriots and Dolphins meet for the first of two times until Week 13, in (hopefully) sunny, warm Miami. The Dolphins also have been a surprise, using a rookie quarterback (Ryan Tannehill) and a stout defense to string together three straight wins to reach 4-3. No team in the AFC has allowed fewer than Miami’s 126 points. The Patriots have won four straight in the series, including two lopsided wins (41-14, 38-24) near South Beach the last two seasons.
Week 14: vs. Houston (Dec. 10, 8:30 p.m.)
The best team, at least record-wise, in the AFC lives in Texas and will visit Gillette on “Monday Night Football.” Arian Foster (659) is right behind Ridley in AFC rushing yardage, and the Texans’ front four might be the best in the NFL. Plenty of Patriots fans probably still cringe when thinking about the Texans; the Patriots have only faced them three times, but lost Wes Welker to a serious knee injury in the last meeting, which ended the 2009 regular season.
Week 15: vs. San Francisco (Dec. 16, 8:20 p.m.)
Six days later one of the best teams in the NFC comes calling for a Sunday night game.
The 49ers don’t wow you offensively — Alex Smith limits mistakes at quarterback, and Frank Gore is averaging close to 6 yards per carry. It’s the defense that impresses.
Week 16: at Jacksonville (Dec. 23, 1 p.m.)
Another December trip to Florida, this time to face a Jaguars team with only one win so far and thousands of empty seats in the stands. The Patriots are 8-1 all time against Jacksonville, with the only loss coming on Jan. 3, 1999, in the playoffs. No playoffs for the Jaguars this season.
Week 17: vs. Miami (Dec. 30, 1 p.m.)
Will this game determine who wins the AFC East? Might the Dolphins need it to get a wild-card berth? Or the Patriots? There are always final-week story lines regarding the playoffs, and with both teams above .500 right now, both should enter the second half of the regular season with postseason plans.