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Schedule-makers put Patriots in prime position

FOXBOROUGH -- The Patriots may be on their way to becoming the new version of "America's Team." By the end of this season, the country sure will have seen plenty of them.

The NFL yesterday released its 2004 regular-season schedule. The Super Bowl champions, having already been selected to host AFC runner-up Indianapolis in the league opener Thursday, Sept. 9, will play nine games with start times of 4:05 or later, including four in prime time.

In addition to the opener, New England will make two appearances on ABC's "Monday Night Football" and another on ESPN's "Sunday Night NFL." The Patriots host the Bills on national television Sunday, Nov. 14 (8:30), and visit the Chiefs Monday, Nov. 22 (9 p.m.), and the Dolphins Monday, Dec. 20 (9 p.m.).

For the first time since 1999, Miami comes to New England for the first meeting between the AFC East rivals, Oct. 10. Last Oct. 19, the Patriots beat the Dolphins on the road before November for the first time in 14 tries.

When it's over, we may look back to two games in December for answers as to how the East was won. After the Monday night game in Miami, the Patriots travel to the Meadowlands for a Week 16 battle with the Jets the day after Christmas, with kickoff scheduled for 4:05.

The Patriots play three division games in four weeks in October. Following a bye in Week 3 (the earliest scheduled open date in team history), the Patriots are at Buffalo Oct. 3. They get the Dolphins the next week, and after hosting Seattle and former Boston College quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, host the Jets Oct. 24 (4:05). The Patriots haven't played the Seahawks since 1993.

Patriots fans will have two weeks in early November to flash back to 2002 -- New England is at Pittsburgh Oct. 31 (4:15) and at St. Louis Nov. 7 (4:15). In case anyone's forgotten, the Patriots beat the Steelers at Heinz Field in the AFC Championship game and the Rams in the Super Bowl that year.

Bill Belichick returns to Cleveland for the second time as coach of the Patriots Dec. 5. The Patriots get their longest road trip out of the way early, in Week 2, when they go to Arizona. They end the season Jan. 2 at home against San Francisco.

For the second consecutive postseason, there will be two weeks between the conference title games and the Super Bowl. The AFC and NFC Championship games are Jan. 23. Super Bowl XXXIX will be played Feb. 6 in Jacksonville, Fla.

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