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Patriots get the details

Tough schedule includes four games in prime time

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By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / April 15, 2009
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If the Patriots return to the playoffs this season, they will have earned it - at least on paper.

With a schedule that includes six playoff teams from last season - the Dolphins, Ravens, Colts, Falcons, Panthers, and Titans (owners of the NFL's best regular-season mark at 13-3) - the Patriots will find that the path to the postseason won't be a walk in the park.

The combined 2008 winning percentage of the Patriots' opponents is .590, third highest in the league, trailing the Dolphins (.594) and Panthers (.592). That winning percentage is the highest the Patriots have faced under Bill Belichick, who took over as head coach in 2000.

Under the league's scheduling rotation, the four AFC East teams face the AFC South and the NFC South teams this season. The Patriots' remaining two nondivisional opponents, the Ravens and Broncos, were determined by New England's second-place finish in the AFC East.

The Patriots' 2008 schedule had a 2007 opponents' winning percentage of .387, the lowest of any of the NFL's 32 teams, but New England still missed out on the playoffs despite an 11-5 record. The highest opponents' winning percentage entering 2008 belonged to the Steelers, who went on to win the Super Bowl.

The NFL announced last month that the Patriots would open their season Sept. 14 at Gillette Stadium in prime time (7 p.m.), hosting the Bills in a "Monday Night Football" matchup. The game is part of an ESPN doubleheader celebrating the 50th anniversary of the American Football League, which counts the Bills and Patriots among its original members.

One of four scheduled prime-time appearances in '09, the opener against Buffalo is expected to mark Tom Brady's return to action following the left knee injury he suffered in the 2008 opener and the Bills debut of flamboyant and combustible wide receiver Terrell Owens. It will also be the first of three occasions on which the Patriots wear replicas of the jerseys worn by the 1963 Boston Patriots, the first team in franchise history to win a division title.

New England begins the season with four of six games at home, playing host to the Bills, Falcons (Sept. 27), Ravens (Oct. 4), and Titans (Oct. 18). With a road game against the Jets in Week 2, the Patriots won't have to leave the Northeast until they visit Denver Oct. 11.

Unlike last season, the Patriots will not have to travel to the West Coast. However, they do have a substantial sojourn.

The NFL had previously announced that the Patriots would face the Buccaneers at London's Wembley Stadium Oct. 25. The Buccaneers, who are sacrificing a home game, will serve as the home side for the contest, which will have a 1 p.m. Eastern start. The Patriots' bye week follows the trip to London, coming after seven games.

Things get tough after the bye, as the Patriots face the Dolphins at home Nov. 8 and then start a span of three prime-time road games in four weeks.

For the fifth straight year, the Patriots will face Peyton Manning and the Colts in November. The recurring rivals meet in Indianapolis in a "Sunday Night Football" showdown on NBC Nov. 15.

After hosting the Jets the following week, the Patriots play back-to-back night road games, traveling to New Orleans for a Monday night matchup Nov. 30 and then venturing to South Florida on a short week to face the defending AFC East champion Dolphins on Sunday night, Dec. 6.

Games in Weeks 11-17 are subject to the NFL's flexible scheduling policy, so the Patriots could have games shifted into or out of prime time. The maximum number of prime-time appearances a team is allowed is six, and only three teams per season are allowed that many.

The other December games are at home against the Panthers (Dec. 13), a road rematch with Buffalo (Dec. 20), and the home finale against Jacksonville (Dec. 27). The Patriots end the season in Houston Jan. 3, 2010.

Some other points of interest about the 2009 slate:

The Patriots get their first look at new Jets coach Rex Ryan, who replaced Eric Mangini, Sept. 20.

Former Boston College star and 2008 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Matt Ryan brings the Falcons to Foxborough Sept. 27. The Falcons and Panthers are the only two NFL teams that have yet to play a regular-season game at Gillette Stadium since it opened in 2002.

Neither Matt Cassel nor Jay Cutler will be at quarterback for the Broncos when the Patriots travel to Denver Oct. 11 to face former New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who left the Patriots in January to become Denver's head coach.

After closing last season against Buffalo in wildly windy conditions, the Patriots might have to batten down the hatches again, with the Dec. 20 date in Orchard Park, N.Y.

Running back Fred Taylor, whom the Patriots signed as a free agent this offseason, will have a chance to face the team he spent the first 11 seasons of his career with when the Jaguars travel to Gillette Stadium.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com.

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