The Patriots’ regular-season schedule is now in our hands as the team announced their 2020 slate on Thursday night.
Although the league is still taking things slowly in regards to the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s some optimism among league officials that there will be football this fall.
And the Patriots will have an extremely challenging path to a 12th consecutive division title, which includes five primetime games.
According to CBS Sports Line’s predictive model, the Patriots have the seventh-hardest strength of schedule with a projected opponent win percentage of 51.2 percent.
The model takes into account free agent signings and departures along with the results of the 2020 NFL Draft, a much better indicator of schedule difficulty than using opponents 2019 win percentage.
Still, the Pats have a very tough road ahead with games against the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs (Week 4), NFC champion 49ers (Week 7), Ravens (Week 10), and an improving AFC East.
For those hoping for an easy schedule in the year following Tom Brady’s departure, tough luck.
Below, is some instant-analysis on the 2020 regular-season slate for Bill Belichick and the Patriots:
Week 1: vs. Dolphins, Sunday, 1:00 pm
The Patriots will begin the Jarrett Stidham era at home with a divisional matchup. We think we know the Pats starting quarterback that day, Stidham, but what about Miami? If it’s the fifth overall pick in this year’s draft, Tua Tagovailoa, it will mark the first time in Gillette Stadium history that both starting quarterbacks are making their first career starts. The Dolphins rebuilt their defense in the offseason by signing former Pats linebacker Kyle Van Noy, prize free-agent cornerback Byron Jones, and former Bills pass-rusher Shaq Lawson among others. Along with Brian Flores’s familiarity with New England’s offense, and a little revenge from Miami’s upset in Week 17 that cost the Pats the bye last year, there’s some buzz here, although there are better games on the schedule.
Week 2: at Seahawks, Sunday, 8:20 pm
The first of five primetime games comes early for the Patriots as they’ll travel to face Russell Wilson and the 12’s, an extremely challenging second game of the Stidham era. Centurylink Field is usually one of the loudest stadiums in the league, assuming fans can attend games early on in the season. The Pats got the better of Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and Wilson in Super Bowl 49, but the ‘Hawks are 2-0 against Belichick in the Wilson era during the regular season. For my money, Wilson is the best quarterback in the league, with a terrific deep ball and an unbelievable feel for extending plays and creating off-script. The Seattle defense isn’t what it once was, although Carroll’s cover-three scheme is still sound. The Seahawks will probably be favorites due to Wilson and the atmosphere inside Centurylink.
Week 3: vs. Raiders, Sunday, 1:00 pm
The Patriots get Jon Gruden’s Raiders in Week 3, who are one of the more perplexing teams in the league. The last two drafts for Oakland show that they’re taking a Belichick-like approach in that they’re sticking to their board regardless of conventional wisdom, selecting Henry Ruggs (12th overall) and Clellin Ferrell (fourth overall) with their top picks in the last two drafts. Still, you can see a young roster budding around quarterback Derek Carr. With Ruggs in the fold, Carr, one of the most conservative quarterbacks in the league, has no more excuse, and he won’t beat Belichick checking the ball down all day.
Week 4: at Chiefs, Sunday, 4:25 pm
New England will take on the defending champs in the game of the week in Week 4, another difficult test for the mighty Stidhams in the first month of the season. The Chiefs are returning most of the team that won Super Bowl 54 in February, but the Pats were a few unlucky whistles away from beating KC last season. We’ll once again see Belichick’s scheming and talented secondary against one of the most prolific passing attacks in NFL history. Even without Tom Brady, this will still be an excellent matchup.
Week 5: vs. Broncos, Sunday, 1:00 pm
Denver might not be the sexiest matchup on the Patriots’ schedule, but the Broncos are in the midst of an interesting rebuild. Denver is all-in on quarterback Drew Lock, and much like the Pats and Stidham, sought to put Lock in a position to succeed this offseason by drafting wide receiver Jerry Jeudy in the first round. With Courtland Sutton and Jeudy presenting a legit receiver duo, it’ll be a fun matchup for Stephon Gilmore and company. We’ll see how Belichick deploys his corners against the tandem, and the Broncos still have Von Miller on the other side of the ball harassing quarterbacks.
Week 6: Bye Week
The Pats get a bye on the earlier side of things with Week 4 being the earliest possible off week. Ideally, the Patriots would have a bye that’s a little later in the year, but it’s not an awful spot right before they welcome the defending NFC Champs to town.
Week 7: vs. 49ers, Sunday, 4:25 pm
In arguably the best game of the season, Jimmy Garoppolo will make his first-ever start against his former team. Although Jimmy G will be the story, the matchup between Belichick and Kyle Shanahan pits together two masterminds on their respective sides of the ball. Also, it brings back memories of when Belichick’s defense blanked Shanahan’s offense in the final quarter and a half to win Super Bowl 51. Shanahan’s scheme is built on the marriage between a well-designed play-action passing attack and an extremely balanced rushing attack, begging the question, which will Belichick try to take away? The Chiefs put the game in Garoppolo’s hands in Super Bowl 54 and out-scored the Niners. Will Belichick, Stidham, and the Patriots take a similar approach?
Week 8: at Buffalo, Sunday, 1:00 pm
The Patriots start back-to-back divisional games with a trip to Buffalo. The Bills were one of the winners of the offseason, adding to an already loaded defense by acquiring star receiver Stefon Diggs to bolster Josh Allen’s supporting cast. Questions remain about Allen, though, and if he can finally get over the hump of facing a Belichick defense that he’s 0-3 against in his career with a 56.4 passer rating. Belichick doesn’t just have Allen’s number; he also has Sean McDermott’s, with a perfect 6-0 record against the Bills head coach since he took over in 2017. Buffalo’s defensive scheme gives the Pats offense trouble as they’re a very fundamentally sound unit that keeps it simple but dominates with great a system and talent. Games against the Bills will be heavyweight fights this season.
Week 9: at Jets, Monday, 8:15 pm
Another Monday nighter in the Meadowlands begs the question, who are the New York Jets? In Adam Gase’s first season, they went 7-9 and picked mountain Mekhi Becton 11th overall in the draft to protect Sam Darnold’s blindside. On the one hand, the Jets get credit for building on the line of scrimmage first and then adding a pass-catching threat with Denzel Mims in round two. The old Jets, or even the Jets under the current regime, probably would’ve gone for the flash first and the pass protection second, so at least they’re learning. The question now is, can Becton and an improved offensive line along with Mims on the outside get Sam Darnold on the right path? I was a Darnold supporter in the 2018 draft, and the situation around him stunk in his first two seasons, but he needs to start showing some consistency, or Gang Green could be looking for another quarterback soon.
Week 10: vs. Ravens, Sunday, 8:20 pm
The gauntlet starts here. The Patriots will take on Lamar Jackson and the Ravens on a short week, not ideal. But New England rebuilt their defense in the draft by adding athleticism with their top two picks in safety Kyle Dugger and linebacker Josh Uche. Something tells me that Belichick drafted those two to chance around Jackson more effectively than his plodding linebackers did a year ago. Dugger could serve as a spy on Jackson in passing situations if he’s up for the task.
Week 11: at Texans, Sunday, 1:00 pm
Next up on the toughest stretch of the schedule is a trip to Houston, where the Pats were out-classed for most of the night in a Sunday nighter last season. The Texans no longer have DeAndre Hopkins, which is odd, but they did replace him somewhat with Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb. With Cooks and Kenny Stills, Houston has a ton of speed for quarterback Deshaun Watson to distribute the ball to his playmakers. But there are still doubts about whenever or not Bill O’Brien has this team going in the right direction, as BOB continues to make head-scratching personnel moves.
Week 12: vs. Cardinals, Sunday, 1:00 pm
Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury’s unique offensive scheme against Belichick is all kinds of fun. Kingsbury didn’t go full-on air raid in his first season, but he’s bringing a lot of college-style schemes to the league with the perfect quarterback to fit his style of play. The Pats get DeAndre Hopkins’s former team the week before they face Hopkins for real in a passing offense that should light up the scoreboard next season. Kingsbury does some different and effective stuff, and the Cards also now have superman Isaiah Simmons alongside Chandler Jones on defense. Arizona might not be a Super Bowl contender, but they’ll make some noise.
Week 13: at Chargers, Sunday, 4:25 pm
The Patriots will play two games in five days in Los Angeles with a strong possibility of a week out in Southern California. The Chargers still have talent on both sides of the ball with plenty of offensive firepower (Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Hunter Henry, Austin Ekeler) and one of the best defenses on paper in the league. But the quarterback situation puts a damper on their entire team. At this point in the season, there’s a good chance the Pats will be facing rookie Justin Herbert, not veteran Tyrod Taylor. The last rookie quarterback to beat Belichick was Geno Smith in 2013.
Week 14: at Rams, Thursday, 8:20 pm
A rematch of Super Bowl 53 on Thursday Night Football sounds pretty darn good. The chess match between Sean McVay and Belichick a second time will be an excellent test for the Rams head coach. Belichick drew up the blueprint for slowing down McVay’s scheme that pairs a wide zone rushing attack with misdirection and play-action in the passing game. With six defenders on the line of scrimmage, the Rams struggled to get their running game going with the Pats forcing their off-tackle runs back into their run-stuffers in the middle of the defense. Then, Belichick played a two-high rotation with a mix of quarters and cover-three on the backend to take away the big plays through the air. In the rematch, can and will McVay adjust, or will he try to beat Belichick with what he does best? It would behoove McVay to have a few new tricks up his sleeve.
Week 15: at Miami, Sunday, 1:00 pm
The Pats go on the road for a third-straight week for a dreaded late-season trip to Miami as they wrap the season with three consecutive divisional games. The Patriots are 9-11 in the Belichick era at Miami, their worst win percentage in any location (min. four games), and are a lousy 2-7 against the Dolphins on the road in December or later. Weird things happen at Hard Rock Stadium, especially late in the year. This game is also one of two games this season where the Pats and Bucs play at the same time, so we’ll have to skip Brady and Gronk for the week.
Week 16: vs. Bills, Monday, 8:30 pm
Patriots-Bills in primetime for the AFC East to keep the streak alive? There’s a good chance that’ll be the case right after Christmas. The Pats outlasted Buffalo to clinch the division a year ago in a rock fight in Foxboro, and with another late-season game, it feels like we’ll get a similar script. The Bills are building something and have a terrific roster, maybe the best in the division, but they’ll need to back it up on the field.
Week 17: vs. Jets, Sunday, 1:00 pm
The other game where the Pats and Bucs kickoff at the same time comes in the final week of the season with a slew of early-window games. For the 11th-straight year, the Patriots wrap up the season with a divisional game, and it’s their fourth-consecutive home game in Week 17. At this point in the year, the Jets will probably be playing spoiler, and the Pats could be fighting for the playoffs, with the sting of the Week 17 loss to Miami that cost them the bye still lingering.