With a relatively easy early schedule and Tom Brady not in the picture, John Harbaugh and the Ravens could put some early heat on the Patriots. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

With a relatively easy early schedule and Tom Brady not in the picture, John Harbaugh and the Ravens could put some early heat on the Patriots. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

The Patriots are going to be without Tom Brady for the first quarter of the season, and because of a few quirks — primarily, good health and a relatively easy schedule on the early going — some of their AFC opponents appear to be well-positioned to put a little heat on New England while Brady is on the sidelines.

Whether it’s the chance to make an early statement when it comes to the race for home field in the AFC or just the chance to get after the Patriots without their franchise quarterback under center, here are our picks for the five teams that have the best shot at taking advantage of the fact that New England will be missing its franchise quarterback for the first four games.

Ravens — Baltimore begins the 2016 season with its easiest five-game stretch of the year taking on the Bills, Browns, Jaguars, Raiders and Redskins, a group of teams that were a combined 16 games under .500 in 2015. If the Ravens are completely healed up after last year’s fiasco of a season, a quick start could have them jockeying for early control of the AFC with the Patriots. (Of course, Baltimore needs a good start because it has a rough stretch — over the second-half of the season, they have one of the toughest slates in the league, with road games in New England and Pittsburgh and home dates with the Steelers and Bengals.)

Steelers — The Steelers’ defense is not nearly the terror that it used to be, and Le’Veon Bell is facing an early three-game suspension. But the fact that the Pittsburgh offense (with Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger) can still run up and down the field with anyone means they will be a challenge for the Patriots all year long, provided they can stay healthy. Pittsburgh’s four-game slate to start the season is middle-of-the-road at best (home games against Cincy and Kansas City and road contests at Washington and Philly), but an above .500 start would certainly make the Oct. 23 game at Heinz Field between the Patriots and Steelers a game that could end up having home-field implications down the road.

Broncos — Denver’s quarterback situation is a bit murky right now — Trevor Siemian? — but that defense remains legit, and that’s what should have them in the mix throughout the year. Four of Denver’s first six games are against teams that did not make the playoffs last year and three of the first five are at home, two elements that should pave the way for a good start. As a result, if the Broncos are able to take advantage of a softer schedule early (at least following the Super Bowl rematch with the Panthers in the regular-season opener), the Dec. 18 game on Denver between the Patriots and Broncos could also go a long way toward determining home-field advantage.

Bills — Let’s make this really, REALLY clear: The inclusion of Buffalo on this list is not to suggest that the Patriots will have any sort of issues with the Bills throughout the bulk of the 2016 season. Buffalo is going to struggle to make it to 8-8 this season. It’s only to suggest the Bills could make things tough in the early going for New England for a few reasons, not the least of which is the fact that when Buffalo been able to get one over on the Patriots, it’s been because the Bills caught them slightly off-balance sometime around the start of the season. The truth is that If Rex Ryan can offer up enough to confuse Garoppolo by the time Week 4 rolls around and the Bills’ offense can finally get its you-know-what together, they probably represent the best chance for an opponents to beat the Patriots at Gillette with Garoppolo under center.

Texans — In this context, the biggest edge that Houston might bring into this game is a scheduling quirk — the Texans travel to Gillette Stadium on a short week, getting the Patriots in a Thursday night contest at Gillette Stadium. Granted, it’s not much, but getting Garoppolo on a short week could provide Houston with an opportunity not afforded the other three teams he’ll face over the first month.

Blog Author: 
Christopher Price

Jimmy Garoppolo has had an up-and-down preseason. (Jim Dedmon/USA Today Sports)In the Patriots' preseason finale under Bill Belichick, the starting quarterback rarely sees the field.



The drama over Bryan Stork is over, for now at least.

The Patriots released Stork Monday evening after he was returned to the team after failing his physical with the Redskins.

Tre' Jackson

Tre’ Jackson

The drama over Bryan Stork is over, for now at least.

The Patriots released Stork Monday evening after he was returned to the team after failing his physical with the Redskins.

Kyed also reports the team has placed injured offensive lineman Tre’ Jackson on the physically unable to perform list, meaning he will sit out at least the first six weeks.

The story was first reported by Doug Kyed of NESN.com.

Stork’s release, Jackson’s move to PUP and Terrance Knighton’s release earlier in the day takes the roster down to 80.

Every NFL team must cut their roster down to 75 by 4 p.m. ET Tuesday.

Blog Author: 
Mike Petraglia

FOXBORO — What did Barkevious Mingo have to say about going from the Browns to the Patriots? And does Jimmy Garoppolo think he needs to start or play Thursday night against the Giants? WEEI’s Mike Petraglia has your report from Foxboro.

Blog Author: 
WEEI
Jonathan Freeny

Jonathan Freeny

FOXBORO — Patriots linebacker Jonathan Freeny accomplished something not too many NFL players say they’ve done — get a contract extension in back-to-back seasons.

After signing a one-year deal with the Patriots in March of 2015, he was extended through 2016 in late September of last year and then over the weekend he was extended once again, reportedly for two more years.

“It’s a good feeling knowing that hard work is paying off and the coaches appreciate me being here, while I appreciate being here,” Freeny said. “Knowing I [was] able to get extended and play for the same team I’ve known for two years is a blessing and I am thankful for that.”

The 27-year-old played in 13 games last season and finished with 50 tackles and a sack in a backup linebacker role, which he likely will have again in 2016. He spent his first three seasons in the league with the Dolphins and is glad to have found a home in New England.

“I love being here,” Freeny said. “The guys are great. The coaches are great. It’s just a great atmosphere being part of the team, the fans, everything. It’s just a great environment.”

Freeny is just one of the many Rutgers players on the roster, which includes Logan Ryan, Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon and Kevin Snyder. The linebacker said having all those former teammates on the roster makes the team even more enjoyable.

“Most definitely,” he said. “All the guys from Rutgers that are here I was pretty close with while I was there, so seeing those guys, still hanging out and doing things together and just being around those guys. All the guys here are pretty cool. It’s a great environment for me.”

Blog Author: 
Ryan Hannable

FOXBORO — What a difference week makes.

Last week linebacker Barkevious Mingo was preparing to play for the Browns, one of the worst teams in the league, but following a trade last Thursday, Mingo is now playing for one of the best in the Patriots.

Barkevious Mingo is excited to get going with the Patriots. (WEEI.com)

Barkevious Mingo is excited to get going with the Patriots. (WEEI.com)

FOXBORO — What a difference week makes.

Last week linebacker Barkevious Mingo was preparing to play for the Browns, one of the worst teams in the league, but following a trade last Thursday, Mingo is now playing for one of the best in the Patriots.

Although he didn’t play in last Friday’s third preseason game, he participated in his first practice with the team on Monday.

“It’s a huge culture shock,” Mingo said. “I felt like the winning spirit was making its way into Cleveland with (new head coach Hue Jackson), but it’s definitely been established here for a long time. I’m just excited to be a part of it.”

Mingo, the sixth overall pick in the 2013 draft, said he would be playing linebacker with the Patriots and was happy to reunite with Jabaal Sheard, who he played with in Cleveland. He admitted he’s excited to join a team with a winning culture like the Patriots.

“It’s very exciting,” Mingo said. “This team is stacked at every position. You have guys on the outside that can cover, you have interior guys that are holding gaps and linebackers that are hitting those gaps and making big plays. I’m just happy to be a part of it.”

“(Growing) up, if you played Madden, you probably played with the Patriots,” he added.

As for being traded, Mingo admitted it did come as a bit of a surprise, but he’s looking forward to making the most of the opportunity.

“A little bit of shock, but honestly glad to be part of a team like the Patriots and looking forward to every opportunity that I have here,” he said.

Blog Author: 
Ryan Hannable

FOXBORO — Over the first two weeks of the preseason, no one passed for more yardage in the NFL than Jimmy Garoppolo.

The Patriots projected starter on Sept. 11 in Arizona was 27-of-39 for 349 yards and a touchdown against the Saints and Bears.

IMG_0219

Jimmy Garoppolo speaks in front of his locker Monday at Gillette Stadium. (Mike Petraglia/WEEI.com)

FOXBORO — Over the first two weeks of the preseason, no one passed for more yardage in the NFL than Jimmy Garoppolo.

The Patriots projected starter on Sept. 11 in Arizona was 27-of-39 for 349 yards and a touchdown against the Saints and Bears.

Then, last week against the Panthers, he took a step back, completing just 9-of-15 for 57 yards. That, combined with some struggles during joint practices started some wondering whether Garoppolo would be ready to go for the Cardinals in the opener.

But not Garoppolo. The quarterback said Monday in front of his locker that he feels he and the offense are right on track for the season opener.

“It’s been a good training camp so far for sure,” Garoppolo said. “We’ve made a ton of progress as an offense and as a team. We’ve just got to keep moving in the right direction. We’re worried about the Giants right now, we’re not worried about opening day yet, so we’ll get there when it comes.”

Garoppolo, who spoke at the podium last week before Friday’s game in Charlotte, was relegated to his locker on Monday. The reason?

“Not my choice,” he said. “I just do what they tell me.”

There has also been some speculation that Friday’s effort against the Panthers will inspire Bill Belichick to play Garoppolo Thursday at MetLife Stadium.

“It’s really not my call,” Garoppolo said. “You always want to be out there with your guys. It’s just the nature of the beast; you’re a competitor, you want to be out there, but whatever Coach asks me to do, I’ll do. Naturally [the desire to play is] in all of us, we’re all competitors, so we all want to be out there playing. At the end of the day, it’s not our call. You can’t worry about things you can’t control.”

Garoppolo found out in warmups he was starting against the Bears and wasn’t given that much more time before the Panthers game.

“You don’t know if you’re going to start, you don’t know if you’re going to come off the bench,” Garoppolo said. “At first, it was a weird – I can remember back in my rookie year it was a weird thing not knowing. You just get used to it after a while, mixing and matching with all the different guys, knowing guys’ tendencies and how they play, and you just react to it, really.

“The Bears game, I found out like an hour before, and this past week, not very much more than that. You kind of have to stay on your toes; you never know what’s going to happen.”

Does Garoppolo think it would be helpful to get another series or two before opening the season and making his first NFL regular season start?

“I mean that’s just not my call,” he said. “I really don’t even think about it like that, to be honest. Whatever they ask me to do, they ask me to do.”

As for some of the struggles against Carolina, Garoppolo said he was happy to finally get the chance at some early points with an opening drive. That first drive ended with a Stephen Gostkowski missed field goal from 30 yards.

“We’ve got to move on from that,” he said. “We’re moving on to the Giants week, getting ready for those guys. We’ve just got to get ready for them.”

Blog Author: 
Mike Petraglia