One man's guess as to how the 2010 season will play out in New England ….
Week 1: Home vs. Bengals
The Bengals strike me as a logical candidate to take a step back in 2010. Seems to happen all the time the year after a surprising postseason appearance (See the 2009 Dolphins and Falcons, 2008 Jaguars, 2007 Saints and Chiefs, 2006 Redskins and so on. Remember the 1995 Patriots?) The defense will still be pretty good but I have zero faith in the offense. Does anyone expect Cedric Benson to repeat his 2009 (1,251 yards in just 13 games) effort? And Carson Palmer was just OK last year. He finished 16th in passer rating -- right between Jason Campbell and David Garrard. Would a 7-9 season from Cincy shock anyone? An easy Week 1 win that will inevitably lead to third and fourth helpings of the juice for the zealots that want to believe that this is a Super Bowl-level defense.
Patriots 31, Bengals 14 (1-0)
Week 2: At Jets
I think the Jets, as presently constituted, are a better team than the Patriots. Not by much, though, and you could make a case that the Jets are a solid choice to be right next to the Bengals in the "step back" club. I'm not sold on Mark Sanchez by a long shot. He was 28th in passer rating (12-20 TD/INT ratio) and a couple of nice throws vs. the Colts isn't enough to make that disappear. But I think he'll mostly stay out of the way, which is really all the Jets need him to do. The Jets have a (much) better defense than the Pats and I think (even without Thomas Jones) they'll run the ball better. So I expect another early season loss at New York and let the panic begin.
Jets 20, Pats 17 (1-1)
Week 3: Home vs. Bills
Ralph Wilson still plays a significant role in the day-to-day operations of the Bills. That might worry me a little if I'm a fan, since Wilson was born during the final Allied push against the Germans at the end of World War I. Wilson was born in 1918. That's a year before Jackie Robinson was born. Mickey Rooney is two years younger than the owner of the Bills. In totally unrelated news, the Bills last played in a postseason game on January 8, 2000. The Patriots have played in 18 playoff games since.
Patriots 28, Bills 10 (2-1)
Week 4: At Dolphins
Maybe the biggest AFC East question: Is Chad Henne ready to make the leap? He sure looked the part last year in that Week 13 win over the Pats (29-52, 335 yards). That was the game I finally realized the 2009 Patriots were no threat to win the Super Bowl. The pass rush -- a weakness all season -- reached its low point that day. And I'm not in any way convinced that the pass rush looks any better today. Sure, Jermaine Cunningham could be terrific, but who knows? What else is different? I'm still surprised this problem wasn't really addressed in the offseason.
Dolphins 27, Pats 20 (2-2)
Week 5: Bye
Week 6: Home vs. Ravens
Revenge games sound swell, but I've never seen any proof that the team with the need to restore pride does any better (or worse) in the contests. The Ravens humiliated the Patriots in January because they were the better team. I see no reason to think they still aren't the better team. Joe Flacco and Ray Rice are only going to be better with another year, and the defense is still one of the half-dozen or so best in the league. Throw Anquan Boldin into the mix and the Ravens are going to be a very popular Super Bowl pick in the preseason.
Ravens 27, Pats 21 (2-3)
Week 7: At Chargers:
I think the Chargers win a lousy AFC West again in 2010 but they'll take a step back as a serious threat to make a postseason run. As someone who lived in San Diego for five years I can tell you that a 9-7 season and first-round playoff loss is totally acceptable. As long as the waves at Moonlight Beach are hitting six feet and the guacamole at D Street is fresh things things are okey-dokey in the sports fraud capital of North America. To borrow a Peter King bit -- if this game were played on a neutral field in Sioux City, Iowa I'm taking the Pats. But a cross-country trip a week after what should be a brutal battle with the Ravens? Toss in the fact the Chargers get the Rams in Week 6 and this is just one of those games.
Chargers 30, Pats 20 (2-4)
Week 8: Home vs. Vikings
I thought ESPN actually having LeBron James pass a torch to Brett Favre the other night was a bit much, but it's a nice way to remind us which story is going to make us most want to vomit on a given day. I smell a letdown from the ol' gunslinger the week after a road trip to Lambeau. How about an old-school Favre four-INT special, complete with a cowboy reference from Joe Buck and 26 blank stares from Brad Childress?
Patriots 24, Vikings 17 (3-4)
Week 9: Home vs. Browns
First breather since Week 3. Rough schedule.
I read that Eric Mangini wants to be friends with Bill Belichick again. Makes sense when you realize that Mangini will likely be looking for work at the end of the season (or sooner). I would put the odds of Belichick inviting Mangini over to the Martha's Vineyard compound somewhere north of Fred Goldman and O.J. recording an "Ebony and Ivory" remake, but not by much.
I think Tom Brady will have a solid 2010. The best of Brady is in the past, but he'll still be a top 6-8 QB. And he'll get his chance to pad this stats in this laugher.
Patriots 44, Browns 17 (4-4)
Week 10: At Steelers
First of two scheduled NBC games. I'm still stunned that all five of the Steelers prime-time games are scheduled after Roethlisberger's return. It's not like the NFL to act as morality police while making a buck. I'm sure Big Ben won't be part of the promos at all during the week, right?
I think this'll be a good matchup for the Pats. A weak O-Line, a QB probably still getting his 2010 feet wet and a WR corps that lacks a game-changer? Plus the defense-- while still in the top half of the league -- is aging. James Harrison is 32 years old, James Farrior is 35, Aaron Smith is 34 and injury-prone and Casey Hampton is 32. I think the Super Bowl window has closed in Pittsburgh and a potential double-digit loss season awaits.
Patriots 20, Steelers 14 (5-4)
Week 11: Home vs. Colts
The winner for worst LeBron analogy goes to a certain ESPN personality (could rhyme with Rip Hayless), who shrewdly pointed out that you'd never see Peyton Manning sign with Tom Brady to win a Super Bowl somewhere. Anyone see how that's not quite the same thing?
You know the deal with the Colts. Manning will throw for 4,000 yards (there have been 84 4,000-yard seasons in NFL history-- he has 10 of them) and the Colts will win at least 12 games (have done so for the last seven years). The class of the AFC until proven otherwise.
Colts 30, Patriots 27 (OT) (5-5)
Week 12: At Lions
Would you like a side of Ndamukong Suh with your turkey?
Patriots 34, Lions 14 (6-5)
Week 13: Home vs. Jets
It seems to me that there have been some "end of the dynasty losses" over the last five years. Playoff losses to the Broncos and Colts and Ravens. Clearly the Super Bowl vs. the Giants. I'd even throw 4th-and-2 into the mix. But through it all the Patriots have always been the standard in the AFC East. Even without Brady in 2008 they still tied for the division title. Always had the divisional dominance to fall back on. But I think all that ends in Week 13. A Jets sweep puts the finishing touches on a power shift.
Jets 27, Patriots 20 (6-6)
Week 14: At Bears
Think it's 50/50 Lovie Smith will still be the head coach of the Bears by Week 14? I can't help but think that Jay Cutler will be kind of QB that gets four or five coaches fired before someone realizes that the problem but be the guy under center. Sort of reminds me of the old Bledsoe argument, you remember the one. "All he needs is a good running back, a couple of top receivers, an elite offensive line and a good OC and he'll be fine."
Patriots 30, Bears 17 (7-6)
Week 15: Home vs. Packers
Aaron Rodgers over the last two seasons: 58-20 TD/INT
Brett Favre over the last two seasons: 55-29 TD/INT
I don't think I've heard Rodgers name on ESPN once since the end of the Packers season in January. I suspect the Packers probably like it that way.
I'm tempted to pick the Packers to win the NFC this year (I like the Ravens in the AFC) but I can't shake the 51 points they allowed to the Cardinals in the playoffs. Rodgers is about as good as any QB in the league today (better right now than Brady) but, as with the Pats, I don't see a defense that has improved. If the weather is OK (game is December 19) and the game isn't flexed out I bet NBC winds up with one of the two or three most entertaining prime-timers of the year.
Patriots 38, Packers 35 (8-6)
Week 16: At Bills
When Ralph Wilson was born Roger Connor held the career home run record with 138. Theodore Roosevelt was still alive. We were still a solid decade away from "talkies". I'm not sure what any of that has to do with Chan Gailey getting the Bills job but there has to be some connection.
Patriots 17, Bills 10 (9-6)
Week 17: Home vs. Dolphins
Do you think if the Pats have already clinched a playoff spot that Belichick will sit Wes Welker in this one?
Patriots 21, Dolphins 20 (10-6)
My two cents: I bet Welker is on the field in Week 1. I'll give him 85 catches for 1,126 yards and six TDs.
Moss? How about 74 catches for 1,198 yards and nine TDs.
Laurence Maroney leads the team with 688 yards rushing, but for the fifth straight year the Patriots will not have a back with 200 carries (only NFL team not to have a 200-carry guy from 2006-09).
Brady's final line? 4,118 yards passing, 26 TDs, 12 INT.
No one on the team will have more than 7.5 sacks (Banta-Cain).
Three Pro Bowlers: Brady, Welker, Gostkowski
Aaron Hernandez (32) ends up with more catches than Alge Crumpler (20).
The six AFC playoff teams?
I'll give the Patriots one playoff win (I can't pick Norv over Belichick in a postseason game) before a 34-24 loss at Indy.
Oh, and the story of the season? Brady does not sign an extension and heads into 2011(with a looming lockout) as a free agent. Maybe he'll need to take the ESPN torch from Favre for a while.