The Patriots have known their 2021 opponents for some time already. Now, they know when they’ll play each one — and which games to circle on the calendar.
Of course, there’s at least one game every New England player, and quite possibly every football fan in existence, is looking forward to when the 2021 season kicks off.
That one takes place October 3 when Tom Brady comes back to Foxborough for the first time since leaving his longtime team in free agency last year en route to winning an unprecedented seventh Super Bowl.
We’ll get to that one later.
That Week 4 matchup is far from the only interesting one on the schedule — and it’s also not the only revenge game we might see involving the Patriots.
Here are the five of the biggest contests on the Patriots’ 2021 slate.
Week 1 vs. Miami Dolphins (home)
Can’t forget about the first one, right?
New England beat up on the Dolphins at home in Week 1 last year in a game where Cam Newton was crisp and efficient (15-of-19 for 155 yards passing and two rushing touchdowns).
The question is: how sure are we that he will start Week 1?
First-round rookie Mac Jones has yet to take so much as a practice snap with the Patriots, and experts like former Patriot Tedy Bruschi believe Newton will “absolutely” be New England’s starter when September 12 rolls around.
But what happens if Jones blows the doors off his first training camp and Newton fizzles? Could we see a battle of former Alabama quarterbacks with Jones going up against his Crimson Tide predecessor Tua Tagovailoa?
Even if Newton does start that first game, the glare from the microscope on his performance will be intense.
While last year’s Game 1 victory against the Dolphins wasn’t exactly a harbinger of things to come, this year’s version seems to carry a bit more weight behind it.
Week 9 vs. Carolina Panthers (away)
But wait, you skipped —
We’ll get to that one. Let’s do the other revenge game first.
Assuming he’s still the starter at this point, Newton will be out to show the Panthers what they’ve been missing since they released him after the 2019 season due to injury.
If your response is “not much,” well, at least the Patriots liked Newton enough to bring him back after having a less-than-stellar first year.
Teddy Bridgewater, last year’s starter in Carolina, got traded before the draft to the Denver Broncos. Now, it’s Sam Darnold — a man the Patriots are quite familiar with from his days with the jets — under center for Newton’s old squad.
While a resurfacing of the now-Pats veteran’s 2015 MVP form feels unlikely for a full season, it would be fun to see Vintage Cam steal the show at Bank of America Stadium.
Week 10 vs. Browns (home)
The Browns are on a mission to prove last year’s playoff win on Wild Card Weekend was no fluke with eyes on a bigger prize.
The Patriots, meanwhile, hope to show 2020’s playoff absence was an aberration.
Cleveland added some big-name talent to its defense in free agency, adding Jadaveon Clowney to a front that already includes monster pass-rusher Myles Garrett, and in the draft, taking cornerback Greg Newsome II and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah with its first two draft picks.
On the other side of the ball, the Patriots will have to contain balanced offensive attack led by Baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb, Jarvis Landry, and Odell Beckham Jr.
Aside from the team’s Week 4 game, this Week 9 matchup could be one of New England’s toughest games until they get to…
Week 13 vs. Buffalo Bills (away)
To be the best, you have to beat the best. Right now, the Bills figure to be the best team in the AFC East after going 13-3 and winning the division in 2020.
Josh Allen has developed swiftly into the division’s best quarterback, and his squad has the all-around talent to make the AFC Championship Game once again.
As if that didn’t already make things hard enough for the Patriots, this Week 13 game will be their last one before their extremely late bye week in Week 14.
Those legs could be feeling especially heavy with a crucial AFC rivalry game on tap that’s bound to be a physical affair.
Hopefully by this point, the Patriots will still have something to play for. And even if they don’t, maybe we’ll at least get to see Mac Jones test himself against one of the best defenses the NFL has to offer.
Week 4 vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (home)
Finally, the big one.
The greatest regular-season game of all time. The game we’ll never, ever forget for the rest of our lives. The game by which all other sporting events will be measured.
Yeah, we get it.
Even if the game doesn’t meet the mythical expectations being set for it, the intrigue alone makes it worth watching.
Brady will undoubtedly come to Foxborough looking to annihilate the team he won six championships with off the face of the Earth as further vengeance for letting him leave — as if seeing him win a ring with another team wasn’t punishment enough.
Meanwhile, his former coach, Bill Belichick, will use every bit of guile and considerable knowledge he possesses about Brady to frustrate and foil him with his re-tooled defense.
More people might watch this game than last year’s Super Bowl — or several other Super Bowls. And the ticket prices? Forget about it.
Then you throw in the possibility that Brady could set the career passing yards record in the building he dominated for two decades with his new team?
The movie is basically writing itself at this point.
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