The New England Patriots will open up their season against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the first of four contests with AFC North opposition. When the Patriots last played against the North in 2016, they went a perfect 4-0.
In order to do that again this year, the Patriots will have to virtually play four perfect football games. Trips to Baltimore have rarely been easy for New England while Cleveland has become a true contender and usually gives the Patriots a tough game.
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Overall, New England is 47-37 against the four teams in the AFC North. But the past is the past, and it’s onto 2019. How will New England matchup against a tough slate of opponents?
This is the second installment in a running series.
Stay tuned tomorrow for analysis on the NFC East.
Home: September 8, 8:20 p.m. (Week 1)
The Steelers and Patriots meet for the third time on banner night in Foxborough, having done so in 2002 and 2015. Last year’s matchup with Pittsburgh was one of the Patriots’ worst performances of the season.
New England managed just 10 points and only 96 yards on the ground in a brutal 17-10 loss. That defense has endured much changeover during the summer, adding promising rookie Devin Bush to join a linebacking corps highlighted by T.J. Watt.
On offense, Ben Roethlisberger will have to adjust to life without Antonio Brown, though JuJu Smith-Schuster and newcomer Donte Moncrief should suffice. In the backfield, James Conner and Benny Snell Jr. will see the bulk of the carries protected by one of the top offensive lines in the league.
OUTLOOK: New England’s improved pass rush will face an immediate test of shutting down one of the NFL’s newest premier backs. Smith-Schuster has also been trouble for the Patriots in the past. But on banner night, New England is set to come out and make a statement that they are for real.
Prediction: New England wins a close one over the Steelers.
Home: October 27, 4:25 p.m. (Week 8)
More like ‘Believeland’ because the Browns truly feel like they’ve turned a new leaf. And they have, adding Odell Beckham Jr. and Olivier Vernon to their squad. Now favorites to win the division and make the playoffs for the first time since 2002, a Week 8 matchup in New England might be where the Browns prove they’re for real.
Fortunately for New England, they won’t have to deal with Kareem Hunt who will be at the tail-end of his suspension. But they will counter with Baker Mayfield for the first time, and his laundry list of weapons including Jarvis Landry, David Njoku, and Nick Chubb.
Defensively, the Browns have Vernon and Myles Garrett setting the edge with Sheldon Richardson in the middle. A secondary with Denzel Ward and rookie Greedy Williams will make life tough on Tom Brady and his receivers.
OUTLOOK: Pass protection is key in this one for the Patriots, especially stopping Garrett and Vernon. If New England can somehow establish a running game against Cleveland it will allow the Patriots to use variety.
Prediction: Another close game in New England but the Patriots eventually pull away.
Away: November 3, 8:20 p.m. (Week 9)
The Ravens made the playoffs last season with rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson leading the way. With a year under his belt, the former Heisman Trophy winner could be poised for a breakout season.
New England has had trouble containing mobile quarterbacks in the past, and Jackson is a whole different animal with a ton of new weapons. Rookie receivers Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin join Willie Snead IV as passing threats while Mark Ingram is looking to prove he can still be a top back.
The defense was strengthened by the acquisition of Earl Thomas from Seattle but will miss the likes of Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley, and Eric Weddle who all left in free agency. Regardless, it will still be a tough matchup for the Patriots.
OUTLOOK: New England will likely have trouble containing Jackson while the Ravens running game puts on a spectacle. The Patriots, coming off a struggle a week earlier, will have to fight through some bumps and bruises in what could be a battle of attrition.
Prediction: New England suffers a tough, pre-bye week loss.
Away: December 15, 1 p.m. (Week 15)
The Bengals clearly have a stronger offense than defense this season and made great use of the waiver wire. Samaje Perine and Pharoh Cooper add speed to their offense. In the backfield, Giovani Bernard and Joe Mixon make up a dynamic rushing tandem that could propel the Bengals for much of the year. Veteran quarterback Andy Dalton still has his main targets A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert back to full health.
Aside from Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap up front on defense, there’s not much to be excited about for the Bengals as they try to patch things together that side of the ball.
OUTLOOK: Stopping A.J. Green and Mixon is key and with Eifert’s unreliable health who knows who will be playing tight end for the Bengals. On the road is never easy and while this game is no different the Patriots should still overmatch Cincy.
Prediction: New England takes a convincing win in their final road game of the year.