Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Surprises in Patriots' Schedule

Could the Detroit Lions upset the Patriots on Thanksgiving Day?

It seems like every year the way we look at the schedule when it's first revealed is completely different from how we view it in October. Without fail, there's always a team that comes out of nowhere - a team that no one had on their radar that is suddenly upsetting teams left and right. Last year, we had a couple. The Bengals come to mind as well as - to a certain degree - the Saints. The opposite is also always true. Every year there's a team that fails to build on it's previous year's success and disappoints. Last year's Titans are a great example. They were a team I circled when the Patriots' 2009 schedule was revealed. In 2008 they had won their first 10 games but 2009 was a different story. They started the season losing their first 6 and ended up missing the playoffs. The game against the Patriots I was so worried about in April ended up being a 59-0 blowout.

So, with a focus on the Patriots' 2010 schedule, here are a couple teams that you may look at a little differently come game time than you do now.

The Sleepers:

The Detroit Lions
Yes, the laughing stock of the NFL could be a dark horse to upset the Pats on Thanksgiving Day. In fact, don't be surprised if the Lions pull a couple of upsets this season. By no stretch of the imagination do they have a chance to be playing at Cowboy Stadium in February nor am I saying they will make the playoffs. However, with closer inspection, you might be surprised at the amount of talent the Lions have on their roster.

They've already got standout receiver Calvin Johnson and franchise quarterback, Matthew Stafford. While in his rookie year the number one pick had his lows - missing six games and throwing 20 picks - he also had his highs. In Week 11, Stafford and the Lions put together one of the most memorable games of the 2009 season in a firefight with the Cleveland Browns. In the game, despite getting severely injured, Stafford showed some grit and took the field for one final play - throwing a game winning touchdown pass to Brandon Pettigrew.

The Lions look to build on moments like that this season with a much improved roster. They've given Stafford another receiving threat, Nate Burleson, and drafted running back Jahvid Best - who many have picked as rookie of the year. Detroit's also bolstered it's defense, adding Tennessee's Kyle Vanden Bosch and drafting Ndamukong Suh with the second overall pick. There's a lot of talent on this Lions team that shouldn't be overlooked. The Patriots should be on their guard when the two teams meet mid-season, as weird as that sounds.

The Chicago Bears
The Patriots head to Soldiers Field to face the Bears during the final stretch of the regular season, a stretch that is sure to be highly important to the Pats in a much more competitive division. While one might look at the Bears' mediocre season last year and think this could be a cakewalk for the Patriots, I wouldn't bet on it.

The most important piece to the Bears' defense, Brian Urlacher, will be returning to the field in 2010. Many compared Urlacher going down in Game 1 of last season to Brady's injury in 2008 - he's that integral to the Chicago Bears. With his return and the addition of Julius Peppers, the Bears' defense should be one to reckon with.

Last season, Jay Cutler was atrocious for Chicago - throwing a career high 26 picks. With Mike Martz being hired as offensive coordinator, Bears' fans hope that will change. Cutler's performance will largely dictate how far the Bears go in 2010 but they have the potential to be a strong force in the NFL. Just look at the talent they have on their roster - Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher, Tommie Harris, Greg Olsen, Devin Hester, Johnny Knox. Even receiver Devin Aromashodu impressed many experts down the stretch of last season. Chicago has the potential to be a big threat and a team that could emerge as a problem for the Patriots on December 12th.

The Disappointments:

The San Diego Chargers:
The Chargers were one of the best teams in the NFL last season, so putting them in this category would seem to be ridiculous. However, the fact remains that San Diego has a lot of question marks. Players that have been integral to their success, Marcus McNeill and Vincent Jackson, are currently in hold-outs. Losing a talent like Jackson and the protection of McNeill could greatly hinder the Charger's ferocious passing attack.

In addition, they lost corner, Antonio Cromartie, to the Jets. While Cromartie wasn't performing up to the standards he set in 2007, and the Chargers still have Quentin Jammer, they now have a less experienced secondary which, particularly against the Patriots, will face some tough competition.

While the Chargers hope to get their ground game going again with first round draft pick, Ryan Matthews, they have some question marks that could lead to them being the Titans of last year - a big disappointment.

Honorable Mention:
The Minnesota Vikings
The health of Brett Favre, a tougher schedule, and Sidney Rice's absence could have Minnesota failing to build on last year's impressive run.

Favre will be 41 this year and he was allegedly on the fence about returning because of his ankle. The Patriots' see the Vikings 8 weeks into the regular season and the old gun slinger's durability will be greatly tested.

Don't be surprised if the above teams look a little more or a little less frightening when it comes time to play this season. The NFL is full of surprises.

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