FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots have a fan-friendly schedule early in the year -- with five of their first eight games at Gillette Stadium -- before the toughest part of the slate gives them the challenge of playing five road games in a span of six weeks. In the spirit of not taking ourselves too seriously, let’s look into the crystal ball and see if we can find some interesting nuggets with this year’s schedule:
Week 1: Thursday Sept. 7, vs. Kansas City Chiefs, 8:25 p.m. ET
The Chiefs have been prepared for this news, with players already talking about the great challenge of coming to Gillette Stadium. This game kicks off the NFL season, the Patriots’ Super Bowl championship banner will be unveiled, and New England fans need no reminder of what happened the last time the Chiefs were the team’s home-opening opponent; in 2008, Tom Brady tore his ACL on the 15th offensive play and was lost for the year. Overheard in Foxborough on Thursday: "We're on to Kansas City." Record: 1-0.
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 17, at New Orleans Saints, 1 p.m.
Cornerback Malcolm Butler almost certainly will be playing in this game; the question is for what team. The Saints, who have been the team most interested in Butler after hosting him on a free-agent visit, will be coming off a short week after a Monday night opener at Minnesota. If the Patriots’ defense needs some time to come together, which can sometimes be the case, the New Orleans offense could be the difference. Record: 1-1.
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 24, vs. Houston Texans, 1 p.m.
It’s déjà vu from 2016 with Bill O’Brien and the Texans coming to town in Week 3, with the only difference being that this one isn’t on a Thursday night. Mike Vrabel, the former Patriot who is vying to become a finalist for the team’s Hall of Fame, has been elevated to Texans defensive coordinator. If Vrabel earns induction, this would be a perfect time to salute him. The Texans will have some extra time to prepare after playing a Thursday night road game at Cincinnati in Week 2. Record: 2-1.
Week 4: Sunday, Oct. 1, vs. Carolina Panthers, 1 p.m.
The “Under Armour” Bowl between two of the company’s biggest ambassadors -- Tom Brady vs. Cam Newton -- is rare because the last time Carolina was in town for a regular-season game was 2009. The Panthers will have played back-to-back home games against the Bills and Saints entering this one. Record: 3-1.
Week 5: Thursday, Oct. 5, at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 8:25 p.m. ET
Here is the type of schedule nugget that can be fun to uncover: Outside of Thanksgiving, the Patriots haven’t played a road Thursday night game since 1990 in a 17-10 loss at Miami in which quarterback Marc Wilson couldn’t outduel Dan Marino. The Patriots haven’t had too many days when they’ve been on that lopsided end of the quarterback duel in recent years. The Buccaneers will be coming off a home game against the Giants in Week 4. Record: 4-1.
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 15, at New York Jets, 1 p.m. ET
The Jets will be coming off a road game against the Browns, which should provide a good indication of whether their 2017 season has much hope. Outside of the "Butt Fumble" game, road contests against the Jets traditionally have been tough for the Patriots. Record: 5-1.
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 22, vs. Atlanta Falcons, 8:30 p.m. ET
A rematch of Super Bowl LI, the Falcons will have had their bye in Week 5 and then a home game against the Dolphins. At that point, the Falcons will have played the Bears (road), Packers (home), Lions (road), Bills (home) and Dolphins (home), so the impact of their Super Bowl hangover will be interesting to monitor. Record: 6-1.
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 29, vs. Los Angeles Chargers, 1 p.m. ET
Check out this stretch for the Chargers leading into this game: at the Giants, at the Raiders and home against Denver. That’s a tough challenge under first-year coach Anthony Lynn. Record: 7-1.
Week 9: BYE
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 12, at Denver Broncos, 8:30 p.m. ET
In the NFL Films-produced DVD commemorating the Patriots’ Super Bowl 2016 championship season, behind-the-scenes footage from the locker room had Bill Belichick telling players how everyone told them they couldn’t win in Denver, but that didn’t apply to that year’s team. Cool stuff. In a tough stretch, Denver will be coming off three straight road games leading into this one: against the Giants, Chiefs (Monday night) and Eagles. Record: 8-1.
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 19, at Oakland Raiders (Mexico), 4:25 p.m. ET
For the second time this year, Tom Brady’s jersey will return to town from Mexico, only this time it will be in his bag. The Raiders will be coming off a bye week, which could be the deciding factor in the altitude. Perhaps Belichick keeps the Patriots in Denver the week prior to offset that. Record: 9-1.
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 26, vs. Miami Dolphins, 1 p.m. ET
Dolphins receiver Jarvis Landry has his team sweeping the Patriots, which is the type of bulletin-board material New England players likely will dismiss leading up to the game, then remind Landry of afterward if the result doesn’t go his way. The Dolphins will be coming off a bye week, but that might not be enough to win in Foxborough as the Patriots kick off a stretch in which they play five AFC East games in six weeks. Record: 10-1.
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 3, at Buffalo Bills, 1 p.m. ET
The first potential bad-weather game for the Patriots. The club hasn’t played a December road game in Buffalo since 2010. Record: 11-1.
Week 14: Monday, Dec. 11, at Miami Dolphins, 8:30 p.m. ET
This is a bit unusual to play a team twice in a span of three weeks in the regular season. How unusual? It's happened only once before for the Patriots in the Belichick era; his first year in 2000 when the Patriots hosted the Colts on Oct. 8 (win), then visited them two weeks later on Oct. 22 (loss). In 2001, the Patriots and Colts (who at the time were AFC East rivals before realignment moved the Colts to the AFC South in 2002) had a three-week split between meetings. Record: 11-2.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 17, at Pittsburgh Steelers, 4:25 p.m. ET
This looks like a tough spot for the Patriots (fifth road game in six weeks), even given their success against the Steelers in 2016. But taking a closer look at things, the Steelers will be coming off their own tough stretch of four straight prime-time games: Titans (home/Thursday), Packers (home/Sunday), Bengals (road/Monday) and Ravens (home/Sunday). Record: 12-2.
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 24, vs. Buffalo Bills, 1 p.m. ET
Home for the holidays; a nice present from the NFL. In the Belichick era, when the Patriots have played on Christmas Eve, they have been home against the Jets (2016), home against the Dolphins (2011 and 2000) and on the road against the Jaguars (2006). Record: 13-2.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 31, vs. New York Jets, 1 p.m. ET
Brian Costello of the New York Post presented a scenario in which the Jets could be vying for a high draft pick (No. 1 overall?) but the Patriots might have a top playoff seed wrapped up and decide to play preseason style and potentially complicate things for the Jets’ hopes for the best possible draft pick. That’s really thinking ahead. Record: 13-3.