Time to plan the fall season

The NFL will announce its 2010 schedule tonight (7 p.m.), and here are some things I'll be looking for from a Patriots perspective:

1. When is the first game against the Jets? With receiver Santonio Holmes facing a four-game suspension in New York, it will be interesting to see if the Patriots will be among the Jets' first four opponents.

2. Will the opener be at home or on road? The Patriots have opened at home five of the last six years, with the only road opener in that stretch coming against the Jets in 2007.

3. Where will the Steelers game fall on the schedule? With the Steelers looking like a team that could face a rocky beginning to the season, tied to the likely suspension of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, it will be notable to see if the Patriots travel to Pittsburgh early in the year.

4. In what week is the bye? The bye often breaks up the schedule into two distinct chunks. In 2004, it came in the third week of the season, which was the earliest it could be. In 2008, it was the fourth week, which was also early. Usually, the later it comes, the better.

5. How many prime-time games and short weeks? Last year, it quickly became clear that a mid-November stretch that included a Sunday night game at Indianapolis, a Sunday afternoon home game against the Jets, and then back-to-back road tilts against the Saints (Monday night) and Dolphins (Sunday night, but later flexed to afternoon) would be a defining part of the schedule. I like to look at how many times the Patriots will be on a short week of preparation after a prime-time game, and how many times their opponents will be coming off bye weeks or short weeks, because I believe when you play a team is almost as important as who you are playing.

6. Who and where do they play the week before the Thanksgiving game? With a trip to Detroit on Thanksgiving all but a certainty, the week before that will be a challenge for coaches and players as the team will probably be preparing for two games at one time. It will be notable to see what game comes before the Thanksgiving tilt, especially if it's on the road, which would make for two road trips within five days.

In anticipation of the schedule announcement, here is a look at the team's already-determined opponents:

Home games: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Indianapolis Colts, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings

Away games: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, San Diego Chargers, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions