- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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The NFL regular-season schedule will be announced tonight (8 p.m. ET), which is highly anticipated. It’s fun to begin thinking about planning the fall.
Last year, the Patriots opened at Tennessee. Two years ago, it was a Monday Night Football date in Miami.
Does this mean the team will be opening at home for the first time since 2010 (vs. Bengals)?
We’ll find out tonight. Until then, let’s have some fun and give our ranking of the best possible season-opening games:
1. Broncos (home) – A game like this could bring big ratings during the season (maybe early November like the Patriots-Colts games of the past?), so perhaps it’s one that the NFL doesn’t “burn” in Week 1. Wes Welker will get big cheers upon his return to Gillette Stadium, as he should.
2. Falcons (away) – A road game against the high-flying Falcons could be an instant classic. Former Patriots director of college scouting Thomas Dimitroff, now in his sixth season as Falcons general manager, has built one of the NFL’s best teams.
3. Steelers (home) – The Emmanuel Sanders Bowl? Always a big game against a physical team. Would be an exciting opener, just as it was in 2002.
4. Saints (home) – The Patriots haven’t opened against an NFC team since 2000, the first year of Bill Belichick’s tenure as coach, when they lost at home to Tampa Bay (21-16). Sean Peyton’s return as Saints coach figures to be a big Week 1 storyline. Similar to the Falcons, the potential for offensive fireworks is big.
5. Texans (away) – After seeing them in the AFC divisional round of the playoffs, and late in the 2012 regular season, this road game figures to be a tough one for the Patriots. If it’s the opener, it would be even tougher.
6. Browns (home) – A home game against a team with new ownership, new coach, and new personnel chief. From a team perspective, it’s probably best to catch a team like this earlier in the season. From a fan perspective, this would be similar to the 2008 opener at home against the Chiefs. A bit different.
7. Panthers (away) – With first-year general manager Dave Gettleman inheriting a tough salary cap situation, the Panthers are in clean-up mode. A road game in Charlotte would be different – the franchises have met just five times in the regular season – with defending quarterback Cam Newton, Steve Smith and Co. something that could occupy plenty of Bill Belichick’s time over the offseason.
8. Bengals (away) – Would be a repeat of the 2010 opener, which was at Gillette Stadium. The only difference is that this year’s game is played in Cincinnati. A chance to catch up with BenJarvus Green-Ellis but not a top choice because we just had this matchup.
9. Dolphins (home/away) – They look like the Patriots’ primary competition in the AFC East, which makes them the most compelling potential division foe to open against. But one “drawback” is that the teams just met in the 2011 opener. Something different would be preferred.
10. Jets (home/away) – The 2007 opener at the Jets was unforgettable (Randy Moss splitting triple coverage). There is always a spark when these two rivals meet, but the Jets look to be down right now. Thus, nothing off the charts with this potential opener – home or away.
11. Bills (home/away) – The Patriots opened at home against them in 2006 and 2009, and on the road against them in 2003 (Lawyer Milloy game). First-year coach Doug Marrone looks like a solid choice to lead the Bills, but not an opener – home or away – that looks exciting at this time.
12. Buccaneers (home) – A good matchup between head coaches Bill Belichick and Greg Schiano who have mutual respect, but there’s just one problem with making this the opener (at Gillette Stadium) – the Buccaneers are visiting the Patriots in the second week of the preseason (Aug. 16). Too close to home.
13. Ravens (away) – This would have been at the top of the list, but it falls to the bottom after it is learned that the Ravens will be opening on the road. Since Patriots-Ravens is scheduled to be played in Baltimore, it can’t be the opener.