Patriots get started against Bengals

The 2010 New England Patriots schedule was unveiled Tuesday night, adding the all-important "when" to the "who" which was already known.

The season starts at home with a Sunday afternoon matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals (Sept. 12, 1 p.m.) and ends at home against their AFC East rivals, the Miami Dolphins (Jan. 2, 1 p.m.).

In between, there are plenty of juicy nuggets to digest, starting with a Week 2 matchup on the road against the New York Jets (Sept. 19, 4:15 p.m.).

Two key elements to consider with that contest are that the Jets will be coming off a short week, as they open the year with a Monday night home game against the Baltimore Ravens. Also, Jets receiver Santonio Holmes will still be serving his four-game suspension.

While there should be plenty of hype building up to that early-season game, it could reach even greater heights if both teams are still in contention in early December. Imagine what the scene will be like when the Jets visit Gillette Stadium for a Monday night tilt Dec. 6. That could be sizzling.

In Week 3 of the season, the Buffalo Bills come to Foxboro (Sept. 26, 1 p.m.), giving New England fans two early-season Sunday afternoon games, which are preferred by many because of the better chance for nicer conditions.

Next up is a Monday night game at the Miami Dolphins on Oct. 4. Some have predicted that the Patriots are no longer the favorite in the AFC East, and by that point of the season, there will be an early indication if those prognosticators are correct.

There will be plenty of time for analysis, as the Patriots have their bye the following weekend. That's earlier than players generally desire, but those looking on the bright side will point out that the Patriots avoid a short week of preparation after a Monday night road game, which is often a challenge for clubs.

The break will give the team extra time to prepare for a 2009 playoff rematch with the Baltimore Ravens at Gillette Stadium (Sunday, Oct. 17, 1 p.m.). The Ravens, of course, pummeled the Patriots at home and ended their 2009 season in stunning fashion.

Then comes the longest road trip of the season, to San Diego to face the always-challenging Chargers (Sunday, Oct. 24, 4:15 p.m.), followed by a home date against the Minnesota Vikings (Sunday, Oct. 31, 4:15 p.m.) and presumably quarterback Brett Favre. One aspect to consider in the Vikings game is that Minnesota figures to be coming off an emotional game at Green Bay on the preceding Sunday night.

Although it doesn't jump off the schedule, a Nov. 7 trip to Cleveland to face Eric Mangini and the Browns (1 p.m.) could be a dangerous spot. Mangini obviously knows the Patriots' scheme well and his team will be coming off a bye. The Browns are the only team the Patriots face in 2010 that will be coming off a bye.

Next up is a Sunday night game at Pittsburgh (Nov. 14, 8:20 p.m.). By that point, the Steelers hope to have weathered what figures to be some early turbulence from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's soon-to-be-announced suspension. The Steelers will also be coming off a short week of preparation after visiting the Bengals on Monday night the week before.

After those back-to-back AFC North foes, the Patriots host the Indianapolis Colts (Sunday, Nov. 21, 4:15 p.m.) for the first time since 2006. This marks the eighth straight season that the teams will play each other. The Colts host the Bengals the week before their trip to New England.

Meanwhile, the added challenge for the Patriots is that they will also be preparing for a Thanksgiving Day game four days later at Detroit (Nov. 25, 12:30 p.m.). Coach Bill Belichick has been looking forward to the Thanksgiving game.

"I'm kind of excited about [it]. That's sort of a traditional game," he told ESPNBoston.com in March. "Those of us who have played those games in high school, especially in New England, that's a big day for football. So to be a part of that ... We did that in '02. It's a short week but it's a special day."

Both the Patriots and Jets, who will also host a Thanksgiving night game, then have extra time to prepare for their rematch Dec. 6 at Gillette Stadium.

After that division battle, the Patriots travel to face the Chicago Bears (Sunday, Dec. 12, 1 p.m.), a team that enters 2010 with head coach Lovie Smith on shaky ground and has gone on a free-agent offseason spending spree that included defensive end Julius Peppers.

Patriots fans will then have to bundle up for a Sunday night game on what could be the frozen tundra of Gillette Stadium, with the Green Bay Packers coming to town (8:20 p.m.). If either the Patriots or Packers fall out of contention, however, the game could be flexed out of prime time.

And then the season finishes up with back-to-back AFC East games -- at Buffalo (Dec. 26, 1 p.m.) and the home finale against the Dolphins.

One quirk with the schedule is that the Patriots don't have back-to-back home games.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.