Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
Pop quiz: Name the last National Football Conference team to beat the New England Patriots in the regular season?
If you said the Carolina Panthers, reward yourself by circling Dec. 13 on this year's calendar when the Panthers visit Gillette Stadium in a Week 14 duel.
Since a Sept. 18, 2005, loss to the host Panthers, the Patriots have treated the NFC like it's the Washington Nationals. New England has a 15-game nonconference winning streak. Still, last season's 4-0 romp through the NFC West could not secure New England a playoff berth.
The AFC East champion Miami Dolphins were 3-1 against the NFC West in 2008, and the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills were 2-2 in interconference play. For the Jets and Dolphins, those records were huge improvements over 0-for-4 marks versus the NFC East in 2007. The Bills were 1-3 in interconference play that season. What success can the Patriots and their AFC East brethren expect to have against the NFC South this fall? These factors might come into play:
1. The Buffalo Bills are without Marshawn Lynch against two NFC South teams: The league suspended the Pro Bowl running back for the first three games of the season. The Bills play host to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 2 and the New Orleans Saints in Week 3. The Bills have underrated backup Fred Jackson and capable free-agent acquisition Dominic Rhodes to fill Lynch's void. How those reserves perform against defenses that were below average against the run last season will be crucial to whether the Bills can get off to a good start in the AFC East race.
2. AFC East secondaries matching up with Drew Brees: The Saints' bombardier will go up against four generally pedestrian pass defenses. Each AFC East team will have at least one new starting cornerback this season and could have a new starting safety, too. Every team brought in veteran cornerback help, with the Patriots signing a pair and drafting another in the second round. The Dolphins drafted two cornerbacks within the first 61 picks. That's plenty of anecdotal evidence AFC East secondaries weren't exactly elite.
3. Tom Brady versus Matt Ryan: They won't be on the field at the same time, but you better believe these two quarterback archetypes will be the main story line when Atlanta Falcons icon Ryan, the pride of Boston College, returns to New England in Week 3. In the days leading up to the game, we'll hear an awful lot of comparisons between the two. Ryan's future will be projected against Brady's resume. There will be more to this game than the quarterbacks, but what a compelling duel it could be.
4. New England's offensive line against Carolina's pass rush: We'll know long before Week 14 whether Brady's reconstructive knee surgery has made him skittish about pressure, but the Panthers have one of the NFL's most dangerous pass rushes, starring Julius Peppers. Even before Brady was hurt, he was known for hanging in the pocket for that extra beat and taking shots to deliver the ball. The Panthers recorded the ninth-most sacks in the league last season and drafted Florida State edge-rusher Everette Brown.
5. The Bills' dynamic passing attack against NFC South secondaries: Teams can't double cover Lee Evans anymore; not with Terrell Owens on the opposite side of the field. Aside from Tampa Bay, NFC South pass defenses were ordinary last year. The Buccaneers limited teams to fewer than 200 aerial yards a game and picked off 22 passes, but also surrendered 23 touchdown passes.
6. Coach Tony Sparano's Dolphins against Mike Smith's Falcons in Week 1: Two clubs under second-year coaches won't waste any time beginning their quests to prove they weren't playoff flukes last year. Former Dolphins offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey helped the Falcons amass the sixth-most yardage in the NFL, but he'll have to contend with Joey Porter, the return of Jason Taylor and a tweaked defensive backfield that added Gibril Wilson.
7. The Jets' running game versus the Falcons in December: Jets rookie head coach Rex Ryan declared his intention to have an all-weather offense (i.e. hand off and plow ahead) for those critical games late in the year. Thomas Jones, Leon Washington and Shonn Greene will have the chance to do some damage in Week 15 against Atlanta in the Meadowlands. In 2008, the Falcons yielded more than 2,000 rushing yards, an average of 4.9 yards per carry.
Who benefits most? There are some real scheduling groaners for the AFC East in here. The Patriots play the Buccaneers in London. The Dolphins play three exhibition games against NFC South teams. In the regular season, they meet two NFC South teams in a five-day stretch. The Jets play three NFC South teams in four weeks, with the exception being the Bills in Toronto on a Thursday night. So who gets the best shake on the interconference deal? How about the Bills? They play their first two games without Lynch, but at least they're home. They visit Carolina in Week 7 and Atlanta in Week 16.