New England Patriots face arguably toughest opening game in Bill Belichick's tenure

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Much has changed since the New England Patriots' schedule was first released in April, for the team itself and many of its opponents. Most notably, as coach Bill Belichick said, the Patriots now have some "definition" on quarterback Tom Brady's status as he will serve a four-game NFL suspension to open the season.

In projecting an 11-5 record in April, I took that possibility into account, which is why there isn't any shift in a revised projection, even as the dynamics of many of the matchups have changed.

Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 11, at Arizona Cardinals, 8:30 p.m.

One could make the case that this is as challenging of an opening game as the Patriots have had in Belichick’s 17 years as head coach. It was going to be a major test, even if Brady was at quarterback. Record: 0-1.

Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 18, vs. Miami Dolphins, 1 p.m.

First-year head coach Adam Gase, whose fine work with quarterbacks is well documented, already seems to be making a difference with Ryan Tannehill. But Miami is coming off a season-opening game at Seattle and then has to travel to New England. There arguably isn’t another NFL team with a tougher opening to the season. Record: 1-1.

Week 3: Thursday, Sept. 22, vs. Houston Texans 8:25 p.m.

Will J.J. Watt be at full strength for the Texans? That was a notable offseason injury situation that could have a trickle-down effect on the Patriots. Record: 2-1.

Week 4: Sunday, Oct. 2, vs. Buffalo Bills, 1 p.m.

Bills coach Rex Ryan previously declared that his team won the offseason, and soon after, they had a run of bad injury luck and a four-game suspension for top defensive tackle Marcell Dareus. Most intriguing will be the defensive plan that Ryan comes up with for Jimmy Garoppolo. Record: 3-1.

Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 9, at Cleveland Browns, 1 p.m.

Welcome back, Brady. For one week, at least, there should be overwhelming media attention for a game played in Cleveland. Record: 4-1.

Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 16, vs. Cincinnati Bengals, 1 p.m.

Since 1986, the Patriots are 6-0 when hosting the Bengals. The home crowd will welcome back Brady in what should be an electric environment, similar to the last time Cincinnati was in town in 2014 (after the Patriots were crushed by the Chiefs on "Monday Night Football". Record: 5-1.

Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 23, at Pittsburgh Steelers, 4:25 p.m.

The Steelers are coming off a home game against the Jets, followed by a road game at Miami, so this concludes a three-game AFC East run for them. They could be the Patriots’ primary competition for AFC supremacy. Record: 5-2.

Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 30, at Buffalo Bills, 1 p.m.

This will mark the Bills’ fourth AFC East game of the season, and they will be coming off a three-game set at Los Angeles, home against San Francisco and a road date against Miami. There is always a surprise loss somewhere on the schedule, and we’ll throw a dart at this one in 2016. Record: 5-3.

Week 9: Bye

Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 13, vs. Seattle Seahawks, 8:30 p.m.

The Patriots will be well rested, and the Seahawks will have already had their bye in Week 5. This is a tough spot for Seattle in the sense that the Seahawks will be at New Orleans in Week 8, return home for a Monday night game against Buffalo, then turn around and fly East on a short week to face the Patriots. Record: 6-3.

Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 20, at San Francisco 49ers, 4:25 p.m.

Brady has never played a regular-season game in San Francisco, as a result of him missing the 2008 season with a torn ACL. That will be a fun storyline of the week. Record: 7-3.

Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 27, at New York Jets, 8:30 p.m.

The Jets will be coming off a bye, making them the lone Patriots opponent in 2016 coming off a bye. This is always a tough game for New England, which will be coming off the road game in San Francisco on Thanksgiving week. Record: 7-4.

Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 4, vs. Los Angeles Rams, 1 p.m.

The Patriots will celebrate the 15th anniversary of their Super Bowl XXXVI win against the Rams by having many of the players on that team back for this game. It should be a festive night, capped off with a win. Record: 8-4.

Week 14: Monday, Dec. 12, vs. Baltimore Ravens, 8:30 p.m.

This is the Ravens’ first trip back to Gillette Stadium since the AFC divisional round playoff game in the 2014 season, when Belichick’s plan to make eligible receivers ineligible, and Brady’s postgame remarks, infuriated Baltimore coach John Harbaugh. Lots of storylines to revisit this week. Record: 9-4.

Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 18, at Denver Broncos, 4:25 p.m.

If there is one NFL venue that gives the Patriots the most problems, this is it. The Broncos will be coming off back-to-back road games against the Jaguars and Titans, and the Patriots will be on a short week. Record: 9-5.

Week 16: Saturday, Dec. 24, vs. Jets, 1 p.m.

Christmas Eve at home is a nice gift for the Patriots, but this is the third game in a 13-day stretch. Meanwhile the Jets will be coming off a Saturday game the week before at home against Miami, giving them an extra day of rest. Still, I don’t see the Jets sweeping the Patriots. Record: 10-5.

Week 17: Sunday, Jan. 1, at Dolphins, 1 p.m.

It’s déjà vu for the Patriots, who will close the season at Miami for the second season in a row. The Patriots have lost three in a row in Miami, but this time they employ a better offensive game-plan. Record: 11-5.