Pats will spend much of '11 in spotlight


The 2011 New England Patriots schedule can be viewed in different ways, although one aspect stands out more than any other.

This is no "Sunday at 1" slate.

Football coaches on the East Coast like Bill Belichick usually prefer to play all their games Sunday at 1 p.m. -- it's often a preference of the fans watching them as well -- but the Patriots only have four of their 16 games scheduled to kick off at that time (three of which come in the season's final four weeks).

Part of it is the club's national appeal, as the Patriots will appear on ESPN's "Monday Night Football" twice (Week 1 at the Dolphins; Week 12 vs. the Kansas City Chiefs) and on NBC's "Sunday Night Football" twice (Week 10 at the Jets; Week 13 vs. Indianapolis Colts). In addition, there are eight games scheduled for 4:15 p.m., which positions the Patriots for more national exposure.

How different is the Patriots' schedule than others? Consider that the Buffalo Bills, on the opposite end of the "national draw" spectrum, are scheduled for 13 games kicking off at 1 p.m.

Some other key points on the Patriots' schedule include:

Bye week well placed. The team's bye week is Oct. 23, the seventh week of the season. The bye is often a critical time for teams to manage the health of their rosters and the preference is usually to have it near midseason. Teams could have their bye anywhere between Week 5 and Week 11, so the Patriots look to be in a good spot. They should be fresh heading into what could be a crucial game at Pittsburgh on Oct. 30.

Focusing on short weeks. One of the biggest things coaches look for when the schedule comes out is when the team's routine might be disrupted because of Monday or Thursday night games. The Patriots don't have much out of the norm in 2011 (no Thursday games), with just two short weeks of preparation. After opening the season against the Dolphins New Yorin Miami on Monday, Sept. 12, they will have one fewer day to prepare for the home opener against the San Diego Chargers on Sept. 18. But that shouldn't be a big factor because they will be able to prep throughout training camp. The second short week comes Nov. 27 when the team visits Philadelphia Eagles following the Monday home game against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Set up for strong finish. Closing with two home games -- Dec. 24 vs. Miami and Jan. 1 vs. Buffalo -- means the Patriots will be home for the holidays. If the team is in contention for the AFC East title at that time, that home-field edge could come in handy.

San Diego
Will Jets be grounded? The New York Jets' visit to Gillette Stadium on Oct. 9 will be their third straight road game. That's another good "spot" for the Patriots.

Looks like good time to face the Colts. The Patriots face the Indianapolis Colts for the ninth straight season and it will be the 11th overall meeting (including playoffs) in that span, which is the most games played between two non-division opponents over the past nine years. The game has recently been held in early November --strategically placed with TV ratings in mind -- but is deeper into the schedule this season (Dec. 4). A dome team coming to Gillette Stadium for a night game in early December looks like another good "spot" for the Patriots.

Dallas should be fresh. The Dallas Cowboys will be coming off a bye when they visit the Patriots on Oct. 16, which means they will be well rested. They are the only opponent to be coming off a bye on New England's schedule. The Cowboys' new defensive coordinator, Rob Ryan, hatched the plan that stymied Tom Brady in a 2010 loss to the Cleveland Browns.

Weather test early. The opening game at Miami, even though it's at night, brings back memories of the early portion of the 2004 schedule when the team visited Arizona in Week 2. That year, Belichick stressed the importance of conditioning, so this is an early-season weather test, even with the 7 p.m. kickoff.

Overall, this marks just the fourth time in Bill Belichick's head coaching tenure (2000-present) that the Patriots open the season on the road. They did so in 2001, 2003 and 2007, and appeared in the Super Bowl in each of those seasons. The Patriots haven't lost a season-opener since 2003 at Buffalo (aka The Lawyer Milloy game).

This is the fifth time that the Patriots will open a season on Monday night (1979, 1998, 2002, 2009)
Also, the Patriots finalized the dates and times for their two home preseason games. They will face the Jacksonville Jaguars on Thursday, Aug. 11 (7:30 p.m.) and the NewYork Giants on Thursday, Sept. 1 (7:30 p.m.).

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.