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Analysis: Patriots face tough stretches before, after bye week

New England will start the 2013 season with a trip to Buffalo, then host the Bills in the regular season finale. In between, they'll have five prime time games, including a Thursday night affair at home in Week 2 and a Monday Night Football appearance on the road coming out of their bye week, which falls conveniently close to the middle of the season again.

The AFC East race will be off to a quick start, with the Patriots opening at Buffalo at 1 o'clock on September 8, then turning around and hosting the Jets that following Thursday night, the 12th. A tough early test for the Patriots, who'll then enjoy that second weekend off before hosting the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ten days later in another 1 o'clock kickoff.

Consecutive road trips loom at Atlanta, in a Sunday night contest in the Georgia Dome, then a 1 p.m. tilt in Cincinnati. New Orleans comes to town in the first of three 4:25 kickoffs for New England this coming season. So, the Patriots will be done with three of their four NFC opponents after just six games.

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It's back to the division foes for two weeks, with a trip to the Jets and a visit from the Dolphins in back-to-back 1 p.m. affairs. Pittsburgh comes to Foxborough on November 3 for the second 4:25 contest, the final game for New England before the bye.

The Patriots have the maximum time to prepare for their next opponent, as they travel to Charlotte to face the Carolina Panthers in their lone Monday Night appearance of 2013. They follow that up with a Sunday night affair at home against Denver (the return of Wes Welker to Gillette) and a visit to Houston the following week for the final 4:25 game of the year (assuming they aren't flexed into another in the latter half of the year).

At this point, three of New England's final four games are scheduled for 1 o'clock kickoffs, which could change if the league's flexible scheduling decision-makers so choose. Cleveland comes into Gillette, then it's on the road for two straight weeks, first to Miami, followed by a Sunday night in Baltimore. The Bills close things out at Gillette on December 29.

So, the schedule seems to break up into five mini-sections. The first two weeks are basically one really busy week with the pair of games in five days. Then there are three out of four against the NFC South. Three straight against AFC opponents bring us to the bye week on November 10.

The three-game stretch against Carolina, Denver, and Houston might be the toughest stretch of the second half of the season, while the final quarter is highlighted by the AFC Championship Game rematch against the Ravens.

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