After finishing up bye-week practices on Thursday, the Patriots have the next few days to relax, enjoy some personal time and prepare themselves for a very tough stretch of upcoming games. Head Coach Bill Belichick gave the players three and half days to themselves, as they will not return to the training facilities at Gillette Stadium until Monday afternoon.
Sitting at 3-3 and in the midst of a three-game losing streak, how the players return from the short hiatus could key the rest of the season. And while it is true that the team has struggled of late in nearly every area of the game, it is still positioned in thick of the NFL standings. In a league where the best teams currently have a 5-1 record, the players and coaches realize that when they return to the field against Denver next week there will need to be a certain sense of urgency. It is way too early to say the season is falling apart, but at the same time the current losing streak needs to be ended.
But while the Patriots plays will be enjoying some time away from the field this weekend, there are countless games across the league that are worth watching. It might be only Week 7 of the season, but there are at least three important games that could affect possible Patriots playoff hopes and positioning later in the year.
A game many New England football fans will likely be watching for a few different reasons is a 1:00 p.m. Sunday matchup between the 3-3 Buffalo Bills and the 5-1 Miami Dolphins in Miami. Not only does the game have obvious AFC East implications with the Dolphins currently sitting atop the division, but there is always the Bledsoe factor for Patriots fans. With the Patriots holding the Bills first round draft pick in next years draft, the team would benefit from as many Bills losses as possible. But with the Dolphins already up two games on New England in the division, it is likely many fans will be pulling for their former quarterback to orchestrate an upset over the injury riddled Dolphins who will be without quarterback Jay Fielder and wide receiver Oronde Gadsden among others. The Bills have shown a relentless ability to score points this season, the only question remains as to whether they can make enough defensive stops to pull out the win.
The two other key AFC games this Sunday take place in the highly competitive West. With each of the four teams in the West currently sitting at .500 or better it appears the division could play a major factor in Wild Card and playoff races as the year unfolds.
At 1:00 p.m. the 4-2 Broncos travel to Kansas City to battle the 3-3 Chiefs. Both teams have been a bit up and down through the season, with the Broncos coming off a tough loss to the Dolphins last Sunday night. The Chiefs have a potent two headed offensive attack that has seen Trent Green throw a league-best 15 touchdown passes and Priest Holmes rush for a league-leading 653 yards. On the other hand the Broncos have a fast, athletic defense to go along with a Brian Griese-led offense. The Chiefs are historically tough at home and this one could turn into quite a divisional battle.
Later in the afternoon the two top teams in the west will square off when the 4-1 Raiders take on the 5-1 Chargers in Oakland. Both teams have utilized a relatively balanced attack to win this season, but while the Raiders were expected to be a top level team, the Chargers have surprised under first-year head coach Marty Schottenheimer. Between the conservative play of sophomore starting quarterback Drew Brees and behind the 632 rushing yards of sophomore running back LaDainian Tomlinson, San Diego is off to its best start in recent memory. The Raiders have not shown much of their perceived old age so far this season and will look to build on recent history that has seen them win seven of the last eight against the Chargers. One of these teams could make a strong case for themselves as an elite NFL team with a win on Sunday.
The Patriots might be off, but it still looks to shape up to an exciting weekend across the NFL. Between key divisional battles, rivalries and evenly paired matchups, football fans across Patriot Nation should have plenty to choose from as their own hometown team regroups with an eye on the remainder of the season.