The league's unveiling of the schedule has evolved into one of the more fascinating developments of recent years. The opponents and venues (other than those involving the International Series) of each game are known on the day the season ends, yet months later the NFL tries to bring the sports world to its knees with wall-to-wall programming centered around releasing the times and dates of each of the 272 games.
Despite its best efforts, the league hasn't really elicited the type of excitement it's hoping for, particularly given the amount of time and effort it devotes to the whole exercise. But last week still brought some buzz for each of the 32 clubs, including the Patriots.
In the latter case, it would be understandable if fans weren't quite as excited about the process as they might have been in recent years – and that's even with the presence of arguably the most anticipated regular-season game in Boston sports history on tap.
Speculation on the timing of the much-anticipated visit by Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has been constant, and now we know when that game will take place. In a mild surprise, the league placed it early in the season – Week 4 on Oct. 3 at Gillette Stadium.
Many, myself included, felt an early-November slot during the network's sweeps period would make sense. That's when the league and its broadcast partners like to showcase the marquee games, but evidently the powers-that-be didn't feel it was wise to go in that direction.
The message the schedulers sent was clear: coming off a 7-9 season the league didn't have enough confidence in the Patriots impressive offseason spending spree to wait 10 weeks or so to show Brady's return to Foxborough. The hype for the game is already off the charts as local sports radio is discussing everything from fan reaction to Brady and Belichick interaction and everything in between. Local ticket brokers are expecting AFC title game prices – and more – with "get-in" prices hovering around $5,000 still four-plus months ahead of game time.
But instead of saving Bucs-Patriots, the league seemed to be uncertain that New England's season would still be promising if it waited, so we get the hype machine cranked up good and early and the Brady-Belichick showdown out of the way almost immediately.
That was just one slight – perceived or otherwise – the league sent the Patriots way. New England is typically loaded with prime-time games, but this year there are just three such outings scheduled to start. In addition to the Bucs Sunday night affair, the Patriots play at Atlanta on Thursday night and at Buffalo for a Monday nighter in December.
The Patriots maintained their elite status last season without Brady by appearing in prime time five times, but it would seem apparent the league wasn't interested in giving the Patriots the benefit of the doubt once again.
New England also picked up a late bye – Week 14, the latest in the league in 2021 – which represents another indication that the league may not think too highly of the Patriots prospects this season. Back in 2001 the Patriots were set to have a bye in Week 17, and Belichick explained after the season that he and the team took that as a sign of disrespect. He said the league obviously didn't feel like the team would be making any playoff run so they decided to end their season early by giving it the final weekend off. The 9/11 terrorist attacks necessitated alterations to the schedule but the league's message was clear.
Of course, the 2001 Patriots ultimately kicked off their dynasty with the first of their six Super Bowl titles, so slights from the league's scheduling committee don't necessarily mean the Patriots need to accept such a fate.
The preseason slate was also released last week and the Patriots had to be happy to learn their three opponents – Washington, Philadelphia and the Giants – are all close by and have shared joint practice time with Belichick's teams in the past. The opener is at home against Washington, followed by a pair of road games. The latter two might make the most sense as practice partners, and given the relationship between Giants coach Joe Judge and the Patriots, it would be a surprise if those teams didn't get together for some extra work. ESPN's Mike Reiss speculated those workouts may take place in Foxborough ahead of the trip to New Jersey for the game, which is scheduled for Sunday, August 29.
Speaking of preseason
The elimination of the fourth exhibition will likely impact the manner in which the games are played. In the past most teams treated the third game as the opportunity to give starters the most playing time, while the final outing generally featured a lot of young players trying to find their way into the NFL. It will be interesting to see if the second game gets the starter treatment. More likely, the last game will be the one the starters get extended time given the long gap between the end of the exhibitions (August 29) and the start of the regular season (September 13). Coaches will likely want to keep their regulars sharp with some game action rather than going three weeks with just practice under their belts. It was mildly surprising that the league didn't push back the start of the preseason a week to eliminate the long break between the exhibitions and the real thing, but that wasn't the case and coaches will need to figure out what works best in terms of preparing their teams.
Check out our favorite photos from 2021 Patriots rookie mini camp at Gillette Stadium.
Signed, sealed, delivered
The Patriots signed four of their eight draft picks as seventh-round receiver Tre Nixon, sixth-rounders Joshuah Bledsoe and Will Sherman and fifth-round pick Cameron McGrone all agreed to four-year deals. The rookies were in town last weekend for their mini-camp and will remain at the facility this week as Phase 2 of the offseason program gets underway. Coaches are allowed to be on the field for non-contact drills for the first time this spring.
The Patriots re-signed Brian Hoyer Monday, adding yet another Patriots stint to the veteran backup's resume. On the surface it's a strange move to understand considering the crowded nature of the quarterback room with Mac Jones, Cam Newton and Jarrett Stidham already on board. It's unlikely that all four will make it to training camp as reps will be difficult to come by with that many quarterbacks on the roster. At the very least Hoyer should provide a veteran sounding board for the rookie Jones, but not at the expense of a roster spot. It will be interesting to see which of the three veterans goes, as a case could be made for each of them. Now it would seem Stidham and Hoyer will battle it out for the third spot, but Newton's status as "the quarterback," as Belichick referred to him following the selection of Jones, doesn't exclude him from this mix either. The quarterback position was already far and away the lead item of note heading into camp, and Hoyer's addition adds another layer of intrigue to the depth chart.