In less than two weeks the 2016 Patriots will take to the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium to open training camp and begin their quest to add a fifth Lombardi Trophy to the team's collection. With Tom Brady's pending suspension, a bevy of high-profile players looking for contract extensions and some quality newcomers to keep tabs on, there will be plenty to look forward to.
As exciting as the opening of camp may be, we're willing to look past it and the entire preseason as we set our sights on the real thing when the regular season kicks off on Sept. 11. There will be no shortage of difficult tests on the schedule this year, starting right off the top with a trip to Arizona on opening night.
The Cardinals game isn't the only one that should provide a challenge. The Patriots will also travel to Pittsburgh, Denver and the three division foes as well as host Seattle, Baltimore and Cincinnati. But since this is Debate Friday on Patriots.com there can only be one pick, so this week's Samsonite Make Your Case question is: Which game will be the toughest for the Patriots this season?
PFW's Andy Hart says...
In the Patriots opponent power rankings, the Steelers top the list in 2016. Pittsburgh has one of the few offenses in football that can match the Patriots point for point. Ben Roethlisberger has the best wide receiver in football in Antonio Brown, plus one of the best and most versatile running backs in the game in Le'Veon Bell. That's plenty of firepower to deal with, especially on the road.
The Steelers are also one of those teams that won't be intimidated by the mere presence of Tom Brady and the Patriots. They believe they're as good as anyone and with some improvement on defense they could easily vault into contender status in the AFC after falling just short in Denver a year ago.
The Patriots have generally had good success against Roethlisberger as long as Brady is in the lineup, but that doesn't mean it will be easy. The Steelers will score points and it will be up to Brady & Co. to keep pace, and on the road that can be a difficult task. Pittsburgh is the toughest obstacle.
PFW's Paul Perillo says...
No need to venture too far down the schedule to find the most difficult opponent. The Arizona Cardinals sit right at the top of the list, and no opponent that follows will be any tougher to deal with.
The Cardinals are a talented team that advanced to the NFC title game a year ago. They have a veteran quarterback in Carson Palmer and a varied attack that can beat you in a number of ways with veteran wideout Larry Fitzgerald, young running back David Johnson and speedster John Brown.
On defense, Tyrann Mathieu and Patrick Peterson lead a ballhawking secondary while the blitz-happy front now gets former Patriot Chandler Jones in his first game with his new team. And the Arizona defense is particularly swarming while playing at home.
One final factor that concerns me about this game is the fact that Bill Belichick isn't overly familiar with the NFC foe. Belichick is always better dealing with teams he's familiar with, and the Patriots haven't seen the Cards since 2012. This is the toughest test on the schedule – and that's true whether Tom Brady is in the lineup or not.
Now it's your turn to cast a vote in this week's Samsonite Make Your Case poll question.