Callahan: The Patriots caught no breaks with a brutal 2024 schedule

The NFL’s hardest schedule greased the skids of the Patriots’ demise last season.

You remember the 1-5 start. The 4-13 finish. The Hall of Fame coach getting kicked to the curb after his team took a series of kicks to the groin over and over again.

The Patriots’ reward for all that suffering?

Another 18-week coal walk courtesy of the NFL.

Following opponents’ over-under win totals set by Vegas oddsmakers, the Pats have the league’s second-most difficult schedule. Throw in nine kickoffs over 17 games, including trips to London, Arizona and San Francisco, and it’s easy to feel weary just looking at this schedule.

Oh, and did I mention the 25,701 miles they’ll fly, fourth-most in the league, as calculated by the Herald’s Bill Speros?

Now, the travel and difficulty we already knew. The Patriots’ opponents were finalized right after last season. Once free agency and the draft finished, over-under win totals stabilized across sportsbooks.

(Of note: Over-under win totals are a far more predictive strength of schedule measure than using opponents’ records the previous season. So if/when you see the Patriots’ schedule rated as eight-most difficult, not second, remember that would be a nice Sunday drive compared to what actually lies ahead.)

But before Thursday night’s release, it was fair to wonder if the Pats could catch a small break based on timing. The NFL might show mercy by booking their Arizona and San Francisco games back-to-back, so the team could remain out west instead of crossing three time zones between kickoffs. Or slot their bye week after the Patriots’ mid-October trip to London.

No sir. No mercy. It’s pain and playoff hopefuls right from the jump.

The Patriots open in Cincinnati against Joe Burrow, who owns the third-best odds of winning MVP. Then they welcome the Seahawks and first year-head coach Mike MacDonald. Seattle’s coaching staff is brand new, meaning Jerod Mayo will have little tape to work from in his home debut against the only team the Pats may be favored to beat all year.

Aaron Rodgers and the Jets are up next in Week 3 in a Thursday night game on the road and on short rest. After that, a date out west with the NFC champion 49ers awaits, followed by back-to-back home battles versus 2023 playoff teams: the Dolphins and Texans.

Then finally, the Pats catch a breather, right?

Well yes, if you count a 6.5-hour flight to London to play underdog to the Jaguars. Jacksonville requested the Patriots as an overseas opponent, possibly viewing them as an international springboard for a bounce-back campaign. You remember the Germany game last year, right?

So where is the bye, if not after their 13-hour round trip to London?

NFL schedule 2024: Patriots-Jaguars set for Week 7 in London

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That would be Week 14. Starting in late July, the Patriots will practice and play in full pads for four and a half months before taking it easy.

Because after the London trip, they will welcome the Jets again in late October, then play three road games in the next four weeks, including kickoffs against two recent playoff teams (the Dolphins and Rams). Next, the Pats host the Colts just before their bye for a second straight year in what should be a welcome respite.

Or will it be? You remember the Germany game last year, right?

After the bye, the Pats will fly to Arizona. The Cardinals’ over-under projection is 6.5 wins, one ahead of the Patriots. Perhaps the rested Patriots will pound Kyler Murray and Co., and build momentum to a strong finish.

Except back east, the NFL scheduled their hardest tests all year: two dates with the Bills over the final three weeks of the season, around a bout with Jim Harbaugh’s Chargers.

The Pats should want the Bills — division champions every year since 2019 — early in the season; before they settle in, establish an identity and find a groove. By late December, Buffalo’s playoff path should be as solidified as the icicles hanging off Gillette Stadium, where the Pats will host the Bills in a shared regular-season finale during the first week of January.

Last January, a snowstorm buried the Pats’ regular-season finale, a sad 17-3 loss to the Jets and a sadly fitting end to the Belichick era.

The Jerod Mayo era has just begun, but his Patriots will walk a road just as rocky as they did last year. Teams rarely out-perform expectations when navigating the league’s toughest schedules.

The Patriots were no exception in 2023, and it’s clear the NFL left them little room to do so in 2024.

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