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USA Today

The New England Patriots made positive strides in 2021 that helped them get back into the playoffs after a one-year hiatus. However, Robert Kraft's team is still searching for its first playoff victory since winning Super Bowl LIII in 2018. With Mac Jones stepping into Year 2 and some more weapons put at his disposal this offseason, the Patriots will be looking to continue to make strides in 2022 that will eventually bring them into routine contention on a yearly basis. 

That said, as the regular-season schedule attests, the AFC is continuing to load up which creates a tough path for Bill Belichick and Co. going forward. While that may make for a more traitorous road, it'll be that much more entertaining for us a home to watch. With New England's full 2022 schedule recently revealed, let's take a look at the top-five matchups that are on deck later this year. 

5. Week 7: vs. Bears (Mon. Oct. 24, 8:15 p.m. ESPN)

The first of the Patriots' five prime-time games this season is one of the more underrated matchups on the schedule. Sure, the Bears are not expected to be competing for a Lombardi Trophy this season, but this head-to-head on Monday night features a fascinating quarterback dual. 

Justin Fields and Mac Jones were two of the five quarterbacks taken in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft and came off the board within five picks of each other. Chicago traded several picks to move up and select Fields at No. 11 overall, while the Patriots simply waited in the weeds as Jones fell to them at No. 15. From a New England standpoint, it'll be curious to see if Jones has a little extra juice in this game to prove to a team like the Bears that he was the quarterback they should have traded up for instead of Fields. 

While different, both of these signal-callers have top-tier talent and, if they both live up to their first-round potential, this could be the start of a quarterback head-to-head that lasts for the foreseeable future. 

4. Week 1: at Dolphins (Sun. Sept. 11, 1 p.m. CBS)

Right out of the gate, the Patriots are faced with an intriguing matchup with the Dolphins. 

This will be a new-look Miami squad after it hired Mike McDaniel to be its head coach, and drastically improved the roster around Tua Tagovailoa by adding the likes of wideout Tyreek Hill, tackle Terron Armstead and running backs Raheem Mostert and Chase Edmonds. This is an improvement of a team that had already swept the Patriots in 2021, so this could very well prove to be a measuring stick game where we'll find out who the No. 2 team in the division is behind Buffalo. 

If the Dolphins' skill-position player can mesh in this offense early and Tagovailoa takes any sort of jump forward, New England will have its hands full in a drastically improving division. 

3. Week 12: at Vikings (Thurs. Nov. 24, 8:20 p.m. NBC)

For just the sixth time in franchise history, the Patriots will be playing on Thanksgiving. New England last played on the holiday in 2012 when they beat the Jets, 49-19, and will be looking to piece together a similar performance against the Vikings on the road. 

Not only do the Patriots get a rare Thanksgiving draw, but they'll also be facing a Minnesota team with a new head coach in old friend Kevin O'Connell. The 36-year-old coach was a former third-round draft choice of the Patriots in 2008 and has more recently risen through the coaching ranks and had just helped the Rams win Super Bowl LVI as their OC. 

Similar to Mike Vrabel in Tennessee, it's always an interesting subplot to see Bill Belichick go against a former player. 

2. Week 13: vs. Bills (Thurs. Dec. 1, 8:15 p.m., Amazon)

We have to wait until Week 13 to see the Patriots take on the Bills and it'll come on "Thursday Night Football." Of course, the last time New England played Buffalo came in the playoffs a year ago where Belichick's defense was unable to force the Bills to punt once.

With Jones a bit more polished and the defense potentially improved from that 2021 unit, this will be a measuring-stick game for the Patriots to see if they are getting any closer to truly contending with not only the top team in the division but the current Super Bowl favorites. 

1. Week 15: at Raiders (Sun. Dec. 18, 8:20 p.m., NBC)

This is the no-brainer top game circled on the Patriots' schedule this season. On "Sunday Night Football," we'll get the student vs. the master as McDaniels faces Belichick as the new head coach of the Raiders. 

Of course, McDaniels has spent the bulk of his football life working as the Patriots offensive coordinator and there is arguably no current head coach that knows the inner workings of New England and Belichick better than him. What kind of advantages does that give him? Is he able to exploit any weaknesses of Jones after working with him last season? On a similar subject, how will Belichick attack McDaniels' offense? That chess match is worth the price of admission. 

Not only do we get McDaniels vs. Belichick, but there's plenty of star power that comes with this matchup, especially after the Raiders traded for Davante Adams this offseason. 

Given that this game will be played in Las Vegas, it also wouldn't be a surprise to learn that this is the most popular road destination for traveling Patriots fans this year.