The New England Patriots' path to the playoffs in 2019 does not look too difficult.

New England, based on the 2018 records of their opponents, have the easiest strength of schedule in the NFL alongside the Washington Redskins.

That seems very unfair given the Patriots' continuing dominance, but a big part of that is down to having three division rivals who continue to provide very little in the way of competition.

So, who provide the biggest roadblocks for the Patriots in the regular season as they seek an unprecedented seventh Super Bowl title?

The list is short, but includes some familiar suspects who have caused them problems in years gone by.

 

v Cleveland Browns

Games against his old team may be tougher now for Bill Belichick than they were in the past, and you can file the Browns' offense under the same category as that of the Kansa City Chiefs – one blessed with young talent, a superstar receiver and a fearless quarterback playing for an offensive-minded head coach who maximises his skill set. Throw in the depth on Cleveland's defense and this is a home game that figures to be a very tricky proposition for New England.

@ Baltimore Ravens

It has long been thought that no team scares the Patriots and their fans more than Baltimore. This is a very different Baltimore team – Joe Flacco has been replaced by Lamar Jackson and the defense has been gutted of a lot of talent – but the prospect of a road game against a team led by a coach in John Harbaugh who has had success against New England is not likely to be an enticing one for the Patriots.

@ Philadelphia Eagles

They may be reigning Super Bowl champions, but you can be sure the Philly fans will be keen to remind the Patriots of the one that got away a year earlier. Nick Foles may have taken his magic touch to Jacksonville, but if Carson Wentz is fully healthy this an Eagles team still good enough to contend with any in the league and revenge for their Super Bowl LII defeat is unlikely to come easy for New England.

@ Houston Texans

The Texans have beaten the Patriots just once in their history, but each of the two games in which Deshaun Watson has been under center have been decided by one score. There remain questions over Houston's offensive line and the back end of the defense but, with Watson's dual-threat ability and J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney pursuing Brady, the Texans have enough at their disposal to pull off an upset.

v Kansas City Chiefs

Had the Chiefs won a flip of a coin, we may be talking about them defending the title in 2019. In two games against the Patriots last season, Patrick Mahomes hung points on New England's defense almost at will and there is little to suggest he should not do so once more against a unit now without pass rusher Trey Flowers. The big question, however, surrounds the Chiefs' ability to stop Tom Brady. They failed to do so last season and the task may be even more difficult following the departures of pass rushers Dee Ford and Justin Houston.

The NFL schedule was released on Wednesday and there are a few things that stand out.

Aside from putting some good teams in London and bringing on some decent matchups in the first week of the season, the league balanced out the schedule quite nicely down the stretch.

Here are five takeaways from the NFL schedule release:

 

1. Good offense vs. defense matchups early

While the NFL loves its offense, there may be nothing more satisfying than seeing a juggernaut have to work for everything they get. These games often lead to good scoring games, but games which are much more entertaining than 52-51 shootouts where there is no stopping either team.

The NFL did a very good job of giving us some of those matchups early as you can see here:

Week 1:

- Chicago Bears v Green Bay Packers
- New Orleans Saints v Houston Texans
- Jacksonville Jaguars v Kansas City Chiefs

Week 2:

- New Orleans Saints v Los Angeles Rams
- Minnesota Vikings v Green Bay Packers

Week 3:

- New England Patriots v New York Jets
​- New Orleans Saints v Seattle Seahawks

Now are these teams guaranteed to be good offensively and defensively? Of course not. But on paper, these could be pretty fun games.

 

2. Young QBs get shots at early wins

An opening-day win is pivotal for young quarterbacks and several have shots at wins in week one this season.

The Jets will take on the Buffalo Bills and either Sam Darnold or Josh Allen could get victories in that game. The Baltimore Ravens and Lamar Jackson get a favourable matchup with the Miami Dolphins and Baker Mayfield and his Cleveland Browns will take on the Tennessee Titans.

There is a very good chance these young QBs get off to a good start and that is good for the game.

 

3. Make-up game

It was incredibly inconvenient for the Kansas City Chiefs and Rams to have to relocate their matchup in Mexico City last year to Los Angeles, but it had to be really upsetting for all the fans in Mexico who planned to go to that game.

Well, the NFL did its best to make it up to the people as they gave the Los Angeles Chargers and Chiefs to them this year in week 11.

That is an absolutely fantastic game with Patrick Mahomes facing off against Philip Rivers and might be even better than last year's shootout in Los Angeles.

 

4. Back loaded

One of the more annoying things about the NFL season is when teams will sit their players down the stretch as they hope to preserve their health in the closing weeks of the season. We get it, and it makes complete sense. But when a backup quarterback is playing in week 15 or 16, it is a bit of a downer for fans, especially ones who bought tickets to see the starters.

This season, though, the NFL did a good job of giving good games to fans late in the season. Just take a look at his line-up down the stretch.

Week 12:

- New Orleans Saints v Carolina Panthers
- New England Patriots v Dallas Cowboys

Week 13:

- Houston Texans v New England Patriots

Week 14:

- New England Patriots v Kansas City Chiefs

Week 15:

- New Orleans Saints v Indianapolis Colts
- Green Bay Packers v Chicago Bears

Week 16

- New York Jets v Pittsburgh Steelers

Many of these games could be against teams either fighting for playoff position or spots in general, so the end of the year could be a lot of fun.

 

5. Week 17 Savior

Building off that last point, in the final week of the regular season there are not only good games, but games against rivals.

In that last week alone we will see:

- Buffalo Bills v New York Jets
​- New England Patriots v Miami Dolphins
- New Orleans Saints v Carolina Panthers
- New York Giants v Philadelphia Eagles

The argument could be made that every one of those teams have at least a shot at a playoff spot and there is divisional pride on the line as well. Who knows? Maybe the last week of the campaign will be a fun one.

The Chicago Bears will face the Oakland Raiders in the first NFL match at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, the NFL confirmed on Wednesday.

Spurs' new home was purposely designed with an NFL field under the playing surface and the Bears and Raiders will get first use of the pitch.

A total of five regular season matches will be hosted outside the United States, with London hosting another three and the other in Mexico City.

The London schedule will kick off with an intriguing game between the Bears and the Raiders as Chicago will bring Khalil Mack overseas to play against the team that traded him out of Oakland, while the Raiders bring a new look to their roster with Antonio Brown.

Seven days later, the Carolina Panthers will face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the same venue in a match-up that will feature NFC South divisional rivals as Cam Newton and Jameis Winston square off. 

Wembley will also host two matches as the Cincinnati Bengals meet the Los Angeles Rams, while the final match sees the Jacksonville Jaguars – complete with new quarterback Nick Foles - play the Tennessee Texans in an AFC South match-up.

The NFL will give a game in Mexico another shot after the Rams versus the Kansas City Chiefs was cancelled last season out of concern for player safety concerns due to field conditions.

This time the Chiefs will meet the Los Angeles Charges in mid-November at the Azteca Stadium.

George Kittle expects Iowa tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson to live up to the hype and make a day-one impact as rookies.

The Hawkeye duo are each anticipated to be selected in the first round of the NFL Draft next week after catching the eye at Iowa, a football program that has developed a reputation for producing pro tight ends.

Dallas Clark, a Super Bowl champion with the Indianapolis Colts, was a first-round pick out of Iowa and enjoyed 11 seasons in the NFL. Kittle had to wait until the fifth round to hear his name called in 2017, but the San Francisco 49ers star set the single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end last campaign.

Neither Fant nor Hockenson will have to be that patient, and Kittle has no doubt in their ability to become the latest Hawkeye tight ends to excel in the pros.

"I think they're both definitely first-round draft picks, they're both guys that will instantly affect the team positively," Kittle told Omnisport. "Noah is literally the best athlete that I've ever seen, he is absolutely outrageous, I saw that [on] day one as soon as he stepped in the building at Iowa as an 18-year-old freshman, he's an absolute freak. 

"He makes plays that other people can't physically make, he's unreal quick twitchy, incredibly fast and he's incredibly strong too. I'm pretty sure he has multiple strength records at Iowa, he's not just this skinny, lanky fast kind, he's incredibly strong and powerful. He's gonna be incredible.

"Then you've got T.J., who's just 'Mr Do it All', he's like a Swiss Army knife, he can run block, he can go against [defensive] ends, linebackers, safeties it doesn't matter, he just gets it done, catches every ball you throw to him.

"He just has a great attitude every single day, I was in the locker room [with them] for only a year but, being able to keep in touch with both those guys since I've graduated, they're both incredibly hard workers and whatever team they get drafted to they're going to impact them in a positive way [from] day one."

As for why Iowa consistently produces such great players at the position, Kittle credited veteran strength coach Chris Doyle and an offense and locker room mindset that help make the jump to the NFL less daunting.

"They do a really good job in the strength program with Coach Doyle," Kittle added. "He just really takes young guys and builds on their frames and prepares them for the NFL level. The offense that we run is very pro-style and the attitude around the locker room is very football-oriented. Every day you show up and it's football, I think that's a great thing, it gets guys in the right mindset, and it definitely prepares you for the next level."

Having flown under the radar two years ago, Kittle accepts his rise to stardom may have helped boost the hype Fant and Hockenson have received.

"I think maybe a little bit," he said when asked if he paved the way for them to be first-rounders. 

"You don't want to sleep on Iowa tight ends because we all have some fun and I think Iowa's put out a lot of good tight ends that have made a lot of big plays and impact a lot of NFL teams. If I'm an NFL GM, coach, I'd definitely want both those guys on my team."

However, Kittle did not hesitate to reject any notion of him being a better prospect than Fant or Hockenson.

"Definitely T.J. and Noah are both higher prospects than I was," he said. "I only had like 40 catches total at Iowa, I think they each had 40 in one year. 

"They're pretty and they're going to do a lot of really good things. I'm just happy to be in the conversation with those guys because they had a special college career."

The New England Patriots have a new receiver, signing Demaryius Thomas.

New England are signing Thomas after he spent last season with the Denver Broncos and Houston Texans, the team announced on Tuesday.

According to NFL Media, the deal is for one year and worth up to $6million.

Thomas will be reuniting with Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who was the Broncos coach from 2009-10. The Patriots reportedly wanted Thomas last season, but he was traded to the Texans instead.

Thomas appeared in 15 games for the Broncos and Texans, notching 59 caught passes for 677 yards and five touchdowns. However, a torn Achilles derailed him for the rest of the season, and Houston released him after the campaign was over.

Recently, Thomas made headlines off the field when he was involved in a single-car rollover crash that seriously injured one of his passengers.

He pleaded guilty to reckless driving and, as part of a plea deal, had the felony charge of vehicular assault dropped.

George Kittle is relishing the added competition on the 49ers roster and has no problem with San Francisco potentially drafting players who could take catches away from him.

Kittle was the focal point of the San Francisco offense last season, breaking the record for receiving yards in a single season by a tight end as he racked up for 1,377 despite playing for a Niners team that went 4-12 as an injury to starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo derailed their campaign.

The former Iowa star demonstrated an excellent rapport with backups C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens but, with the Niners having reportedly been interested in Odell Beckham Jr. prior to his trade to the Cleveland Browns, San Francisco appear likely to be in the market to add a receiver in the draft.

They signed wideout Jordan Matthews in free agency as well a talented pass-catching running back in Tevin Coleman, with Kittle more than happy for the 49ers to bring in players who could eat into the 136 targets he received in 2018.

"Whatever [general manager] Mr [John] Lynch and coach [Kyle] Shanahan do, I'm fully behind. Whether they bring in more wide receivers, more tight ends, more running backs, I'm all for," Kittle told Omnisport.

One receiver who will not be playing for the 49ers this season is Antonio Brown, who was traded to the Oakland Raiders last month. 

Talk of the Niners being in the mix for Brown exploded on the back of Kittle tweeting at Brown as news of his fall-out with the Pittsburgh Steelers emerged. And Kittle conceded he was surprised by the reaction to his tweet.

"That was kind of crazy, that was all Jimmy G dared me to do it on New Year's Eve, it was kind of later in the night so it was pretty easy for me to send that tweet," he added.

"It was crazy, 10 minutes went by and he retweeted it and quoted it and I was like 'oh wow this is going to be interesting'. I was all over everywhere the next day and I was like 'well that's fun', other than that though I didn't think too much of it, I was just having some fun."

San Francisco reinforced the defense in free agency by signing linebacker Kwon Alexander and cornerback Jason Verrett, while also trading for pass rusher Dee Ford and signing him to a huge extension.

Those acquisitions may make practice tougher for Kittle, but he is confident that will have a hugely positive impact on the team.

He explained: "The second that we signed those guys, I was upset because I have to go against them every single day. They're really good so it makes my job harder but at the same time I love that. 

"The competition's going to be absolutely incredible and that's what creates champions, competition. That's something that Richard Sherman came in and said day one [last year] in the locker room 'hey we need more competition if we want to be a winning football team’ and that hit me pretty close to him because that's the way I've always felt. 

"Getting guys like that, playmakers and just adding them to our team, I can't wait for our spring football practices to start so I get to go against them and kind of get a feel for how they move and how they're going to be in the locker room and out on the field. I'm just really looking forward to that level of competition and going against them every single day will make me a better play too, so that's something I can't wait for."

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz said he still is recovering from the back injury that derailed his 2018 NFL season.

Wentz revealed his back is not 100 per cent healthy after he suffered a stress fracture at the end of last season, however the Eagles star added that he feels good and expects to be ready to go for the start of 2019.

The 26-year-old said told reporters on Monday he has started running and throwing the ball as the team began offseason conditioning, but admitted he is "week-to-week."

When asked if he expects to be ready by Organised Team Activities (OTAs) at the end of May, Wentz said, "That's the plan."

"But there really is no timetable, no rush. But I feel good with the progression I've been on."

Wentz being sidelined for the final three games of the Eagles' regular season was a heartbreaker, since it marked the second campaign in a row he had to miss the playoffs.

The QB said he is being patient now and going off how he feels, not whether if he is completely healed at this point.

"It's still getting there. It's still getting there," Wentz said of his back. "Some of this stuff just takes time, but that's not really the main concern, it's just kind of how I feel. I feel pretty good with where I'm at."

Wentz added he understood people are questioning whether he is a franchise quarterback, given his list of injuries in his three short years in the NFL.

Despite a stellar campaign in 2017, Wentz suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament that saw him miss playing with the Eagles as they clinched Super Bowl LII that season.

"I get it. I get it," he said. "I'm looking forward to putting those [questions] behind me. I understand it's a part of this league, it's a physical league and things happen. But it's one of those things that's out of my control, and I look forward to putting that behind me."

NFL Super Bowl champions the New England Patriots re-signed kicker Stephen Gostkowski.

The Patriots announced the deal on Wednesday, with veteran Gostkowski reportedly signing a two-year contract.

The move comes after rumours started swirling that the San Francisco 49ers were interested in Gostkowski, who has spent his entire 13-year career in New England.

San Francisco already have placed the franchise tag on Robbie Gould, making their reported interest in Gostkowski intriguing.

Gould and the 49ers reportedly could not agree on a multi-year deal, which resulted in the franchise tag, though he is yet to sign.

Gostkowski, 35, has appeared in 200 regular-season games, as well as 28 postseason games.

He is New England's all-time leader with 1,743 points and 367 field goals, with his 87.4 per cent accuracy the highest in Patriots history and third in the NFL.

 

Kyler Murray is reportedly scheduled to visit the Arizona Cardinals, who hold the number one pick in the NFL Draft.

Oklahoma product Murray has committed to pursuing a job as a starting quarterback in the NFL despite being selected by the Oakland Athletics in the first-round of the 2018 MLB Draft.

The 21-year-old has discussed the possibility of joining the Cardinals in the past and now appears set to meet with the team.

NFL Network reported on Tuesday that Murray is to head to Arizona with his agent Erik Burkhardt, who also represents Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury.

The Cardinals still have Josh Rosen on their roster, but the Washington Redskins are reportedly interested in the 22-year-old.

Murray, who has also visited the Oakland Raiders, threw for 4,361 yards and 42 touchdowns for Oklahoma last season en route to winning the Heisman Trophy.

Valentine Holmes' hopes of playing in the NFL have been boosted after the former NRL star joined the New York Jets as part of the International Player Pathway Program.

Trying to follow in the footsteps of fellow rugby league to NFL converts Jarryd Hayne and Jordan Mailata, Australian Holmes will compete for a spot on the 53-man roster through training camp.

If the 23-year-old ex-Cronulla Sharks full-back does not make the cut via the Pathway program, Holmes will be eligible for an 11th spot practice squad exemption. However, he will not be allowed to play in 2019 if that is the case.

"I'm speechless," Holmes said in a statement via Twitter following Monday's announcement.

"Firstly I would like to thank the @nyjets for giving me the opportunity to join your organisation.

"I'd like to thank my family, friends, fans, Chris and Gavin Orr from @pacific_sports for supporting me!"

Green Bay Packers star Aaron Rodgers said fans should thank former head coach Mike McCarthy for the memories and "show him the respect that he deserves".

McCarthy coached the Packers for 13 seasons and led Green Bay to a Super Bowl title, but he was fired in December after the NFL franchise dropped to 4-7-1 — they finished 6-9-1.

There were reports Rodgers – who had spent his entire career playing for McCarthy – wanted him out, allegations the seven-time Pro Bowl quarterback denied.

But speculation about their relationship took a bizarre twist last week when a report alleged McCarthy would skip team meetings to have massages in his office.

"This was a smear attack by a writer looking to advance his career talking with mostly irrelevant, bitter players who all have an agenda whether they’re advancing their own careers or just trying to stir old stuff up," Rodgers told ESPN.

The 35-year-old quarterback admitted that he and McCarthy "had issues," but said the former coach deserves thanks for what he did in Green Bay.

"I think we need to honor Mike and respect him the right way," Rodgers told ESPN. "We had a hell of a run. We had 13 years, four NFC championships, one Super Bowl, eight straight playoffs, 19 straight wins. ... So, instead of trashing this guy on the way out, let's remember the amazing times that we had together."

McCarthy, who posted a 125-77-2 mark in Green Bay, told NFL Media last week that the allegation he would skip a team meeting to have a massage is "utterly absurd."

Rodgers urged Packers fans to honour McCarthy for the good times.

"Packer fans, remember this, especially those of you who live in Green Bay: Mike lives here. Mike has young kids here," Rodgers said. "So Mike has to be here. Think about how difficult it is for him. My favour that I would ask of you, strongly, is if you see Mike, shake his hand. Tell him thanks for the memories. Tell him thanks for the coaching job that he did. Tell him how much you appreciate him being a part of what we built here.

"Let's honour him and his legacy as the second-winningest coach in Packers history. If you see him, please, just show him the respect that he deserves. Not only does he have to live in Green Bay, he wants to. He loves it here. He's going to be here. So, if you see him, do him that favour and show him the respect that he deserves."

Christian Wade believes his gamble to trade rugby union for the NFL was 100 per cent worth it after he was picked up by the Buffalo Bills.

Wade was assigned to the Bills as part of the International Player Pathway program on Monday.

The former Wasps wing retired from rugby in October after a career that saw him earn one England cap and score 82 Premiership tries for Wasps - the third-most in the competition's history.

And the 27-year-old, who will meet some of his new Bills team-mates next Monday for offseason workouts, feels that decision has now been vindicated.

He told a conference call: "With the recent news I'm completely lost for words. Every week that has gone by has exceeded my expectations.

"I didn't really know what to expect from the process and have tried to stay open to all possibilities. I've tried to take everyone moment as it comes and hit it hard."

Asked if landing with the Bills made his change in sports worth it, he added: "One hundred percent. For me this is another step closer to my dream and what I set out to achieve from the start.

"It's making me emotional thinking about the risk I took and the magnitude of the move. This afternoon has made that even more apparent. Every time I think about [it], I start to well up.

"There has been a huge mental challenge. It's like learning a new language – you must go into a classroom and learn something completely new in a short period of time.

"It's been a real test and will continue to be so as I've only scratched the surface of what is required. It's been a challenge that I have risen to and now I am looking to the next step."

Wade will have the challenge of dealing with the elements in Buffalo, but he is relishing tackling the colder temperatures and getting to know the Bills' passionate fanbase, many of whom take to jumping through tables during the pre-game tailgates.

He said: "I loved my time in London and Coventry but now I'm looking forward to the new challenge. I've never been to Buffalo but am sure I will enjoy it there. I'm braced for the weather!

"I know that they are an extremely passionate group and that there is bound to be a lot of table jumping. I love it and can't wait to see how they do things out there, get stuck into the culture and learn as much about Buffalo as possible. I can't wait to get over there now."

Former England rugby international Christian Wade has been assigned to the Buffalo Bills as part of the NFL's International Player Pathway Program.

Wade retired from rugby union in October having won one England cap and scored 82 Premiership tries for Wasps - the third-most in the competition's history.

The 27-year-old opted to try his hand at NFL and will now attempt to make the grade with the Bills, who finished third in the AFC East last year with a 6-10 record.

Reacting to the news that he could well be going to face to face with Super Bowl champions the New England Patriots should he succeed in Buffalo, Wade was unable to sum up his emotions.

He posted a picture on Instagram with a caption that read: "I'm lost for word [sic] right now... I'll update the caption soon. Give God thanks!"

Former NRL star Valentine Holmes has also been taking part in the International Player Pathway Program but has yet to be assigned a team.

Antonio Brown is in Oakland now, but that did not stop him from taking another jab at one of his former Pittsburgh Steelers team-mates. 

The feud started when Brown wrote Sunday on Twitter: "Keep your emotions off the internet," which prompted a response from multiple fans.

Brown replied to one post in particular in which a fan shared a photo of receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, reminding Brown that his former team-mate was named the Steelers' Most Valuable Player for the 2018 season.

Brown wrote, in part: "Emotion: boy fumbled the whole postseason in the biggest game of year! Everyone went blind to busy making guys famous not enough reality these days! by the way check the list." 

Of course, Smith-Schuster caught wind of Brown's response and mocked the new Raider by sharing his own message: "Keep your emotions off the internet."

This only adds more fuel to the reports that surfaced in January, indicating Brown's frustration with the Steelers - which eventually led to his trade to the Raiders - was sparked because he was not voted MVP.

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