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Can Anyone Challenge the New England Patriots in the AFC?

Steve Shoup

Pre-season predictions fall largely in favour of a Patriots vs Packers match-up in Super Bowl LII next February. While the Packers are pitched at 12 – 4, with the Falcons and Buccaneers their main competition in the NFC, USA Today plumped for a 16 – 0 regular season for the Patriots.

Adding three post-season matches to that tally, bringing the outcome to 19 – 0 would be something else; an Invincible season and the soon-to-be 40-year-old Tom Brady could hang up his boots knowing it doesn’t get any better than this.

The brash prediction is backed-up by the bookmakers; they quote the Patriots at +250 to win the AFC and +400 for the Super Bowl, as of July 28, 2017. The Texans and Steelers lag some way behind in both categories.

Is this jumping the gun though? AFC teams have risen to the challenge posed by the Patriots dominance; could one of them drop a shock on New England in the play-offs? We look at five potential AFC party poopers.

  1. Houston Texans

 

The Texans traded big in the draft in a bid to find the elusive formula to beat the Patriots. 2016’s play-off hinted that they are on the right track. Slowing down the New England offense brought them to within eight points in the 3rd quarter; the platform to build upon is there.

Trading Brent Osweiler to the Browns meant they replaced him and his big contract with DeShaun Watson, the twelfth-round pick. While the Clemson graduate is expected to start, Tom Savage will keep the pressure on the youngster to produce the goods.

While their offense is a strong suit, the defense is where the depth lies. Brian Cushing’s fitness provided impetus to a tight backline.

Pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney held the upper hand against New England in the play-offs, underlining the Texans top 5 defensive ranking. And while AJ Bouye’s defection will hurt, McKinney alongside Cushing proved a formidable pairing at linebacker.

Overall, the Texans look stronger and a more compact unit which makes them a dangerous opponent in the play-offs.

  1. Pittsburgh Steelers

 

Second-favourites for the Super Bowl sums up the Steelers at the moment; trailing the Patriots and second-best to everything against New England. Which given they have won 2 Super Bowls in the past 15 years, is saying something.

Their offense will take them far, racking the points on the board thanks to Ben Roethlisberger’s outstanding form. With Le’Veon Bell at a contract stand-off with franchise management, will his performances be affected. If so, the option of Antonio Brown at wide receiver isn’t a bad one to have.

The biggest issue the Steelers have is defense. Using a predominantly zonal set-up, they are vulnerable because it’s employment is fairly rudimentary. Maybe adding TJ Watt as an outside linebacker might give them a different dimension?

Despite the weakness, the Steelers are still a formidable opponent but whether they have enough to pierce the better sides in the division – the Texans and the Patriots – is another matter.

  1. Tennessee Titans

 

2016 was a pivotal year for the Titans. People sat up and took notice since 2008. Is this the year they push into play-off contention? With Marcus Mariota conducting the offensive orchestra, they possess in Jack Conklin and Taylor Lewan, two solid linemen whose movement creates the openings for Murray and Henry to bulldoze through.

They tailed off last year when Mariota broke his arm; 2017 has a sense that making up for lost time is the order of the day.

Defensively, they are average. Not one of the players make you wary beyond Jurrell Casey. It’s this lack of the spectacular which is their strength and Achilles Heel. While it forges a good team mentality, the absence of a ‘go to’ guy when they are in trouble is their undoing.

The Titans were in contention for the post-season until Mariota’s injury in 2016; this time around, expect them to make a concerted effort to qualify for one-off games in which anything is possible.

  1. Oakland Raiders

 

The Raiders are in a similar phase to the Titans; the potential to do well exists but the belief that they will do so is far from overwhelming.

Derek Carr, the 2016 Pro Bowler, continues to improve his stats in all the right places. From 3 – 13 in 2014, his record improved to 12 – 3 in 2016. Similarly pass completion is up while fumbles are down and 16 sacks was half the previous years; experience is showing through. There is considerable pressure to keep that improvement going but if one aspect of his game slips, so do the Raiders.

The lack of depth in offense is underlined by Marshawn Lynch’s reinstatement so a lot of their output rests in Amari Cooper’s hands. Fortunately, the ball stays there most of the time rather than dropping clangers.

The biggest issue is whether they have the defense to win them games. In the tight matches, can they smother their opponents by dropping a blanket over their attack? It’s not promising in that sense; they are solid but unspectacular.

  1. Kansas City Chiefs

 

It’s a toss-up for the fifth choice on this list. If the Chargers adapt to the StubHub Center quickly, they may usurp the Chiefs as the outsider. Similarly, if Miami get some momentum, they possess the talent to trouble the Patriots, Texans and Steelers. A lack of consistency is their downfall, and a devilish schedule.

So the Chiefs win, pipping the Ravens in this instance. They face the ‘big four’ this season with all of last year’s play-off teams featuring in the non-divisional games but while that aspect of their schedule is daunting, the crucial weeks 14 through 16 see them staying at the Arrowhead, right at a time when they can make homefield advantage count.

This is not a team which dazzles with stars nor does it have a blitzkrieg offense to cause innumerable problems; they are just solid. Relentless as well, turning plays like clockwork. The dazzle which separates the good teams from the also-rans is missing so the moment of genius, inspiration, whatever you want to call it, isn’t there. Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce are their standout offensive options.

Defense could be so much better if Justin Houston were fit more often. How his knees hold out may determine the Chiefs campaign. No pressure.

Which brings us neatly to a close. We began with Houston, we end with Houston. In all honesty, it’s hard to see beyond the Texans as the team to end the Patriots reign of terror over the AFC. The Steelers have the history but football is played on grass, not in the pages on a library shelf.

 

 



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