For a decade at the start of the NFL season you could pencil in the Patriots and Colts as having the top two records in the AFC. That gave way to the Patriots and Broncos in recent years.
Last season though, there never really emerged one team in the AFC that could challenge the Pats. The Ravens, who typically give the Pats fits, were mediocre at 8-8. The Broncos couldn’t figure out their quarterback situation post-Peyton Manning and missed the playoffs at 9-7. The Chiefs were paper tigers, the Bengals had a considerable drop-off, and the Colts were a joke.
This season the Patriots are expected to coast to another Super Bowl berth where they’ll finally meet one of the NFC’s big boys, but could a team from the AFC upset the apple cart?
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Let’s take a look at the most likely candidates to swipe the Lamar Hunt trophy away from the Pats.
Oakland looked like the team most likely to challenge the Pats last season as they racked up 12 wins, but quarterback Derek Carr broke his leg in the second to last game of the season and the Raiders wound up falling to Houston in the wild card round.
The Raiders will have a new amount of swagger now that former Super Bowl champ Marshawn Lynch is in the backfield, but it’s unclear if the rusty Lynch will still be in Beast Mode at 31-years-old.
Khalil Mack is a dominant defensive end and he recently said he’s focused on getting 30 sacks this season, but Oakland’s overall defense still might not be ready for primetime. The Raiders allowed 24.1 points per game last season, 20th in the NFL (Patriots were No. 1 by the way – giving up just 15.6 ppg).
If this is Tom Brady’s final season in a Patriots uniform (entirely possible even if they win the Super Bowl), wouldn’t it be poetic if the Pats and Raiders met in the playoffs 16 years after the Snow Bowl game that got the Pats dynasty started in the first place?
Paxton Lynch will be the Denver starter at QB in Year 2, but he's looked shaky in training camp so far and it's no sure bet he'll be even a top 20 QB in the NFL this season. That said, Peyton Manning was brutal for the Broncos two years ago and he led them past the Pats and onto a Super Bowl win. Von Miller and his giant legs are ready to wreak havoc on the AFC once agin. That defense will always pose problems for Tom Brady and Co., and the Pats will be lucky if they can escape Mile High on Nov. 12 with a victory.
The Steelers were pummeled by the Patriots in the AFC Championship game this past January, 36-17, and the whooping almost forced Ben Roethlisberger to retire. With Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, the Steeler will always pose a threat - but you could easily make the case that the Patriots' roster improved more than the Steelers' roster did since the blowout occurred. Wide receiver Martavis Bryant will be back for Pittsburgh this season but it's unlikely he'll be the one that propels the Steelers past the Pats.
The Texans laid the blueprint for how to stop the Pats in that divisional round game this past January, something that Atlanta used to perfection in the first half of the Super Bowl. JJ Watt returns from injury to Houston, but their QB issues remain. Deshaun Watson may one day be an elite talent, but it's unlikely a rookie QB takes down a Bill Belichick defense in Year 1.
Chiefs - Like the Philadelphia Eagles were under Andy Reid last decade, the Chiefs always feel like also-rans.
Titans - Marcus Mariota seems ready to make the leap, but the Titans are a franchise that hasn't won a playoff game since 2003. It's likely they take stepping stones on their way to AFC Elite status.
Ravens - The Ravens are the Patriots' AFC kryptonite but with Pats killer Joe Flacco banged up, who knows where Baltimore winds up. The Ravens could go 3-13 just as easily as they could go 13-3.
Dolphins - Adam Gase might be the best non-Belichick coach the AFC East has seen since Marv Levy (yup, the other options are that bad). That said, Ryan Tannehill is injured and the defense is suspect.