To call the Patriots heavy favorites to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LLI is a gross understatement. Additions like Brandin Cooks have made a team that already ran roughshod over the conference last year even better on paper heading into 2017. However, sports are a funny thing.
What if the Patriots are finally derailed by the injury bug or just simply pick a bad day to have a bad day in the playoffs? Here are four teams ready to pounce.
Kansas City Chiefs
Ever since Andy Reid came to town, the Chiefs run the ball, play solid defense and do not beat themselves. This is a good formula for winning. However, when that formula comes up against a buzz saw like New England, it is also easy to end up in too deep of an early hole.
The divisional playoff matchup between the two teams following the 2015 season was a perfect example of this. Despite holding New England to just 14 points in the first half, Kansas City managed just two field goals and never got caught up.
While Tyreek Hill has provided a much needed boost to KC’s ability to strike quickly, half of their scoring drives in last year’s playoff loss to Pittsburgh were over ten plays. While those are nice, striking quickly is almost a must against the Patriots.
Hope for the Chiefs in a matchup with New England lies in Hill and their pass rushers, led by Justin Houston. With three double digit sack seasons under his belt, Houston is more than capable of wrecking a game for Brady and company, similar to what Von Miller did on Denver’s Super Bowl 50 run.
Kansas City’s opening night matchup with the Super Bowl LI champs will be a nice measuring stick for them.
The Broncos have questions at quarterback. Ordinarily, that would disqualify them from an article like this, but the Broncos happen to be the only team Tom Brady has a losing record against.
Denver has beaten New England with Jake Plummer, Brock Osweiler and an aging Peyton Manning at quarterback over the years. Knowing that, why not Trevor Siemian or Paxton Lynch?
Denver invested most of its offseason resources into bolstering the backfield and offensive and defensive lines Thus, the two biggest weaknesses on this team have been addressed.
If the additions help Denver run the ball and stop the run consistently, Miller, Shane Ray and the rest of the defense will keep Denver in almost every game like they have for the better part of the last two seasons. Against New England, that is half the battle.
The Steelers have not given the Patriots any trouble in recent years. If last year’s AFC title game was a boxing match, it would have been stopped early. The last Steelers’ victory against New England was in 2011.
However, any team that has Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell and flirts with putting up 30-plus points every time out is always dangerous. The bad news for Steeler fans is that the Steel Curtain has been made of feathers in recent meetings with the Pats. Twenty-seven points is the fewest New England has scored during its ongoing four game winning streak against Mike Tomlin’s crew.
With the cast of characters basically the same on defense, the only way Pittsburgh beats New England this year is in a shootout. It is unlikely, but not impossible. They are one of very few teams with the firepower to beat New England in that way.
This inclusion to the list might surprise some, but the AFC is nowhere near as deep as the NFC. Something has been off in terms of the head coach/management dynamic in Indianapolis for the last two years. General manager Ryan Grigson is gone. With former players tweeting in response to the move, one can only assume that Grigson was a significant part of the problem.
One guy who is not part of the problem is quarterback Andrew Luck. Despite near constant drama in the front office and a flawed roster, the Colts have never posted a losing record under his on-field leadership. However, they have missed the playoffs each of the last two seasons.
Staying healthy has been a challenge for Luck, but 132 touchdowns to just 68 interceptions in almost five full years as a starter are the numbers of a quarterback who can carry a team on his back. The roster still lacks elite players outside of Luck. Also, Indianapolis has been obliterated by the Patriots in two fairly recent playoff meetings.
Even so, the Colts finally fall on the right side of one of a precious few things that is always true in the NFL. If you have a stable front office and a top-notch quarterback, you have a chance every single time you take the field.
Texans and Raiders miss the cut
Two teams that many people would have expected to see in this article are the Texans and the Raiders. They were each left out for very specific reasons. Tom Savage and Deshaun Watson battling for the starting quarterback job means that the Texans will not even be able to spell Super Bowl, much less get there.
Anyone who tries to lump Denver’s quarterback situation into the same category as Houston should watch what Trevor Siemian was able to do on the road in Cincinnati and New Orleans last year. The home game against Kansas City also speaks volumes about Siemian’s potential.
As for the Raiders, it is also fairly simple. Derek Carr is no doubt a special quarterback. Despite that, Oakland’s ongoing stadium and relocation drama is worthy of its own article. It is hard not to see it dragging down the on-field product.
Also, even when they were the talk of the league last year, the Raiders still led the world in penalties and got shredded by the opposing quarterback almost every week.