Well, so much for 16-0.
After all the noise about the New England Patriots’ headline-stealing offseason weapon-hoarding, it seemed as though the league at large was just about ready to throw in the towel and hand the Patriots their sixth Lombardi Trophy without a fight. After bringing in Brandin Cooks, Mike Gillislee, Dwayne Allen, Rex Burkhead and Stephon Gilmore, the reigning champions had all the makings of an unstoppable juggernaut…until they finally stepped out on the field Thursday night and got slashed to ribbons by Alex Smith. As you may have heard it said before, that’s why they actually play the games.
The undefeated talk and 2007 comparisons may be out the window now but, Thursday’s sobering beat-down notwithstanding, it’s a little too early to pivot to the king is dead mode. After all, the Patriots are still the most talented squad in football on paper, and they still have the best coach of a generation (and maybe all-time, but we’ll save that discussion for another article) calling the shots. As your Boston-area friends have no doubt already reminded you, we were all quick to write our eulogies for the Brady era back in 2014, when the Pats suffered a very similar early-season smackdown at the hands of these same Alex Smith-helmed Chiefs…and three months later we were hastily moving those eulogies to the trash bin as Malcolm Butler put a bow around New England’s fourth title. If there’s one thing we have learned about Bill Belichick’s Patriots, it’s that they are resilient and constantly adapting. Thursday night’s thrashing was a speed bump for the Pats, but it’s not enough to change their status as favorites in the AFC.
At the same time though, it showed us that this New England team can absolutely be beaten by the right squad with the right gameplan. So with that in mind, let’s turn the discussion and focus on the question of which teams are best constructed to prevent New England from representing AFC in the Super Bowl for the third time in four years. I should stress that I am not basing this list on a team’s overall talent or likelihood of seeing New England in the postseason, but simply on how well they would match up with the Patriots in the playoffs. Because Brady has a lengthy postseason resume, we already have a pretty good idea of the ideal blueprint for how to send him home in January. Brady (like most quarterbacks) is at his worst when he has to deal with constant pass pressure; however, his instincts and football IQ are so high that if you try to beat him by blitzing, he will find the corresponding weak spot in your coverage and punish you for it. That means we are looking for teams that can consistently generate pressure without blitzing—for a reference point, see New England’s upset losses against the 2010 Jets, the 2015 Broncos, and the 2007 and 2011 Giants. We also know that Brady loves to pick on the weakest link in a team’s secondary (as he did against Tharold Simon in Super Bowl XLIX and Atlanta’s coverage linebackers, particularly DeVondre Campbell, in Super Bowl LI), so teams with glaring weak spots in their coverage unit are probably out.
Let’s use the Raiders as a representative example; after storming to a 12-4 record on the last season behind Derek Carr and a dominant offensive line, the Raiders are as good a bet as any to come face-to-face with New England in the late rounds of the playoffs. Unfortunately, their defensive backfield is paper thin and they don’t have much in the way of a pass rush outside of Kahlil Mack. That defense would have Belichick and Josh McDaniels salivating in a potential January matchup, and Oakland’s only hope would be to outgun the Patriots in a shootout; you can ask the Atlanta Falcons that usually works out.
So with that out of the way, here are my picks for the teams that are most likely to topple the Patriots’ empire in 2017:
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
Let’s start with the most obvious one. After Thursday night’s game, it isn’t hard to see why the Chiefs might be a scary matchup for New England come January. Kansas City’s offense is the talk of the league after their dazzling display of firepower in Foxboro, but I wouldn’t bet on that happening again if these two teams meet for a rematch in the postseason. Alex Smith was lights out and had the game of a lifetime on Thursday, but I doubt he would be able to replicate it (hence, game of a lifetime). The New England defense is still figuring out their identity right now after a number of key pieces—Chris Long, Rob Ninkovich, Jabaal Sheard, etc.—departed in the offseason, and I would expect that they will offer a much tougher challenge come January. They will have plenty of game film on the Chiefs’ offense by then, and you can bet that defensive coordinator Matt Patricia will have some better ideas for defending Tyreek Hill than to leave him isolated against Stephon Gilmore on the outside.
So why do I have the Chiefs on this list? Because of what they can do to stop Brady defensively. Kansas City’s Justin Houston-led pass rush is a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks when everyone is healthy, and they have the secondary pieces to keep New England’s receiving corps relatively quiet (although the loss of Eric Berry to an Achilles injury puts a huge asterisk next to that statement). Marcus Peters is one of the few cornerbacks in the league with the speed to hang with Brandin Cooks on the outside, and Phillip Gaines is a reliable, if unspectacular, cover guy on the other side. If Houston, Dee Ford and Bennie Logan can keep the heat up on Brady without the benefit of extra blitzers, Kansas City would have a fighting chance of knocking off the Pats a second time.
After New England, the Steelers are the team that I would consider most likely to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LII (and the Vegas oddsmakers agree with me). This isn’t as ideal a matchup as the other teams on this list, and it certainly doesn’t help to note that a Pittsburgh squad with many of the same core players suffered a 19-point thrashing in New England in last year’s AFC title game, but there’s still a decent case to be made for the black-and-yellow here.
First, that AFC Championship game: while it’s true that on paper this is a pretty similar Steelers team, they were missing some key weapons for that game—Martavis Bryant was suspended, and LeVeon Bell left the contest early on with a knee injury. That left the Patriots free to concentrate all their defensive resources on containing Antonio Brown (who finished with just 77 yards), and middling Pittsburgh depth options like Sammie Coates and Cobi Hamilton were unable to pick up the slack. If Pittsburgh can get it’s four killer B’s—Big Ben, Brown, Bryant and Bell—healthy and suited up the same time (hardly a given, seeing as until yesterday they haven’t all played in the same game in two years), they could certainly make life difficult for a Patriots team whose biggest weakness looks to be its pass defense.
The other side of the field is where this matchup gets dicey. Pittsburgh has some intriguing pieces in their front seven, and they will be hoping that this is the year they coalesce into an effective pass-rushing unit. Rookie T.J. Watt has usurped James Harrison’s job as a starting outside linebacker and, while it would be unfair to expect him to live up to his brother J.J.’s inhuman standard, his presence allows Harrison to assume a situational rushing role that will help limit the mileage on his 39-year old frame. At the other edge rushing spot, Bud Dupree took some positive steps forward in his third season in the NFL. If Pittsburgh’s young pass rushers continue to develop, this unit could look pretty formidable by January. The big worry is the secondary, which the Steelers bolstered by signing former Browns cornerback Joe Haden. It’s been a few seasons since Haden was really playing like a shutdown corner, but he has more upside than anyone else in the Steelers’ secondary, and with Haden around the Steelers can shift William Gay into the slot corner position. As I said above, this is probably the weakest defense on this list, but with Pittsburgh’s offensive firepower, it’s not implausible that this unit could do just enough to keep a contest against New England winnable.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
The Chargers have flown under the radar a little bit this offseason after a 5-11 finish in 2016, but there are a few reasons to take that record with a grain of salt. The Chargers compiled an absolutely ridiculous list of injuries in 2016, finishing the season with 22 players on injured reserve (including key contributors like Keenan Allen and Jason Verrett), and Phillip Rivers had to make do with bargain bin receiving options like Dontrelle Inman and Tyrell Williams.
On top of that, San Diego (now Los Angeles) had absolutely awful luck in close games, which is a statistic that can usually be counted on to regress towards the mean. The Chargers were a hideous 1-8 in games decided by a touchdown or less, and Pythagorean Expectation pegged them as a 7.7-win team. (On the other hand, that was the second straight year that the Bolts both suffered a slew of injuries and vastly underperformed their win expectancy, so I guess you can take that grain of salt with its own of grain of salt…or something). While the injury bug has already bitten the Chargers again this year—first-round pick Mike Williams is out indefinitely with a back injury—it’s hard to imagine that their luck will continue to be as bad as it has been. And with an offense built around Rivers, Allen, Melvin Gordon and Hunter Henry, the Chargers could be primed to make noise in the AFC playoff race this year.
In assessing a potential Los Angeles-New England postseason matchup, the biggest point in the Chargers’ favor has to be their edge rushing tandem of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. Bosa was a revelation in his rookie season, terrorizing offensive tackles the league over with his patented swipe-and-rip rushing move. It’s rare to see rookie pass rushers come into the league with such polished hand-fighting techniques—most young rushers make it to the league on athletic ability and develop the finer points of their craft as they mature—and it’s scary to think how much higher his ceiling could be as he continues to acclimate to the pro game. Bosa and Ingram are just the type of tandem that could give Tom Brady fits.
And while the Chargers will miss the work of departed defensive stalwart Eric Weddle at free safety, their cornerback tandem of Casey Heyward and Jason Verrett is good enough to make life difficult for New England’s receiving corps (Los Angeles doesn’t have a great answer at the nickelback position, but that’s somewhat less crucial in a matchup against New England now that Julian Edelman is out for the year). If Los Angeles can avoid another disastrous year of medical misadventures, they could be a tough out come January.
This one is something of a longshot, and its predicated on the belief that DeShaun Watson will ascend to the Texans’ starting quarterback position at some point in his rookie season—a Tom Savage-led squad doesn’t seem like a good bet to make it past the ascendant Titans in the AFC South. The Texans have a host of issues on offense—apart from the question mark at signal caller, Lamar Miller was disappointing in his first season, and they’ve already lost Derek Newton and Will Fuller to significant injuries. Despite all that, there is one very good reason that they could be a headache for the Patriots in the playoffs, and if you’ve been paying attention to this article you can probably guess what it is.
We already saw what the Texans’ pass rush can do against New England in last year’s divisional round. The Patriots won that game 34-16, but that score undersells how much Brady and company struggled to handle Houston’s stacked defensive front. Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus handed Brady one of the worst poundings he suffered all season, keeping the game close until late in the third quarter despite a wildly inept performance by the now-departed Brock Osweiler. Houston mustered an impressive defensive effort which looks even better when you consider that they did it without the services of J.J. Watt, Destroyer of Worlds. If Watt is back to one hundred percent this year, the Texans should boast the most devastating defensive line in professional football, and the perfect antidote to New England’s high-powered offense. If their offense can be even a little better than it was last year (and it’s hard to imagine them being much worse), they may get the chance to unleash the kraken on the Patriots in January ball.
OK, I will admit that this a stretch. Denver took a huge step back last season, they play in the deepest division in football, and they seem likely to be plagued by the same quarterback and offensive line issues that torpedoed their postseason hopes in 2016. All in all, the Broncos seem like a prime candidate for implosion in the upcoming year. But as I said at the beginning, this isn’t about a team’s likelihood of making the playoffs; it’s about their chances of upsetting New England if they can get there. And is there any defense better equipped to take on Brady and the Pats?
With the exception of DeMarcus Ware and T.J. Ward, this is the same core of players that gave Brady the thrashing of a lifetime in the AFC Championship two years ago, and although they lost 16-3 in their regular season meeting with New England last year, that was mostly a result of offensive incompetence—Denver held the Patriots to their fewest passing yards, fewest total yards, and fewest points of any game that Brady started in 2016. Outside of J.J. Watt (who is a league unto himself), no pass rusher does more to influence football games than Von Miller, and he is backed up by the league’s deepest and most versatile collection of defensive backs. I mentioned above that Brady loves to find a defense’s weakest link in coverage and attack him over and over—against the Broncos, who would that be? It’s certainly not Chris Harris or Aqib Talib, and Denver’s third cornerback, Bradley Roby, would be a starter on almost any other team in football. This unit got weaker overall with the loss of T.J. Ward this week, but his replacement, Justin Simmons, is actually more versatile in pass coverage.
There’s a reason this unit has finished comfortably first in defensive DVOA (and first in passing defense DVOA by an even more substantial margin) in each of the last two seasons; the Broncos have the talent and depth to smother any receiving corps in football, and the pass rushers to give even an elite quarterback like Brady nightmares. The Broncos playoff chances look mighty slim this year, but if any team in the AFC could really shut down the Brady and the Patriots, it’s this one.