So the Patriots went to another Super Bowl.
New England has gone to four of the last five big games, winning three of those four. Two of their wins were come-from-behind wins and the last one was a defensive standout game (albeit a bit dull and boring by most people, but New England won’t apologize for it, nor shouldn’t).
In a year where the Patriots probably showed more holes and some question marks (i.e. struggles on the road, injury, not as stout in the passing game, defense, etc.), they still won the AFC.
Taking absolutely nothing away from New England as they have dominated the AFC for really the last 18 years, the conference is in a bit of a lull in terms of competition. Yes, you can’t fault the Patriots for that because, hey, they are winning games and are still doing all things necessary to win. The rest of the conference in the past 3-4 years (and some for longer) have been unable to get out of their own way sometimes, notably the Patriots AFC East Division foes Dolphins, Bills, and Jets.
With the season over and of course there will be changes around with all of the teams but I guess I’m calling it the “way too early” post of teams who could possibly end New England’s reign (though it may be when Brady and/or Belichick ride off into the sunset). But for the near future in 2019, is there anybody who can do it soon?
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: The Chiefs took New England to the wire twice in 2018. First was a regular season tilt where Kansas City nearly won in Foxboro in a classic game where both teams went back and forth and then again in the AFC Championship where the Patriots kept Brady from practically being touched by the Chiefs pass rush. Early odds have Kansas City being the favorites to win Super Bowl XLIV next year with MVP Patrick Mahomes running the show. However, the Chiefs need to address the running game and defense to have a legit shot. The defense is what kept Kansas City from going to Atlanta as the pass rush (maybe the lone strength the Chiefs had on defense) went AWOL against the Patriots thus being easily exposed by Tom Brady. Kansas City has a great shot, but needs to make the necessary changes, notably on defense (improving the secondary for example) if they want to claim dominance.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS: The Patriots drubbed the Chargers in the AFC Divisional. The Chargers are one of two teams that to me are the most balanced in the AFC and could be more of a legit threat than Kansas City. They have a great passing game led by Philip Rivers and Keenan Allen, running game with Melvin Gordon, and a good blend on defense with Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, Derwin James, etc. However, the Chargers are somewhat of that team that plays in rhythm. If they are poised and in control, they look like the best team-in the NFL. But if they are getting frustrated or angry, they look like a top 10 draft pick team. And that falls on Philip Rivers. He was an MVP candidate this year, but he’s that guy, similar to Cam Newton, when things go south, he’s more of a liability than an asset (but in a different way-Cam is on another planet while Rivers will blame everything on this planet if things go awry; either way, still bad). If the Chargers are to move forward, they have to grow up a bit, which concerns me with a veteran quarterback with Rivers.
HOUSTON TEXANS: I mentioned there were two balanced teams in the AFC that could really be an advantage against the Patriots. The Chargers were one and the Texans are the other. Deshaun Watson is a stud and has proved it all year while DeAndre Hopkins currently would be a top 3 WR in the NFL (maybe even the best to some). The running game with Watson and Lamar Miller (when healthy) gives defenses headaches. And the defense has JJ Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and others. But the secondary was exposed against Indianapolis in the playoffs and Johnathan Joseph is no spring chicken anymore. And against the Patriots if you don’t have a top notch secondary, you may as well kiss it goodbye. However, it seems like Houston will be addressing it big time in the off-season, but free agency is as much of a crap shoot than even the draft these days.
IF THINGS GO THEIR WAY…..
BALTIMORE RAVENS: Baltimore will always have a defense that is near the top and are the one team that gives the Patriots fits in January the most (the Ravens have two wins at Foxboro in the playoffs-2009, 2012). They have an aggressive defense and plays physical with the Patriots receivers and such. And in a playoff game, assuming Baltimore and New England play each other, it is always a problem for Brady and Company. However, the offense is not always up to snuff with the Ravens. Lamar Jackson takes over for Joe Flacco and while Jackson was a rookie last year, he really struggled passing at times. He should get better, but he will have to at least be reliable and consistent to have a chance against Brady. Even Blake Bortles, when he played last year, had a solid game and really kept the Jaguars in the AFC Championship. But it will all be about Jackson if the Ravens want to dethrone the Patriots.
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: The Colts were the Cinderella of the NFL in 2018. Nobody penned Indy to be a legit threat and honestly they were the hottest team heading into the playoffs. Andrew Luck came back from a year off with his shoulder and looked like the Luck of old. Marlon Mack could be a top running back in the NFL given how he plays while TY Hilton showed he was a top tier receiver. But it was the defense that the Colts made leaps and bounds with Darius Leonard, Denico Autry, and Malik Hooker. So they are one of the more balanced teams heading into 2019 and could be a major threat. However what does scare me is Luck. Can he remain healthy? In the Colts loss against Kansas City, Luck’s arm looked dead and he probably had the worst game of his career that day. But if Luck isn’t durable, while I think the moves Indianapolis made in the off-season last year could help them win games without Luck (defense), it wouldn’t be near enough.
CLEVELAND BROWNS: Wait, what? The Browns????? Yup! Cleveland went 7-8-1 last year in one of the better turnarounds in NFL history. They also rid themselves of Hue Jackson who had no business being a head coach. And here’s the big thing: had the Browns not have a few bad breaks go their way, this team could easily be (and I’m not kidding) 12-4 last year. Mishaps against the Steelers in Week 1, Saints in Week 2, Raiders (especially that game), Buccaneers, and the Ravens in the last week were all games they could have won late. The defense is very strong and will be a force next year. The running game with Nick Chubb will be hard to handle, and Baker Mayfield is the right guy for the Browns at quarterback. The only two things that will keep Cleveland from at least this season taking down New England (never dreamed of thinking this with the Browns and Patriots) is injury to key players and the experience level.
NICE TRY BUT….
TENNESSEE TITANS: The Titans sit here even though they embarrassed the Patriots in Nashville this past season. Mike Vrabel, a former Patriot himself is trying to establish what New England has in Tennessee. It is always hard and it will never be as good as the original. However, Marcus Mariota needs to stay healthy. That has been the issue. They have tried to supply Mariota with the weapons but what good is it when your franchise quarterback is on the sideline? Derrick Henry had a beast of a run near the end of the season so they were a run oriented team and the defense is solid, but young. Again, in this league, you need your franchise quarterback to be consistent and be out on the field, and that is what is killing the Titans from advancing.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS: Why are the Steelers way down here? Simple: too much uncertainty in the Steel City. The team has a lot of issues in that locker room but also the Steel Curtain it isn’t anymore on defense. Le’Veon Bell is likely gone. Antonio Brown is likely gone too. Though it may be addition by subtraction, there seems to be other issues going on and Ben Roethlisberger, it does’t seem like he’s that team leader that people make him out to be anymore. Honestly, they may need to reconsider rebuilding at this point, at least on the offensive side. But who knows? If you remove cancers from your locker room you may get better.
DENVER BRONCOS: Denver has Von Miller. Great defensive player, but when the team is falling to 6-10 and not really being competitive, you really get forgotten. And the Broncos while getting Phillip Lindsay as a steal in the rookie free agent pool (only Denver can do that), have issues on offense. Case Keenum looked like Case Keenum every year besides 2017 (i.e. backup QB at best) and John Elway has come under major fire for his poor personnel moves. While the hire of Vic Fangio I think was a good one, there are still plenty of questions Denver needs to address.
BUFFALO BILLS: Josh Allen is a long way away from being a competitive quarterback. And the team lacks talent or so we think. But somehow, Sean McDermott (whenever he was not throwing in Nathan Peterman at quarterback) muster wins for a team who could be 3-13 on a yearly basis. However, if they can make the right moves and give Allen weapons, they can be on the way up. Just not now.
BETTER LUCK NEXT YEAR…OR TWO…OR THREE…
CINCINNATI BENGALS: People like to poo poo on Andy Dalton for not being elite. Yep. However, the minute Andy Dalton got injured last year Cincinnati crashed and burned. The defense had major issues. The running game was a mess. And it was just bad the rest of the way for the Bengals. Marvin Lewis is finally out as head coach and the Bengals hope to catch lightning in a bottle with Zac Taylor, as he was the Rams QB coach (and a youngster like his boss in Sean McVay). But it may be a while before Cincinnati is remotely close to being competitive.
MIAMI DOLPHINS: The Dolphins are going to be rebuilding and likely be a team with numerous players coming in, most of whom are not major pieces to improve their team. It may be a long and lengthy rebuild.
RAIDERS: More of the question is where do the Raiders play in 2019 than anything (Oakland, Santa Clara, Phoenix, San Diego, Birmingham, AL????). The Raiders are just rebuilding for their brand to Las Vegas so nothing in the foreseeable future for the Men in Black.
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: What a difference a year makes. The Jags were the team people pointed out (and me too) of having a defense legit to win a Super Bowl. And maybe Blake Bortles had turned the page. And then they beat the Patriots early in the season. And then they quit. Bortles went back to being Bortles of old, and the Jags defense was inconsistent throughout. And players seem to be griping and having the issue of effort. It may have to be some retooling over the next season or two before they are a threat for anything.
NEW YORK JETS: The Jets still have far more questions than answers all over the place. Sam Darnold is the future for the team, but he will have to make major steps forward for Jets fans to have hope. But he will also need help on offense which he doesn’t have. It may be a good while before the Jets are even considered a contender.
So right now you have three teams, maybe four who can be a thorn into the Patriots dynasty. But will take nearly perfection for those teams to beat the Patriots who are seemingly always one step ahead. Aside from that, we could very likely see New England in Miami next February once again going for that 7th trophy.
-Fan in the Obstructed Seat