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5 teams that can challenge the Patriots for the 2017 AFC title

Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire

Most of the confetti was still falling at Houston’s NRG Stadium in February when the New England Patriots, celebrating their victory over the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI, were pegged as the favorites to win Super Bowl LII.

Since then, the odds of them winning the Lombardi Trophy for an unprecedented sixth time during the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era have only gotten better. No kidding. They really have.

Las Vegas oddsmakers initially established the Patriots as 6-to-1 favorites to win the next Super Bowl. After watching them exchange most of their draft picks for established NFL regulars, the odds are 3-1.

It’s enough to make you wonder if anyone can derail this dynasty. The answer, of course, is yes. The Patriots are good,  but they’re not invincible.

Not only can the Patriots be prevented from winning the Super Bowl, we believe there are some teams that can prevent them from even getting there by winning the AFC title. Here’s a look at the five we think have the best chance to do it.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Anyone who watched New England dismantle Pittsburgh in the AFC title game could easily say the Steelers are not up to the task of knocking out the Patriots. If the Steelers are forced to take on that task in Foxborough again, the doubters may be proved right.

The Steelers are 0-5 against Tom Brady-led Patriots teams at Gillette Stadium, so it would behoove them to get the home-field advantage for any kind of a playoff rematch The Steelers, though, are good enough to win such a matchup no matter where it’s played, and the biggest reason is Le’Veon Bell.

Bell is arguably the league’s most versatile running back. Opponents have succeeded at times in loading up the box and stopping him as a runner, but on the few occasions in which opponents have done that, Bell has usually found a way to beat them as a pass catcher, and that’s an important factor.

The Patriots struggled at times last season to stop high-powered passing teams (see the Super Bowl), and if that trend continues, the array of weapons quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has to work with in the passing game makes him a leading candidate to take advantage of New England’s kryptonite.

The other key is stopping Brady, and there’s reason to believe with the addition of rookie defensive end T.J. Watt, the Steelers’ pass rush will be even better this year than it was when it recorded 33 sacks from Week 9 on last year. And we saw last season how Brady can indeed be rattled by pressure.

Oakland Raiders

Had quarterback Derek Carr not gone down with a broken right leg with a week to go in the regular season, we might be asking if anyone can unseat the Raiders as AFC champions. On the offensive side of the ball the Raiders were that good, and now they should be better.

Carr is healthy, and to help take some of the pressure off him and keep the offense balanced, the Raiders now have Marshawn Lynch to anchor their running game. No one is really sure what Lynch has left in the tank, but he may not need much to make an impact while running behind one of the league’s best offensive lines.

Oakland Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack (52) and quarterback Derek Carr (4) before an NFL football game against the Indianapolis Colts in Oakland, Calif., Saturday, Dec. 24, 2016. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

With Carr, Lynch and pass catchers Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree and Jared Cook as their top weapons, the Raiders could have the most dynamic offense outside of Atlanta this season, and there’s reason to believe their defense will be up to the task of shutting down the Patriots as well.

For starters, left end Mario Edwards should be back to work opposite Khalil Mack. There’s also an outside chance the Raiders get Aldon Smith back. Even if they don’t, there are enough defensive minds in the organization with Jack Del Rio, Ken Norton and John Pagano to figure out a workable scheme.

The talent is better on that side of the ball now that the Raiders have added cornerback Gareon Conley, safety Obi Melifonwu and defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes through the draft. By the time the playoffs come around, the Raiders could be humming on both sides of the ball.

Kansas City Chiefs

Outside of Tyreek Hill in the return game, there is no one player on the Chiefs, not even on the offensive side of the ball, who opponents really have to game plan for. And that is precisely why Kansas City is as good a candidate as any to unseat the Patriots atop the AFC.

Belichick specializes on the defensive side of the ball in taking away his opponent’s best offensive weapon and forcing that opponent to lean on secondary options. The Chiefs, though, are a team composed largely of secondary options who simply have a knack for making one big play after another.

Whether it’s Hill on a punt or kick return, Jeremy Maclin or Travis Kelce on a pass from quarterback Alex Smith in the passing game or Spencer Ware in the running game, the Chiefs have the ability to make a big gain or score on virtually every play. And that’s just the offense.

On defense the Chiefs are far from ordinary. They have ranked seventh or better in points allowed each of the last four seasons and seventh or better in yards allowed two of the last four seasons, and one of the reasons is their incredible ability to take the ball away.

In the last two season, only Carolina (66) has forced more takeaways than the Chiefs, who had 62 in that span. A big factor in the Patriots’ recent run of success has been their ability to avoid giveaways, but that success would surely be put to the test if they were to meet up with the Chiefs in the playoffs.

Denver Broncos

Been there, done that. Few can say that about beating the Patriots in the playoffs, but the Broncos can. Granted, it was two years ago, but on defense at least the Broncos still resemble the team that sacked Brady four times, picked him off twice and limited the Patriots to 18 points in the 2015 AFC title game.

Late last season they limited the Patriots to 177 yards passing, 136 yards rushing on 39 carries and 16 points in a Week 15 loss in Denver. It would seem on defense the Broncos still have the formula for beating the league’s unquestioned behemoth.

(Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire)

The question, of course, is do they have a quarterback capable of beating that behemoth. They certainly didn’t have one a year ago when the best the offense could muster under Trevor Siemian was three points. But this year should be different. It may prove to be drastically different.

There’s a good chance Paxton Lynch will be running the Broncos’ offense, and if he’s not, it will be an indication that Siemian has gotten better and has a better command of the offense. Either way, the Broncos’ overall offensive attack should be improved.

No one’s expecting the Broncos to put on one of the best shows on turf, but they should be better on offense, and as long as that defense is humming, they’ve got a chance to pull off an upset. That said, the Broncos will have to get to the playoffs first, and in the AFC West that may prove an even bigger challenge.

Houston Texans

You can certainly make the argument that the far more balanced Dolphins or Bengals are most worthy of the final spot in this ranking, but we’re going to give the Texans the slight edge because of their defense, which truly does have the ability to shut down the Patriots.

OK, so they didn’t prove it when they had the chance. We get that. But you have to keep in mind that when they got drubbed 34-16 by New England in the divisional round of the playoffs last year, the Texans were without their best player, defensive end J.J. Watt.

You have to believe with Watt in the lineup of the defense that was the toughest to move the ball on last year, even the Patriots would have a hard time scoring as often as they usually do. You also have to believe the Texans will be much better offensively this year. They can’t be much worse, right?

Let’s face it, Brock Osweiler wasn’t up to the task of moving the Texans consistently, and yet the Texans were still good enough to not only win their division but win a playoff game. Granted, that was against an Oakland team that didn’t have Derek Carr at quarterback, but a win’s a win.

The Texans clearly have some work to do just to get back to the playoffs, but if they can develop a better rushing attack and get competent play out of their quarterback, their defense will give them a chance to win any game anywhere against any team. Even the Patriots.

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