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New England Patriots

Potential challengers to Patriots status as AFC frontrunners

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick makes notes on the sideline during the first half of an NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

Now that we are a few days removed from the New England Patriots’ stunning collapse against the Kansas City Chiefs in their season opener – and the angry torch-bearing villagers who took to the streets calling for Tom Brady’s head have mostly tired out and gone home – it’s time to take stock of where the defending Super Bowl champs sit in relation to the rest of the AFC.

The 42-27 loss to the Chiefs was alarming for a number of reasons. The front seven was perhaps even worse than expected, with newcomer Cassius Marsh “earning” a 38.4 grade from Pro Football Focus. And on offense, Brady seemed uncomfortable without his security blanket, Julian Edelman.

All of this begs the question: Should the Patriots – suddenly and shockingly – no longer be considered the AFC’s frontrunner? The answer is … maybe.

We must qualify this by emphasizing that it’s never wise to put too much emphasis on one game, especially on a season opener. Indeed, Rob Gronkowski pointed out that the Patriots lost Week 1 games in 2001, 2003 and 2014 and went on to win the Super Bowl in each of those seasons.

But while it would be foolhardy to write off the Patriots, there are several candidates waiting in the wings to take the Patriots’ spot atop the AFC. Let’s take a look at a couple of potential candidates:

Jacksonville Jaguars

We include the Jaguars with a bit of a wink, as we know this is the longest of long shots. Remember that the Jags were supposed to turn things around last season behind a revamped defense. It didn’t happen, and they went 3-13 instead. That defense was pretty awesome in Sunday’s victory over the Houston Texans, overcoming yet another bland performance by Blake Bortles. But as impressive as that win was, and even noting that the Jags play in a weak division, it’s not time to crown this team yet. A .500 season might be a realistic goal; taking the mantle as king of the AFC is not. Which brings us to …

Houston Texans

It’s the same old problem for the Texans. They’ve got a lot of strong players, and their defense is loaded with playmakers. But the lack of an impact player at quarterback continues to hamper their chances of success. And for those beating the Deshaun Watson drum, the rookie really wasn’t any better than Tom Savage, so don’t rely on him to turn things around. Things will get better, and the line won’t give up 10 sacks every game, but this team doesn’t have the look of the AFC’s new bully.

Baltimore Ravens

Joe Flacco was mediocre against the Cincinnati Bengals, but the Ravens rode a strong running game and dominant defense to a 20-0 rout. The Ravens forced five turnovers, including four interceptions, and sacked Andy Dalton five times. Brandon Williams was utterly dominant. This was old school football at its finest, and if Flacco can rebound, this would be a team to watch.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers’ 21-18 win over Cleveland wasn’t as close as the score shows, as the Browns scored with three minutes left and the game pretty well in hand. Ben Roethlisberger has a lot of weapons, as usual, and the offense will be better once Le’Veon Bell gets up to speed (he would like some more action, please). Also, T.J. Watt showed signs that he could have an impact on defense as a rookie.

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt (90) celebrates with teammates after making an interception during the second half of an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns, Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/David Richard)

(AP Photo/David Richard)

Oakland Raiders

The Raiders have been widely viewed as a potential usurper of the Patriots’ throne, and their Week 1 win at Tennessee will only strengthen those views. This was a solid road win against another team many think will contend in 2017. Derek Carr looked good in his first game since last season’s devastating injury, Khalil Mack wreaked havoc as usual and Marshawn Lynch went for 76 yards in his first game in nearly 22 months. There’s a lot to like about this team.

Kansas City Chiefs

In a division dominated recently by the Denver Broncos and featuring the “next big thing” in the Raiders, the Chiefs often get overlooked. Meanwhile, all they do is win, compiling a .677 winning percentage since the start of the 2013 season. Alex Smith isn’t as good as he was on Thursday night, but he’s better than he often gets credit for, and he appears to have more weapons than ever now with the emergence of rookie Kareem Hunt. Eric Berry’s injury is a big blow, but the Chiefs showed that they are ready to take a run at the Patriots’ crown.

All of this speculation could be all for naught. The Patriots could solve their issues with the front seven (you out there, Rob Ninkovich?), Brady could build a new level of comfort with Chris Hogan and Brandin Cooks. The defensive game plan that flopped vs. the Chiefs could prove an aberration.

But the way that Week 1 game went down, the way the Chiefs made mincemeat of that defense, at least shows there is reason for concern. And you can bet that the rest of the AFC has taken notice. Teams will study the game film closely and look for things they can take advantage of when their turn comes.

The Texans get their shot in Week 3, the Raiders in Week 11, the Steelers in Week 15. Are they ready to claim dominance over the AFC?

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