The New England Patriots have been firmly entrenched at the top of the AFC for years. But recent issues between Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have many questioning how long they will be the best team in the conference. As teams solidify their squads for the upcoming season, there are several who have a genuine chance to unseat New England and earn themselves a spot in the Super Bowl in the near future. These five teams in particular appear to have the best chances to do so.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
Last season, the Pittsburgh Steelers came one game away from earning a spot in the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots. But several turnovers against the Jacksonville Jaguars along with some poor defense, and the Steelers lost out on their chance to make it to the NFL’s semifinal round. This season, they should have a chance to do it again thanks to some exemplary roster continuity.
Most of the key players in the Steelers arsenal are returning for the 2018 campaign, including Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown. And while there are several players who need to improve in the upcoming season, the pieces are certainly in place for the Steelers to make a run. The most important thing for the Steelers is to improve their discipline, as their turnovers and defensive lapses were what cost them dearly in the divisional round against the Jaguars. Failure to rectify that problem would negate their considerable talent all over the field.
2. Los Angeles Chargers
Los Angeles was an interesting team last season, in that they were vastly superior to many of their opponents despite failing to make the playoffs. The big reason for their lack of a playoff appearance last season was the fact that they missed a number of last-second field goals in the early portion of the season. Had those kicks gone in, they would have seen themselves in the playoffs, where their defense would have given them a chance to make a deep run.
Defensively, the Chargers have the perfect defense to compete with teams like the Patriots who rely on their passing attack to score in bunches. They are led by their pass rush, which is led by Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. Collectively, the Chargers were excellent at getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks which would make them extremely dangerous to the Steelers or Patriots, giving them a great opportunity to break into the top three in the AFC for years to come.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars
Last year, the Jacksonville Jaguars were one quarter away from finding themselves in the Super Bowl. But, like many teams before them, they fell apart late in the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots. The quarterback position was their weak point in that season and still appears to be their problem heading into 2018. And while Blake Bortles has faced problems off the field related to a burglary of his property, he is the most important player to the Jaguars’ success.
Bortles is so important because the rest of the Jaguars have been so good. Defensively, they are one of the stingiest teams in the entire NFL. Their secondary is the driving force behind that, with Jalen Ramsey leading the defense to a number of excellent performances in 2017. Most teams have a difficult time stopping Tom Brady, but the Jaguars had no such trouble in the AFC Championship Game until their offense gave the Patriots the ball in an advantageous position time and time again in the closing moments.
Fortunately for Bortles, he will have Leonard Fournette at his disposal again this year. Fournette was a pleasant surprise last season, where he exceeded already high expectations as the focal point of the Jacksonville offense. If he can continue putting together productive seasons, the Patriots will have to hope that the Jags do not develop a more sophisticated passing attack.
4. Indianapolis Colts
Injuries have destroyed the Colts in recent seasons, what with all of the issues that they faced with quarterback Andrew Luck. That injury had an impact on the rest of the team, who were forced to try and compensate for the loss of a transformative player at the most important position on the field. Now, the Colts should have Luck back, which will improve every facet of their team.
The defense will see a nice boost from this as well, as not having to spend as many plays on defense will keep them rested and ready to perform at a high level. Against a team like the Patriots, that is essential.
5. Oakland Raiders
Before their move to Las Vegas, the Raiders are hoping to climb back up the charts in the AFC. Last year was a significant step back for Oakland, as they never found the groove that they had in the 2016 season prior to an injury to quarterback Derek Carr. This year, they have a chance to get back on track thanks to the acquisition of wide receiver Jordy Nelson, who should work well with Carr and the rest of their explosive offense.
Of course, all of the five teams here will be underdogs to the Patriots heading into next season. According to Sportsbet, the Patriots are once again favorites to play for the Lombardi Trophy by winning the AFC and getting to the Super Bowl. While this isn’t a surprise, it is an opportunity for any of the five teams listed above. They have the talent to challenge the Patriots, and may be able to take advantage of some of the dysfunction in New England to get to a Super Bowl.
While all of those teams have talent, though, there are a couple of things that they don’t have. Those things are Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, who have been able to bail the Patriots out of some dysfunction quite a bit over the last few years. If any of the AFC’s top contenders want to get to a Super Bowl, they will have to overcome that advantage.