Which AFC team poses biggest threat to Patriots?
For the New England Patriots, the opening weeks have gone as well as they could have imagined—possibly even better. Brady has a neither missed a game, nor a beat, on the field, Rob Gronkowski is healthy and dominant, and perhaps most importantly, the path to yet another Super Bowl berth seems their’s for the taking. With New England primed yet again to compete for an AFC title, is there anybody who can get in the way of last year’s Super Bowl?
There may be, in fact. Here are the Pats’ top threats in the AFC.
Cincinnati Bengals (3-0)
John Harbaugh recently called Cincinnati “the most talented team in the league.” He may have an argument, with the Bengals being lifted by some healthy returns and a start from Andy Dalton (+7.8) that has been far and away the best of his career. Tyler Eifert (+2.2) has also gotten off to an excellent start following his 2014 season-ending injury, while A.J. Green remains one of the game’s most feared receivers (+2.7).
The Bengals’ recent prowess in the passing game complements an effective running game, currently led by Giovanni Bernard (+3.3), whose elusive rating of 90.4 is third in the league.
Perhaps even more important than Eifert’s return is the return to form of defensive tackle Geno Atkins (+15.7). After a merely “good” season in 2014 following an ACL injury, Atkins is back to his absolute best. He leads all defensive tackles in combined pressure, and is one of PFF’s highest graded players, regardless of position, thus far.
While it’s only a slightly less silly to be hailing champions in Week 3 than it was in the summer, Cincinnati does have staying power. First, consider the state of their division rivals; the Ravens are winless, and Pittsburgh is without Ben Roethlisberger for the next chunk of games. This is a deeper, more mature version of recent Bengals teams that have already won divisions and made postseason appearances.
The obvious elephant in the room, of course, is the lack of playoff success. Bengals fans to this day are still haunted by nightmares of Kimo von Oelhoffen, and Marvin Lewis has as many postseason wins as head coach of the Bengals as they currently have regular season losses. Cincinnati definitely is talented enough to beat the Patriots when it matters, but it will largely hinge on Andy Dalton sustaining this level of play.
Denver Broncos (3-0)
Peyton Manning (-3.5) has gotten off to a sloppy start, thanks largely to a struggling offensive line and Manning handling pressure a lot worse than he normally does. The Broncos’ quarterback currently has the sixth-highest sack percentage (a measure of efficiency in handling pressure) in the league. It is very unlike Manning, who ranked near the bottom of that same statistic in 2013 and 2014. The arguments over offensive system will only continue as Peyton struggles to look like the man who set records just two seasons ago, and Kubiak may have to give in to Manning sooner rather than later.
Under Kubiak thus far, Denver’s rushing attack own’s the NFL’s eight-lowest grade. It’s hard to imagine them being worse, but outside of August’s arrival of G Evan Mathis (+1.9), Denver’s four other O-line starters grade out amongst their worst players on either side of the ball.
Despite the aforementioned struggles, Denver remains undefeated due to the backing of the best defense in football (+54.8 overall). The Broncos boast PFF’s two highest-ranked 3-4 OLBs in pass-rush grades, as well as arguably the league’s best trio of corners. Aqib Talib currently is amongst league leaders with a 32.4 NFL passer rating on targets his way, while Chris Harris Jr. is not far behind with a 64.0 rating. 2014 first-rounder Bradley Roby is also turning heads, with his +5.0 coverage grade, the third highest in the league.
Needless to say, there are a whole host of things left to figure out on offense for Denver, but luckily plenty of time to fix them. Eyes will continue to be on Peyton Manning, as followers seemingly wait with anticipation for the future Hall of Famer to finally fall apart, and Denver will have to find that elusive ground success to mitigate the amount of pressure Manning is dealing with. Denver is equipped with a championship defense, but over-reliance on Manning could once again be their undoing, despite their best intentions to avoid it.
Pittsburgh Steelers (2-1)
Pittsburgh has already tasted defeat to New England once this season, but there isn’t another team in the AFC better equipped to compete offensively with the Patriots besides the Steelers—as long as Michael Vick can steer the ship in the interim. Vick only saw three starts with the Jets in 2014, but graded -11.6 in across those games. In this respect Le’Veon Bell returns just in time, demonstrating his importance by finishing with Pittsburgh’s highest grade this past weekend.
The offensive firepower of Pittsburgh, should they survive Vick’s starting period, will make them a threat in the AFC. Big Ben currently owns the top PFF passing grade (+14.7), and Antonio Brown leads the league with 4.32 yards-per-route-run. Bell, PFF’s highest graded running back in 2014, should keep Pittsburgh competitive during Roethlisberger’s absence.
Uncharacteristic of Pittsburgh, it is their defense that may end up holding them back. Of particular disappointment early on is Lawrence Timmons (-9.0), whose poor overall performances have been out-of-character. Pittsburgh will hope that, come winter, key members of their promising defensive youth movement such as Stephon Tuitt (+5.9), Ryan Shazier (+1.5), Jarvis Jones (-0.9), Bud Dupree (-3.5), and Cameron Heyward (-1.4) can prove to be difference makers.
Buffalo Bills (2-1)
Yet another team that has already been defeated by New England, Rex Ryan did anything but stop Tom Brady when the Pats’ scored 40 points in Buffalo. Still, this is a team coached by a man who has put together several master classes in defending New England during his time with the Jets. This could make the Bills a particularly tricky opponent for the Patriots in a one-off game playoff situation.
Rex Ryan and a talented defense are always going to be a recipe for competitive football, but the difference between borderline playoff contention and a team that can truly give New England trouble in postseason play will continue to hinge on what happens on offense. Early signs are positive, with Richie Incognito (+8.8) being a particularly inspired signing. Tyrod Taylor currently ranks eighth in PFF’s QB rating, and his positive performance in Miami showed a real bounce-back after struggling with New England in Week 2. Karlos Williams (+3.2), PFF’s highest graded skill player on Buffalo, looks to be in line for more opportunities, which should be a further boost.
Indianapolis Colts (1-2)
They have to figure it out soon, right? Even if the Colts never become the team that the preseason hype made them out to be, they’re still in a prime position to win the AFC South, and thereby make a matchup with New England in the playoffs a strong possibility. Unfortunately for the Pagano-Luck era Colts, meeting New England at any point has only produced one result: a beatdown by multiple scores.
With strong weapons at his disposal, Luck should be able to get back on track. While Andre Johnson (-2.3 pass rating) has proven to be a bust thus far, the overall complement of young receiving talent at both receiver and tight end is still amongst the best in the league.
The offensive line struggles are serious—even the usually reliable Anthony Costanzo (-3.4) had difficulties last week—but Luck has been dealing with offensive line issues since his rookie season. To an extent, Luck, who is tied with Alex Smith for PFF’s second-lowed QB grade at the moment, is struggling due to no fault but his own. It’s hard to see him not bouncing back however; he is simply too talented.
As for a matchup specifically with New England, the Colts are now better equipped to prevent repeats of Jonas Gray in Week 11 of 2014 and LeGarrette Blount in the AFC Championship game. Any hope for a similar performance would have to go through the Colts’ new-look defensive line, featuring Stanford rookies Henry Anderson (+5.6) and David Parry (+0.3). Anderson has been particularly stout, boasting the best run-stop percentage of any 3-4 defensive end. In the end though, none of it will matter if Luck replicates the poor display from their last meeting.
The Colts originally being hailed as the AFC’s next big thing was largely due to an expectation that Luck was going to take another step forward. Last year’s passing touchdown leader is operating at several gears below 2014’s impressive form, so he has a hill to climb. For the Colts to finally get over the hump and defeat a team that has handled them with consistent ease over past few seasons, Luck will need to drastically improve his performance.