Which AFC team poses biggest threat to Patriots?

The Patriots hold the top AFC spot in our NFL power rankings. Which team has the best chance to prevent a conference title repeat?

| 1 year ago
(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

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.

  • Jim Winslow

    There is no way the colts and the bengals beat the patriots.

    • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

      bengals a lil more realistic than the colts, who have zero chance

      • bbies1973

        Have the Colts with Luck at the helm ever beaten the Patriots?

        • corners

          “Have the Colts with Luck at the helm ever beaten the Patriots?”
          Learn to read. He never said the colts had a chance

        • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

          no, 0-4 all time, 0-2 in the regular and postseason. combined scores of colts 73 to pats 189. pats have scored 42 points or more every time they played a luck led colts team, obv partially his fault with a combined 10 INTs in those 4 games

      • Jim Winslow

        Definitely but I still don’t trust the Bengals, they haven’t beat anyone good yet.

        • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

          can only play the teams on the schedule. i’ve watched two bengals games this season, SD and BAL, and they are impressive. geno atkins is back, 2nd highest graded DT, and adam jones is the number 1 corner thru three weeks. offense is stacked and well balanced, and dalton looks like he might have found some semblance of consistency, albeit 3 games is too small a sample size in that regards.

  • ToddG

    “Marvin Lewis has as many postseason wins as head coach of the Bengals as they currently have playoff losses.”

    What?

    • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

      lol, right

    • jimbentzchicago

      Marvin Lewis has as many postseason wins as head coach of the Bengals as they currently have regular season losses. Ctrl + C then Ctrl + V

    • DEEPCEE

      Yeah – zero postseason wins & zero losses this fall

    • corners

      0 wins

  • nonono

    Why are you guys using cumulative grades as an argument for the broncos having the best defense? You guys admitted that adding individual grades is a bad way to assess team success

    • anon76returns

      In this case it seems about right. Denver also gives up the least yards/game, the least yards per play, has the worst opp. passer rating, allows the fewest 3rd down conversions, has the 2nd most turnovers, has the 2nd lowest points allowed/drive, the 2nd lowest yards allowed/drive, has the second best rate of getting pressure on the opposing QB (while facing the quickest time to pass in the league), and they’re still top 10 in rushing yards/attempt and rushing yards/game. They also have the best defense according to DVOA or any other advanced stat you want to use.

      • nonono

        no i agree with them dont get me wrong… im just saying PFF tends to specifically state that certain stats dont tell the whole story.. yet they will use them as evidence to support their claim… they admit that yards, TDs, intetceptions, and even their signiture stats dont tell the full story.. yet they use these metrics when they are making a point

  • Thomas Bell

    Big drop off after Buffalo. I am trying to think of who should be on top of the Colts, but there are no shortage of sucky teams in either conference.

  • crosseyedlemon

    We have to disqualify the Colts because they are still trying to figure out how the balls get deflated.

  • crosseyedlemon

    We have to disqualify the Colts because they are still trying to figure out how the balls get deflated.

  • The Mysteries of Bob

    Broncos need an offense to keep them alive on the scoreboard and some way to generat einterior pressure on Brady’s face, this is where he struggles. Denver has an elite pass rush but so does Buffalo and the Pats used quick throws and their dink and dunk to slow it, Broncos corners are good but the Pats top threats play inside and thrive on mismatches (mostly Gronk).

    But the road to the playoffs will pass through New England, their schedule is a cupcake (LOL AFC South and NFC East) and even the top teams have had a hard time to slow their offense, their defense is their achilles heel, it’ hasn’t mattered much because they can score on everyone anyway.

    Bengals and Steelers have chances if they face the Pats at home, Bills already faced them and lost, Colts, however, have negative odds to beat them.

    • snoth cambin

      I dont think anyone can go into New England and beat them unless its one of the divisional teams that have experience against them at home or baltimore and we know how thats turning out.

    • corners

      “Broncos need an offense to keep them alive on the scoreboard and some
      way to generate interior pressure on Brady’s face, this is where he
      struggles.”

      You could replace broncos with patriots and it still holds true. That pats defense sucks and is being propped up by a prolific offense

    • humper-dinkle dinkle-humper

      Actually, Sly Williams and Malick Jackson have been getting good interior pressure. Von Miller always seems to sweeping in behind the quarterback, forcing them to step up into Ware’s open arms or lanes chocked with the D-lineman. I don’t know if this is intentional, but often the rush seems to be structured in layers like this, with multiple players playing a role in each sack. They should get assists.

    • anon76returns

      According to PFF, Denver has two elite interior pass rushers in Malik and A Smith, and those are the starters for Denver’s nickel look.
      Buffalo has had an elite pass rush the last two years, certainly. But as good as their defense has been this year, they have no pass rush to speak of- they’re currently pressuring the QB at the 24th highest rate in the league, so not really fair to compare them with Denver’s pass rush.
      The Broncos offense is a work in progress, but has improved each game (12 points, 24 points, and 24 points scored, 219, 299, and 354 yards gained).

    • Xyberz

      You know they do say that the best offense is a good defense and we saw the end result of that in the Superbowl against the Seahawks didn’t we? You don’t have to be a spectacular offense as the Seahawks I would say is average or slightly above average at best. The key is to not turn the ball over which the Broncos are getting better over the past couple of games. Of course the Seahawks have a really good RB and a good enough offensive line to help open up some running lanes. Now I would never claim or even admit that Anderson or Hillman are in the same league as Lynch right now but I can admit that if the offensive line can get better (hopefully sooner rather than later) it’ll allow the RB’s to perform like they did during the 2nd half of last season. This we shall have to wait and see as the weeks progress on.

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  • The Mysteries of Bob

    Broncos need an offense to keep them alive on the scoreboard and some way to generat einterior pressure on Brady’s face, this is where he struggles. Denver has an elite pass rush but so does Buffalo and the Pats used quick throws and their dink and dunk to slow it, Broncos corners are good but the Pats top threats play inside and thrive on mismatches (mostly Gronk).

    But the road to the playoffs will pass through New England, their schedule is a cupcake (LOL AFC South and NFC East) and even the top teams have had a hard time to slow their offense, their defense is their achilles heel, it’ hasn’t mattered much because they can score on everyone anyway.

    Bengals and Steelers have chances if they face the Pats at home, Bills already faced them and lost, Colts, however, have negative odds to beat them.

  • James Coffee

    I remember the Pats playoff loss to the Broncs after the ’05 season (the Pats made several humungous mistakes) and it seems to me that the worst problem for the Pats was and will be Denver’s altitude –in the upcoming regular season game. And it’s a good bet that any postseason game played between them this year will be in Foxboro. I just can’t see the fading Peyton eliminating strong-as-ever Tom. Then again, if Peyton finds the arm strength to challenge the Pats’ suspect secondary…

    • anon76returns

      2013 AFCCG seems a more recent game to remember, at least there’s somewhat more similarity between the two current squads and their 2013 version than to the 2015 version.

  • snoth cambin

    Buffalo is the one team i can see giving Brady and that offense problems but with the exception of them their isnt a team that can stop that offense (just because of the sheer defensive genius of rex ryan against Brady) and also put up points in the process. Everyone in the AFC that has a chance to beat the Patriots is either heavy on offense or heavy on defense or just bad. Theres no Arizona in the AFC and if there was the patriots beat em already.

  • crosseyedlemon

    The Raiders will pose the biggest threat to New England once they figure out how to get the “tuck” rule to work in their favor.

    • Raidernation85

      lol. Yep

  • Jeff

    I would’ve put the Jets ahead of the Colts as one of the top threats. You know that Jets team that just last year (with a JV squad) lost to the Patriots by a combined 3 points on 2 games. This Jets team is much more improved from that one, and with stronger defense and improved offense, should make it a tough match up for them this year.

    • KingCheese

      Yea that might be true but they don’t have Ryan to coach them.

  • http://careersreport.com Fredericka Vincent

    cxb

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