Life is pretty good for Bill Belichick these days. The man can do no wrong.
He spots the Falcons a 28-3 lead and wins the Super Bowl anyway. He pays crazy money for Stephon Gilmore and trades away a first-round pick for Brandin Cooks, and gets lauded for “winning the offseason.” He trades away half his picks and punts on the draft, yet still gets an “A” grade from Mel Kiper.
Belichick and the Patriots have had a firm grip on the AFC over the past decade-plus, and the 2017 season figures to be more of the same. Tom Brady looks 10 years younger, the Patriots brought in elite talent in free agency, they re-signed their key core players, and they’re getting a 100 percent Rob Gronkowski for the start of the season.
It will be a major upset if the Patriots don’t make it to a seventh straight AFC Championship game, and they will be heavy favorites to repeat as Super Bowl champions.
Now that the NFL Draft is complete and free agency has wound down, let’s take a look at the Patriots’ top competitors in AFC, and examine whether any of them can threaten the reign this year (in order of threat level):
2016 record: 12-4 (AFC wild card)
Key additions: TE Jared Cook, RB Marshawn Lynch, LB Jelani Jenkins, WR Cordarrelle Patterson.
Key losses: RB Latavius Murray, RT Menelik Watson, LB Malcolm Smith.
Notable draft picks: CB Gareon Conley (1), S Obi Melifonwu (2), DT Eddie Vanderdoes (3).
A threat?: On paper, the Raiders definitely seem like the biggest threat. They have all the necessary elements: a fantastic young quarterback (Derek Carr), a dominant offensive line, and an elite pass rusher who can wreck a game in a hurry (Khalil Mack). Had Carr not broken his leg last year, the Raiders probably would have beaten Houston in the playoffs and given the Patriots a tough contest. One worry about the Raiders, though: They were 5-0 in games decided by 3 points or fewer, and those trends tend to even out over time.
2016 record: 9-7 (AFC divisional round)
Key additions: None.
Key losses: CB A.J. Bouye, QB Brock Osweiler, NT Vince Wilfork, OLB John Simon, S Quintin Demps.
Notable draft picks: QB Deshaun Watson (1), LB Zach Cunningham (2), RB D’Onta Foreman (3).
A threat?: Not yet, but they’re definitely closer. In a case of addition by subtraction, the Texans automatically got better when they ditched Osweiler. And of course, they get J.J. Watt back from back surgery. They didn’t really touch one of the best rosters in the NFL outside of quarterback, declining to sign any big names in free agency and going all-in with the draft. Their fate will now be tied to Watson, who has a decent chance of beating out Tom Savage in 2017. The Texans could be dangerous, but only if Watson is able to have a Dak Prescott-like impact right away.
2016 record: 11-5 (AFC Championship game)
Key additions: DE Tyson Alualu.
Key losses: LB Jarvis Jones, OLB Lawrence Timmons.
Notable draft picks: OLB T.J. Watt (1), WR JuJu Smith-Schuster (2), RB James Conner (3).
A threat?: Yes, as long as they have Ben Roethlisberger. But they pretty much stood pat this offseason, content to fill roster holes through the draft. The Steelers found a new outside linebacker in J.J. Watt’s younger brother and got Roethlisberger a couple of new young receivers, but it’s hard to see how they are any better than the team that got blown out by the Patriots in the AFC Championship game.
2016 record: 10-6 (AFC wild card)
Key additions: TE Julius Thomas, OLB Lawrence Timmons, DE William Hayes, S T.J. McDonald.
Key losses: LT Branden Albert, TE Jordan Cameron, TE Dion Sims, DE Mario Williams, S Isa Abdul-Quddus, LB Jelani Jenkins.
Notable draft picks: DE Charles Harris (1), LB Raekwon McMillan (2), CB Cordrea Tankersley (3).
A threat?: Not really, but certainly the most of any AFC East team. They have the best quarterback of the three rivals, dynamic receivers and running backs, and a smart young coach in Adam Gase. The Dolphins spent their first three draft picks and five of seven overall on their defense, and may have gotten a great young pass rusher in Harris. But a 35-14 Patriots win in Week 17 last year showed the sizable gap that is still there, and the Dolphins will be battling for another wild-card spot, not a division title.
2016 record: 9-7 (missed playoffs)
Key additions: Coach Vance Joseph, G Ronald Leary, OT Menelik Watson, NT Domata Peko, RB Jamaal Charles.
Key losses: Coach Gary Kubiak, OLB DeMarcus Ware, LT Russell Okung, NT Sylvester Williams.
Notable draft picks: LT Garett Bolles (1), DE DeMarcus Walker (2), WR Carlos Henderson (3), QB Chad Kelly (7).
A threat?: Not unless one of their young quarterbacks takes a big jump. We know about the dominant defense, and how Von Miller and Derek Wolfe torment the Patriots. But as the Broncos showed last year, their defense can carry them only so far. On offense, they finished 27th in total yards and 22nd in points last year, and need to get better production out of Trevor Siemian or Paxton Lynch to have a chance against the Patriots. An improved offensive line should help, but we’re skeptical that either quarterback is ready to take on Tom Brady.
2016 record: 12-4 (AFC divisional round)
Key additions: NT Bennie Logan, RB C.J. Spiller.
Key losses: NT Dontari Poe, DE Jaye Howard.
Notable draft picks: QB Patrick Mahomes (1), DE Tanoh Kpassagnon (2), RB Kareem Hunt (3).
A threat?: Not until Alex Smith gives way to Mahomes. And this isn’t to say that Mahomes is the long-term answer at quarterback. But the Chiefs have definitely hit their ceiling with Smith, and while they have a solid roster on both sides of the football, they aren’t overtaking the Patriots until they find a more dynamic quarterback.
2016 record: 8-8 (missed playoffs)
Key additions: S Tony Jefferson, CB Brandon Carr, RB Danny Woodhead.
Key losses: WR Steve Smith, OLB Elvis Dumervil, LB Zach Orr, C Jeremy Zuttah, WR Kamar Aiken, FB Kyle Juszczyk, DE Lawrence Guy, CB Shareece Wright.
Notable draft picks: CB Marlon Humphrey (1), LB Tyus Bowser (2), DT Chris Wormley (3), OLB Tim Williams (3).
A threat?: The Ravens will always have the Patriots’ respect as long as they have John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco, but they still look like a rebuilding team. While they added an instinctive safety in Jefferson, the defense is still a work in progress, as the Ravens went defense with their first four picks in the draft. And Flacco has yet to replicate his magical 2013 playoff run, throwing 15 interceptions against just 20 touchdowns in an inconsistent 2016 season. Until he cuts down on his mistakes, the Ravens will be AFC afterthoughts.
2016 record: 7-9 (missed playoffs)
Key additions: Coach Sean McDermott, S Micah Hyde, S Jordan Poyer.
Key losses: Coach Rex Ryan, CB Stephon Gilmore, RB Mike Gillislee, WR Robert Woods, LB Zach Brown, CB Nickell Robey-Coleman, QB E.J. Manuel.
Notable draft picks: CB Tre’Davious White (1), WR Zay Jones (2), RT Dion Dawkins (2).
A threat?: More so than they were under Ryan, that’s for sure. The most important addition of the offseason was McDermott, the highly respected and detail-oriented defensive coach from Carolina and, previously, Philadelphia. After two years of sloppy football under Ryan, the Bills will now have much more accountability. They eschewed free agency for the draft, taking the long-term approach to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2000. They still need an answer at quarterback despite bringing Tyrod Taylor back, and the defense might go through some growing pains in 2017. But they appear to be at least heading in the right direction.
2016 record: 8-8 (missed playoffs)
Key additions: General manager Chris Ballard, NT Johnathan Hankins, OLB Jabaal Sheard, OLB John Simon, WR Kamar Aiken.
Key losses: General manager Ryan Grigson, TE Dwayne Allen.
Notable draft picks: S Malik Hooker (1), CB Quincy Wilson (2), DT Tarell Basham (3).
A threat?: Not with this defense. The Colts have some major rebuilding ahead, and spent five of their seven draft picks fixing their defense. They added quality veterans in Sheard and Hankins just to be competitive this year, but they don’t have a defense that can compete with the Patriots yet. And the offensive line, which got Andrew Luck mauled in 2016, still has a lot to prove.
2016 record: 5-11 (missed playoffs)
Key additions: QB Josh McCown, RT Kelvin Beachum, CB Morris Claiborne.
Key losses: CB Darrelle Revis, QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB Geno Smith, WR Brandon Marshall, C Nick Mangold, RT Ryan Clady.
Notable draft picks: S Jamal Adams (1), S Marcus Maye (2), WR ArDarius Stewart (3), WR Chad Hansen (4).
A threat?: No chance. The Jets still don’t have a quarterback, declining to take one in the draft and entering the season with McCown, Bryce Petty, and Christian Hackenberg. They were also fairly quiet in free agency, shedding several expensive, aging names and replacing them mostly with youngsters already on the roster. The Jets selected maybe the best player in the draft at No. 6 in Adams, and took another talented safety in Maye in the second round, but you have to question the logic of going safety-safety with their first two picks.