New England Patriots: Which AFC Opponent Will Threaten Pats Most in 2012?
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The AFC title is the New England Patriots' to lose.
Forgive the controversial overstatement (one that's particularly egregious in a league so full of parity as the NFL), but it seems to be conventional wisdom in football circles.
They're the defending conference champs, and that alone should make them favorites. They also addressed their biggest offensive weakness (no deep threat) by signing WR Brandon Lloyd.
Most importantly, their strong offseason acquisitions should prevent the 2012 Patriots defense from giving significant snaps to tweeners like LB Rob Ninkovich and subpar performers like safety Josh Barrett. Moves like the signings of safety Steve Gregory and DE Trevor Scott, and the drafting of DE Chandler Jones and LB Dont'a Hightower should prevent the defense from asking too much of role players.
In other words, the Pats shouldn't have to use WR Julian Edelman in their secondary next year.
These developments make the Pats the best team in the conference. Of course, the best team in August doesn't always win in January (just ask the Philadelphia Eagles).
Let's take a look at some teams that could sneak up behind the Pats and steal the AFC title this year.
1) Baltimore Ravens
A Ravens-Pats AFC Championship rematch is entirely possible in 2012.
Not to mention a missed chip-shot field goal by now-cut kicker Billy Cundiff that would have sent the game into overtime.
If either of these 50-50 plays went in the Ravens' favor, we might be talking about the Patriots' chances of upsetting the AFC favorite Ravens for the AFC title this season.
Several of the Ravens' defensive stars (including future Hall of Famers LB Ray Lewis and SS Ed Reed) are aging, and All-Pro linebacker Terrell Suggs will miss at least six games with a torn Achilles. They've also got age questions along their offensive line, where Bobbie Williams, Matt Birk and Bryant McKinnie are all on the wrong side of 30.
If Flacco takes a step forward, the Ravens' offensive uptick should compensate for any loss in defensive intensity.
With an improved offense in 2012 and a fresh Terrell Suggs back by the playoffs, the Ravens will be a team that no one wants to face in the postseason.
2) Houston Texans
Houston looks like a potential top AFC seed in 2012.
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They also have playmakers on every level of their defense. Bullrusher J.J. Watt anchors a strong Texans line, the stout Connor Barwin roams up the middle, and physical corner Johnathan Joseph sets the tone for their secondary.
The Texans' playmaking ability on both sides of the ball make them a huge threat in the playoffs. The Patriots will face a tall task if they meet up with Houston in the postseason.
Even with the All-Pro Williams now a member of the Buffalo Bills, the Texans look like the team to beat in the AFC.
Besides the Pats, of course.
3) Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers are a tough opponent to bring down.
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DeCastro, who tore his MCL in a preseason game against the Buffalo Bills, was supposed to anchor an offensive line that allowed 42 sacks last season. He showed promise in training camp and preseason, but now it looks like he'll be out for most of the year.
Even without DeCastro, the Steelers are always dangerous.
They'll need to find ways to keep Roethlisberger healthy behind another patchwork line (likely by chipping with TEs Heath Miller and Leonard Pope). If they can keep their QB fresh through the playoffs, the Roethlisberger-Wallace connection is deadly.
Their defense, which ranked first against the pass last season, also returns a healthy LB Lamar Woodley to boost their pass rush.
The Steelers are a perennial contender, and this year is no exception. They'll be standing in the way of the Pats again this season, and New England can't count on another miracle Tim Tebow play in OT to oust the Steel Curtain from the playoffs again this year.