Handicapping the New England Patriots' Biggest AFC Competition

Sterling Xie@@sxie1281Correspondent IIJuly 2, 2013

Handicapping the New England Patriots' Biggest AFC Competition

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    The New England Patriots have endured arguably their most tumultuous offseason since Bill Parcells' departure in 1997.  With the sudden breakup of their dynamic tight end duo, enormous turnover at receiver and a defense still striving to prove itself, some are predicting doom and gloom in Foxboro this season.

    And yet, as long as Tom Brady is still standing and Bill Belichick is roaming the sidelines, it's hard to imagine a total collapse.  The two have never finished worse than 9-7 in a season together, and the 2013 Patriots certainly have more talent than some previous incarnations. 

    Still, the playoffs have not been the standard in New England for quite some time.  Brady will turn 36 in August, and every year without a ring is another wasted year in the golden era of Patriots football.  If the Patriots hope to reach the Meadowlands in February, they will have to overcome some up-and-comers as well as familiar foes in the AFC.

    Here's a look at the seven AFC teams most likely to send Foxboro into a bitter January winter this season.


    *All stats courtesy Pro-Football-Reference.com

7. Indianapolis Colts

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    Offseason Recap: According to Paul Kuharsky of ESPN, the Colts came into the offseason with over $43 million in cap room, and they certainly wasted no time spending it.  Indy signed 11 unrestricted free agents, including Ahmad Bradshaw, LaRon Landry and ex-Patriot Donald Thomas. 

    Some Indianapolis writers speculate the signings could result in as many as nine new starters, which might just be a way of justifying the $34 million the Colts handed out to some mid-level free agents.  The Colts used the draft to strengthen the trenches, drafting Bjoern Werner in the first round and spending their first four selections on linemen.


    How Indy matches up: Last season, the Patriots put a 59-24 pasting on the Colts in Week 11, with the defense forcing four Andrew Luck turnovers.  With so many offseason additions, it's hard to decipher exactly how the teams would match up, though they do not play each other in the regular season for the first time since 2002. 

    Of course, if the teams do meet in the postseason, that probably means Andrew Luck has taken another step forward in his development.  Luck made lots of typical rookie mistakes, leading the AFC in interceptions, taking too many sacks and not completing a particularly high percentage of his passes. But with a football IQ as impressive as his physical tools, it seems like a matter of time before Luck breaks out. 


    Threat Level: 4/10.  Though Luck may break out, football is a team sport after all.  Bill Barnwell of Grantland detailed how close-game fortune and a weak schedule inflated the Colts from a seven- or eight-win team to their 11-5 finish.  With no regular-season meeting, the Patriots will probably get to wait until 2014 to worry about the Colts.

6. Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Offseason Recap: Per usual, the Steelers were quiet in free agency, refusing to overpay their own and making signings based on value.  As Patriots fans know, this kind of discipline often fosters frustration during the heedless frenzy of free agency, though it usually pays off in the end.  Still, some Steelers followers are questioning whether the philosophy will only result in another missed postseason in 2013.

    The draft was more fruitful for the Steelers, as high-ceiling edge-rusher Jarvis Jones fell into their laps at No. 17.  Pittsburgh also got good value at the skill positions, nabbing running back Le'Veon Bell in the second and rumored Patriots target Markus Wheaton in the third.


    How Pittsburgh Matches Up: Though the two did not meet last season, they are familiar foes, having played seven times in the past 10 seasons.  Oddly, for two perennial contenders, most of the games have been quite lopsided.

    Offensively, Pittsburgh took a step back last season, finishing 12th in total offense.  Some have attributed the decline to the departure of former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, which supposedly irked Ben Roethlisberger.  With the loss of Mike Wallace and the oldest projected starting defense in the league, the Steelers don't look as threatening as usual.


    Threat Level: 5/10.  The Patriots host Pittsburgh in Week 9, right before the team's bye.  By then, one would hope the offense is healthy and coordinated enough to break down Dick LeBeau's famed zone-blitz scheme.  As of now, the Steelers look like the Patriots of the 2008 and 2009 seasons—still some fearsome, familiar names, but a team in transition that isn't quite the contender it usually is.

5. Miami Dolphins

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    Offseason Recap: Whew.  Where to start?  The Dolphins truly are a new team in 2013, and not just because of the new logo.  Miami handed out a mind-boggling $204 million and a hefty $91 million guaranteed to 14 players, according to Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald.  The headliner was Mike Wallace, though expensive secondary additions like Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler marked significant defensive turnover.

    Indeed, the Dolphins also made the biggest splash at the draft, trading up to the third pick to grab defensive end Dion Jordan.  Cornerback Jamar Taylor will also hope to team with Brent Grimes as part of a revamped secondary.


    How Miami Matches Up: Miami has always been the Patriots' trickiest AFC East opponent (with the exception of some of Rex Ryan's Jets teams).  Though New England has won six in a row and eight of the last nine, Brady is just 6-5 in Miami, sneaking over .500 last season.

    Still, while many of the offseason additions were aimed at improving the Dolphins' 21st-ranked defense, their legitimacy as a contender will fall on Ryan Tannehill's development in his second season.  The book on Tannehill coming out of college was an athletic yet raw quarterback who would need time.  Indeed, Tannehill had one of the lowest yards/attempt last season among regular starters. 

    Tannehill's skill set is reminiscent of Joe Flacco's, whose development progressed slowly and inconsistently before he finally put everything together in the playoffs at the end of his fifth season. 


    Threat Level: 5/10.  As Dan Snyder can attest, the label of "offseason champion" means little come fall.  The 'Fins get the nod over the Steelers because the Pats have to play them twice, but unless Tannehill takes a huge step forward, Miami is still probably a year or two away from serious contention.

4. Houston Texans

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    Offseason Recap: The Texans mostly made minor tweaks this offseason, though the signing of Ed Reed certainly garnered headlines.  Houston's most notable defection was outside linebacker Connor Barwin, though it's beginning to look like his 11.5-sack 2011 season was the anomaly.   

    Houston did address its biggest need in the draft, selecting DeAndre Hopkins to complement Andre Johnson on the outside.  Even teams with weak passing defenses like the Patriots were able to hone in on Johnson last season, giving Matt Schaub less-than-desirable options to attack downfield.  The Texans hope Hopkins can counter any forthcoming regression from the 32-year-old Schaub.


    How Houston Matches Up: If last season is any indication, not particularly well.  Though Arian Foster gained about 4.96 yards per touch in the two matchups, above his season average of 4.20, Schaub was most ineffective in breaking down the Patriot defense vertically.  Despite completing nearly 64 percent of his passes, Schaub's YPA was a measly 6.93, well below his 7.4 season average. 

    If Schaub isn't capable of stretching New England's defense, the onus falls on the Houston defense.  Considering Brady eviscerated the Texans' coverage for a 119.9 rating and seven touchdowns to no interceptions, that could be a bit of a problem.  While Reed is one of just eight players to pick off Brady multiple times the last six seasons, a diminishing 34-year-old likely isn't the answer.


    Threat Level: 6/10.  The Texans are talented enough to challenge the Patriots, and New England does have to travel to Houston in Week 13, where the Texans are 13-5 the last two seasons.  But as Joe Flacco and Eli Manning have shown, it often takes an unexpected leap forward from the quarterback to knock out the Patriots from the playoffs.  Schaub making the leap would be the biggest surprise yet.

3. Cincinnati Bengals

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    Offseason Recap: The 2013 Bengals will look at lot like the 2012 version, as the team re-signed virtually all of its own free agents.  The only notable offseason acquisition was ex-Steeler James Harrison, unless you consider signing John Skelton a splash. 

    In the draft, Cincinnati took some interesting gambles.  The Bengals drafted Tyler Eifert in the first round despite the presence of Jermaine Gresham, seeking to emulate the recent dual-tight end craze (wonder whose fault that was?).  They also potentially stole Margus Hunt late in the second round, a high-upside defensive end who some thought the Pats would pick in the first.


    How Cincinnati Matches Up: No one really knows for sure, since the teams haven't played since Andy Dalton and A.J. Green have transformed the Bengals' offensive identity.  Green would undoubtedly be a handful to cover, though the Pats could probably key in on the pass, given that old friend BenJarvus Green-Ellis isn't particularly threatening on the ground.

    Defensively, the Bengals theoretically have some ingredients that have proven effective against New England.  Geno Atkins is the best interior pass-rusher in the NFL, and moving Brady out of the pocket is arguably the most important key for opposing defenses.  Additionally, the cornerback tandem of Leon Hall and Dre Kirkpatrick could hold the fort long enough for the pass rush to substantially affect the game.


    Threat Level: 7/10.  Much of this lies in fear of the unknown, giving Cincy the nod over the Texans.  Still, the Patriots are a better team on paper, though playing at Cincinnati in Week 5 will make things tougher.  But looking at the big picture, it would be hard to imagine the young Bengals going into Foxboro and knocking the Pats out of the playoffs.

2. Baltimore Ravens

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    Offseason Recap: The Patriots' turnover at receiver is essentially what the entire Ravens defense experienced this offseason.  Baltimore will lose eight starters, including six on defense.  However, that might not be a bad thing, considering the Ravens have gotten younger with the additions of Elvis Dumervil, Michael Huff and Chris Canty.

    Baltimore continued turning over its defense in the draft, picking up safety Matt Elam and linebacker Arthur Brown with its first two picks.  If all goes according to plan, those two should replace Reed and Lewis in the middle of the defense.


    How Baltimore Matches Up: The Ravens have always been a thorn in the Patriots' side.  In eight career games, Brady has just a 72.1 rating, and eight touchdowns to 10 interceptions.  Baltimore is one of the few teams that has no fear playing New England, consistently battering and confusing Brady while handing the quarterback two of his three career home playoff losses. 

    Of course, Joe Flacco was the X-factor that put the Ravens over the top last season.  Flacco has always had good numbers against the Patriots, but his ability to exploit New England's shaky secondary after Aqib Talib's injury in the AFC Championship Game was the sign of a great quarterback keying in on an opponent's weakness.  Whether he sustains that level in 2013 could be the difference between the two teams.


    Threat Level: 8/10.  We're getting to the point where the Patriots could be expected to lose, regardless of location.  Any game between Baltimore and New England will be emotionally charged and closely contested.  Don't be surprised if the Week 16 prime-time game at M&T Bank Stadium is a dress rehearsal for a playoff rematch a few weeks later.

1. Denver Broncos

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    Offseason Recap: The Broncos went bargain-hunting this spring, as guard Louis Vasquez was the only player they signed to an above-market deal.  They nabbed Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Shaun Phillips, who could prove to be steals for their defense.  The draft was solid but unspectacular, as defensive tackle Sylvester Williams addresses an unglamorous need.

    Oh, and they signed away the Patriots' all-time leading receiver and Brady's most trusted target, which might have a bit of an impact on the AFC's power struggle.


    How Denver Matches Up: With Wes Welker's addition, it is almost unfathomable how the Patriots will attempt to defend the Broncos' passing game.  Welker, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker give Peyton Manning his best receiving corps since the halcyon days of Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne.  Even in last year's 10-point loss, Manning still threw for 347 yards at a roughly 70 percent completion rate. 

    Fortunately, Denver's defense has been equally hopeless against the Patriots the last two seasons.  In three games, Brady has a 126.9 rating and a 9-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio.  Of course, Welker accounted for much of the damage against Denver, and the Pats' less-talented targets will have a harder time beating the Broncos' coverage so easily.


    Threat Level: 10/10.  It's only July, and circumstances can change drastically during the season.  But as of right now, the Broncos look like the one AFC team that is clearly in better shape than the Patriots heading into the season.  Brady and Manning seem likely to square off for the fourth time in the playoffs, and for now, you have to give Peyton's supporting cast the edge.