Gap Between the New England Patriots and Upstart AFC Is Closing

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystSeptember 17, 2018

Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Dante Fowler (56) celebrates a play during the second half of an NFL football game against the New England Patriots, Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018, in Jacksonville, Fla. The Jaguars defeated the Patriots 31-20. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)
Associated Press

The rest of the AFC is finally closing the gap the New England Patriots created over 17 dominant seasons. The team lacks playmakers at key positions and can't hang defensively, and even the brilliance of Bill Belichick and his staff has come into question. 

New England tends to lay one or two eggs every season, but Sunday's 31-20 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars symbolized something more. 

"I think for us it was [a statement game] because we're underdogs," Jaguars defensive lineman Malik Jackson said, per ESPN.com's Michael DiRocco. "Nobody really believed in us once again. They thought they were going to come in here and steamroll us, so for us I think it was a statement game for people to recognize us." 

The Patriots' stranglehold over the AFC is loosening. New England should still be considered the team to beat over a 16-game stretch and into the playoffs. However, the AFC isn't as weak as many initially thought. 

Originally, the Jaguars and Pittsburgh Steelers looked like the only two teams worthy of consideration as giant-slayers, but the Cincinnati Bengals and Kansas City Chiefs have worked into that conversation after impressive 2-0 starts. The Miami Dolphins and Denver Broncos are also 2-0. The Steelers and Los Angeles Chargers are still lingering thanks to explosive offenses and despite early missteps. 

It's still very early in the process, but some of the previous concerns with those teams are disappearing, while the Patriots' are becoming more glaring. 

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady
New England Patriots quarterback Tom BradyStephen B. Morton/Associated Press/Associated Press

Tom Brady is Tom Brady. The system is built around the 41-year-old signal-caller. He'll get the ball out quickly and to the right target more often than not. It's hard to envision a sustainable offense with Phillip Dorsett and Chris Hogan serving as the team's top two wide receivers, though.

Instead, the passing offense is built around five-time Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski. Gronk shined against the Houston Texans with seven receptions for 123 yards and a touchdown, but the Jaguars took him out of the game by lining All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey or one of their standout safeties on the big target. He caught two passes for 15 yards. 

"I was just trying to get open, that's all, no matter who it's [against]," Gronkowski said, per NESN's Zack Cox. "And they just did a good job overall as a defense. They're fast. They cover well. We've just got to be more prepared, and I've got to come out playing better."

Without Gronkowski, Brady must lean on the runners out of the backfield to be a big part of the aerial assault. James White led the team with seven receptions for 73 yards, but he isn't going to stretch the field. Thus, there's less space for the wide receivers to work with as the defense compresses all of the open space. 

As long as Brady is pulling the trigger and Gronkowski is part of the offense, the Patriots are a threat. Without either playing well, New England is in serious trouble, especially if the defense doesn't improve. 

The Patriots dared Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles to beat them. He did...easily.

Bortles played arguably the best game of his career, with 377 passing yards, four touchdowns and only one turnover. The Patriots struggled to handle Jacksonville's underappreciated set of wide receivers and tight ends as they relied on their Cover 1 defense (man-to-man with a single safety over the top). Starting cornerback Eric Rowe played so poorly the staff decided to bench him after two series. 

"It hurts," Rowe said after the game, per ESPN.com's Mike Reiss, "but I wasn't getting the job done." 

A macro view of the Patriots shows a team that has been outcoached two of its last three games. Both the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII and Jacksonville this weekend didn't make the crucial mistakes the Patriots have routinely preyed upon over the years. Both stayed aggressive and didn't let up once they built a leadwhich the Jaguars rectified after their AFC Championship Game loss. Jacksonville routinely used man-beaters, particularly underneath crossing routes, to beat the Patriots defense for big gains and easy third-down conversions. Doug Marrone's squad converted nine of 13 third-down attempts.

Without those mistakes, New England's talent deficiency became clear. The defense isn't very athletic and relies too heavily on schematic choices to place it in the right position. It struggles to overcome breakdowns. 

And the team's best pass-rusher, Trey Flowers, suffered a concussion, per Reiss. If the injury keeps him out, Belichick will have even less talent with which to work. 

Meanwhile, the sea level continues to rise around the conference. 

Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles
Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake BortlesStephen B. Morton/Associated Press

Bortles' emergence coincides with the development of a stellar supporting cast. The Jaguars didn't need starting running back Leonard Fournette, who missed the game due to a hamstring injury; T.J. Yeldon and Corey Grant added more versatility as a result. Grant is electric in the open field and presents something entirely different than Fournette's bruising style. 

Furthermore, Keelan Cole is emerging as a No. 1 wide receiver. The second-year target caught seven passes for 116 yards, including a catch-of-the-year candidate. Cole, Donte Moncrief and Dede Westbrook each found the end zone. So did tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. 

Jacksonville's no-name cast packs a punch as long as Bortles is dealing. 

No one has ever started a season as well as Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. The second-year signal-caller set an NFL record Sunday with 10 touchdown passes through a season's first two games. Sunday against the Steelers, he threw fewer incomplete passes (five) than touchdown tosses (six). 

Kansas City has been consistently good under Andy Reid's direction. It's become clear the Chiefs are not going to be held back by a new starting quarterback. Reid's offense is so much more with Mahomes leading the way. 

Even Pittsburgh in a losing effort showed a certain level of resiliency and offensive explosiveness to worry the Patriots. Ben Roethlisberger remains a magician in the pocket, creating when nothing is available. Pittsburgh can score points on any opponent. One or two stops from an underperforming defense might be all it needs on any given week. 

The Chargers are in a similar situation. Their offense is as deep and talented as any, but they couldn't slow Patrick Mahomes, either. At this point, that shouldn't be viewed as a negative. 

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton (left) and wide receiver A.J. Green (right)
Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton (left) and wide receiver A.J. Green (right)Bryan Woolston/Associated Press

The Bengals might be the biggest surprise with their high-flying start. A suspect offensive line hasn't slowed Andy Dalton, A.J. Green or Joe Mixon. Green leads the league with four touchdown receptions, while Mixon is second with 179 rushing yards at the time of publication. Plus, Cincinnati's defensive front featuring Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and Carl Lawson can be overwhelming. 

Denver and Miami seem to be the outliers. Both are off to tremendous starts, but their play may not be sustainable. The Broncos don't feature an efficient offense. Everyone will find out exactly how far the Dolphins have progressed when they face the Patriots in two weeks. 

New England is still the best. The Patriots will have to be beaten down by multiple opponents before they're no longer considered an elite franchise. Still, the road toward another Super Bowl appearance will be more difficult than ever. Belichick and Co. might have enough to reach that lofty standard, but they're no longer head and shoulders above every other organization. 


Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @brentsobleski.


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