By Brent Schwartz, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots are strong favorites to return to the Super Bowl this season, meaning there's a good chance they will once again obtain the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
The Patriots have grabbed the AFC's top seed six times since 2001, making the Super Bowl in five of those instances. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are 17-3 at home during the postseason, meaning it's not likely they'll fall short of Super Bowl LII with the No. 1 seed. Still, there are a handful of teams that could pull a Foxboro upset if they went toe-to-toe with the Patriots in the 2017 playoffs.
Here are the top five AFC teams with the best chance to win in New England come January:
5. Denver Broncos
In his career, Brady has a losing record against just one AFC team: the Denver Broncos.
Brady is 7-9 versus Denver (1-3 in the playoffs). He's also 3-7 in Denver, which includes his last two postseason defeats, both in the AFC Championship Game to Peyton Manning.
But that's just it. There's no more Manning. Even No. 18 at his worst probably gives the Broncos more postseason confidence than either Trevor Siemian or Paxton Lynch can provide.
Also, the Broncos don't have that same success versus the Patriots in Foxboro. Brady is 4-2 versus Denver at home, winning the last four such meetings, all since 2011.
But Denver still has the perfect defense to handle the Patriots. With Von Miller and others, Denver can rush the passer without sending the kitchen sink, leaving seven or eight defenders back in coverage. Former Patriot Aqib Talib may be the best man coverage cornerback in football, and slot cornerback Chris Harris Jr. is undoubtedly the best at his craft. Harris should be able to key on Edelman, per usual, taking away Brady's most trusted security blanket.
The difference in a possible 2017 postseason meeting, is that the Patriots have traded for man coverage-beater Brandin Cooks, who is fast enough to create separation against just about any corner. Add in Rob Gronkowski (the only offensive weapon who's had success versus Denver as of late) and the Patriots are clearly better equipped to handle the Broncos defense than in the past.
Still, if Denver can get improved play out of their young quarterbacks in 2017 (which they should), the Broncos would present somewhat of a challenge.
4. Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs infamously humiliated the Patriots 41-14 in a Monday Night Football game at Arrowhead Stadium during the 2014 season. The loss ignited that Patriots team, who went on to win Super Bowl XLIX 28-24 over the Seahawks.
The Patriots fixed many of their early-season mistakes that year, but the defensive blueprint that works best against the Patriots (pressure with few blitzes, good man coverage) was showcased during the Chiefs' thrashing of Brady and company.
The pass-rushing tandem of Tamba Hali and Justin Houston was at its peak in 2014. The duo is older now, but still capable. In the secondary, safety Eric Berry and cornerback Marcus Peters lead one of the NFL's best defensive backfields.
The Chiefs have the ammo on defense to give the Patriots a hard time, it's the Alex Smith-led offense that hurts their chances. Even with perennial Pro Bowl weapons in tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill, the Chiefs may struggle to score enough points to keep up with the Patriots.
Andy Reid is one of the best NFL head coaches of the 21st century, but his continuous lapses in judgement regarding timeouts and the game clock will always loom over the closing minutes of his postseason games.
The Patriots will start the regular season versus the Chiefs on Sept. 7, meaning a postseason meeting between the two teams will be the second of the season. Since 2005, Brady is 6-9 against postseason teams he had already played earlier in the season. Brady is 10-0 against postseason teams he was seeing for the first time that year.
The Chiefs' best bet is to learn from their inevitable Week 1 mistakes and formulate a plan to stifle the Patriots offense, all while executing long touchdown drives to keep Brady off the field.
It can happen.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers have a better shot at a first-round bye than every other team on this list. The Raiders play in the tough AFC West, and the AFC South teams, well, are the AFC South teams. Yet, the Steelers don't fare well in Foxboro, or against the Patriots at all for that matter.
Ben Roethlisberger is 2-7 versus Brady (0-4 in Foxboro). Likewise, the Steelers are 2-10 overall against Brady, including three AFC Championship Game losses. Brady has torched the Steelers in the playoffs. In his last two postseason games versus Pittsburgh, Brady has thrown five touchdowns and zero interceptions, while posting a 128.5 passer rating. Last year's 36-17 AFC Championship drubbing of the Steelers included neither Brandin Cooks nor Rob Gronkowski.
Furthermore, Brady has committed zero turnovers in five home games versus the Steelers. Pittsburgh primarily plays zone coverage (a lot of Cover 2), which leaves them vulnerable to the Patriots quick passing game. Without pressure, Brady is able to hit on timing and option routes virtually all game.
But according to SB Nation's Dan Sager, the 2017 Steelers are building their defense around stopping Brady. Pittsburgh will look to generate more pressure with Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree, and 2017 first-round pick T.J. Watt, who had two sacks during the Steelers first preseason game versus the Giants last week.
Additionally, the trio of Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown may be the NFL's best. That group could explode for an onslaught of points at any moment. Adding Martavis Bryant—who is back from suspension—will help create even more mismatches and scoring opportunities for Pittsburgh. If the Steelers can figure out how to pressure Brady, and play good man coverage (a formula of success vs. the Patriots) the Steelers may finally find some success in Foxboro.
2. Baltimore Ravens
Here is where things get crazy. The Ravens have the worst chance of making the postseason out of any of the teams on this list, but will most definitely be in the playoff hunt come December. If they do make the playoffs, the Patriots know all too well how capable the Ravens are of ruining their season.
The Ravens have visited Foxboro four times in the postseason since 2009, going 2-2. However, the Ravens probably should have won all four meetings. Three main cogs of those teams remain in Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, quarterback Joe Flacco, and linebacker Terrell Suggs, giving Baltimore an experienced core to deal with the pressure of facing the Patriots on the road in the playoffs.
Flacco, an average quarterback in the regular season, is 10-5 in the playoffs, and has the most road playoff wins (7) of all-time. The Super Bowl XLVII MVP is fearless under the bright lights.
The Ravens are also familiar with the Patriots offensive schemes, and usually give Brady a tough time with exotic zone blitzes, and constant pressure from Suggs and others, while crowding the middle of the field. It is worth noting the Patriots have averaged 35.3 points per game in their last three games versus the Ravens, all resulting in Patriots' victories.
Still, if the Ravens sneak into the playoffs, they're probably the last team the Patriots would like to see come to Foxboro.
1. Oakland Raiders
The Raiders enter 2017 as one of the league's more hyped-up teams. Many thought Oakland would travel to New England for the AFC Championship Game last year, before Derek Carr suffered a broken fibula during a Week 16 win over the Colts. Carr's absence crippled the Raiders, who surrendered their AFC West lead with a week 17 loss to the Broncos before falling to the Texans at home in an AFC Wild Card matchup.
The talented Raiders welcome back Carr and acquired Marshawn Lynch to go along with Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree to form a dangerous offensive core. Carr is not one to fold under pressure. He directed seven game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime last season.
On defense, the Raiders have last year's NFL defensive player of the year in Khalil Mack, and have Bruce Irvin and Aldon Smith to form a trio of dangerous pass rushers. Other than that, the Raiders' defense is an underwhelming group susceptible to a postseason passing clinic by Tom Brady.
But a few strip-sacks or constant pressure from the pass rush could spell trouble. Couple that with Carr's potential to put up 30-plus points (did so in eight games last year) and it's clear the Raiders have the best chance of beating the Patriots in Foxboro.
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