The level of difficulty may be getting higher, but the New England Patriots remain the guardians of the AFC.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. At least when it comes to the New England Patriots.
Sixteen years after lifting their first Lombardi trophy and shocking the world, the Patriots remain a team you can set your watch to – they wrap up the AFC East by early December and get within a game of the Super Bowl, if not win it, seemingly every season.
That doesn’t mean it won’t get harder to maintain their level of excellence though.
There were reports of turmoil between Brady and Belichick even before New England fell to the Philadelphia Eagles in February’s Super Bowl, and since then defensive coordinator Matt Patricia left to be the head coach in Detroit, Rob Gronkowski contemplated retirement, Julian Edelman was suspended four games for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances, and Brady turned 41.
The last point will matter sooner rather than later. For now, Brady is still at the top of his game – as his 505-yard performance in the Super Bowl drove home – but Father Time is undefeated and a precipitous drop could be looming around the corner.
Until it comes or Belichick leaves, however, the road to the Super Bowl is likely to once again go through the Patriots, who’ve reached seven straight AFC Championship games.
Behind them sit a host a challengers who should fight for the conference’s throne, led by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
It’s felt like Pittsburgh have been on the cusp each of the past four years, only to fall short in the playoffs. Funnily enough, as much as they view New England as their main rivals, they’ve only gotten far enough in the postseason to see their big brother once over that span – and the Patriots comfortably handled them 36-17 in 2017.
Yet their talent, particularly on offence, means they’re a team to be reckoned with and one that could break through any season, as long as Ben Roethlisberger, now 36, is still effective.
But with Le’Veon Bell all but gone after this season, this could be the Steelers’ last chance at a Super Bowl with this group of special playmakers, which includes wide receiver Antonio Brown. And that’s if Bell shows up and ends his holdout, which he has yet to do despite the season kicking off this week.
Even at full strength though, Pittsburgh’s high-powered attack may only rank as the third-most dominant force in the AFC, with the Jacksonville Jaguars’ defence arguably ahead of them.
Jacksonville’s uber-talented unit dismantled the Steelers in January and is champing at the bit for another chance at the Patriots, who edged the up-and-comers in a comeback win in the AFC title game.
Blake Bortles appears to be the only one holding them back – an unfortunate crux for the Jaguars considering he plays the most important position.
That couldn’t be any less the case with the Houston Texans, who have their contention hopes pinned to a quarterback who has played all of seven games as a pro.
One year after lighting the league on fire in his brief time on the field before suffering an ACL tear, Deshaun Watson is back and ready to inject the same explosive element into the Texans offence that was sorely missed in his absence.
Speaking of explosiveness, the Kansas City Chiefs also have a gunslinger capable of shooting them into – and out of – games in Patrick Mahomes, who has been handed the reins after the team moved on from steady-handed Alex Smith.
Kansas City have made the playoffs four of the past five seasons under head coach Andy Reid, so as much as it may seem like a transitional year with an unproven quarterback, the Chiefs are hoping Mahomes is actually an upgrade and unlocks their potential.
However, they should have their hands full in the AFC West with the Los Angeles Chargers, who boast one of the most complete rosters in the league.
Philip Rivers – another aging veteran quarterback whose skills remain mostly intact – leads a team that has failed to reach double-digit wins in eight years and has missed the playoffs the last four.
Elsewhere, the Cleveland Browns will aim to break their atrocious 1-31 run, the Indianapolis Colts get back a healthy Andrew Luck and the Jon Gruden show returns to Oakland shorn of superstar Khalil Mack.