It may seem like only a handful of teams have a real opportunity to unseat the New England Patriots in the AFC in a given year. But it only seems that way.
Who in their right mind envisioned at the start of the season that the Jacksonville Jaguars would be up by 10 points in the fourth quarter against the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game? If you called that, this one scribe is definitely interested in that waterfront Kansas property you have for sale.
Heading to their eighth Super Bowl of the Tom Brady era, the Patriots have been the most dominant team in recent NFL history. This doesn’t mean that other squads in the AFC, no matter how they look now, can’t force some sweat out of Brady and Co. next season.
Here’s a look at one thing each AFC team must do in the offseason in order to unseat the Patriots in 2018.
Cleveland Browns: Draft a new backfield
Flush with a new general manager as well as the first and fourth picks in this year’s draft, the Browns have an opportunity to reverse their fortunes in a big way over the short term. In order for that to happen, the team must think outside the box. It must go away from what we had seen from the previous regime — the idea of stockpiling assets while giving up the ability to add elite talent.
This year, Cleveland needs to go out there and actually use these two picks. More than that, its best way of becoming competitive immediately will be to add talent in the backfield. That could include either Sam Darnold or Josh Rosen in the first four picks — giving Cleveland that quarterback of the future. With the other top-five pick, Penn State running back Saquon Barkley would make the most sense.
We saw first-hand with the Dallas Cowboys back in 2016 what an entirely new backfield can do. The likes of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott led that squad to the No. 1 seed a year after finishing out of the playoffs altogether. Cleveland might not be that close, but it would help them be more competitive in the AFC.
Houston Texans: Get healthy
That’s pretty much it. We saw just how darn good the Texans’ offense was when Deshaun Watson actually took the field as a rookie prior to suffering a torn ACL. Houston scored an average of 34.7 points in his six starts. In the 10 games that Watson didn’t start, the team scored a grand total of 130 points and posted a 1-9 record. Yeah, Watson is a major difference-maker.
Speaking of difference-makers, three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt missed all but five games last season with a fracture in his leg. Him alone, can pretty much make the Texans a playoff contender. Add in Watson’s freakish ability and DeAndre Hopkins at receiver, and there’s a lot of talent here. It must also be noted that both Watson and Watt are progressing well in their rehab programs.
Indianapolis Colts: Fix Andrew Luck
Easier said and done. How Indianapolis has handled Luck’s injured shoulder over the past two-plus seasons is almost unforgivable. He first injured the shoulder in 2015, and played the remainder of that season hurt. Luck then played the entire 2016 campaign prior to undergoing surgery in January of 2017. In what was a seemingly an inevitable end result, Luck sat out this entire past season to injury.
Simply put, the Colts are a much different team with Luck on the field. They boast a 43-27 record in games he has started since 2012. The team is 6-18 in games he doesn’t start during that span. Sure the team has other issues it needs to fix, but getting Luck back in the mix will be its first step to actual relevance in the AFC.
New York Jets: An elite skill-position player
Based on what we saw from Josh McCown last season, the Jets might very well be able to contend with an average to slightly above-average quarterback under center. The team has done a tremendous job finding young talent, both through the draft and in the undrafted free agent market recently. This makes it easier for New York to put off the quarterback situation for a year or two while relying on stopgap options, such as McCown.
It’s in this that the Jets need to add that one elite skill-position player to take pressure of whoever is under center. It could potentially come in the form of a game-changing Saquon Barkley should he fall to No. 6 in the draft. Barkley has the ability to change an offense by his mere existence on the field. That would go a long way in helping the Jets improve off what was a surprising 2017 campaign, and potentially challenge the Pats back east.
Denver Broncos: It’s the quarterback, stupid
Some will point to an anemic overall offensive performance as the reason Denver finished in last place in the AFC West this past season. That might very well be the case, but we saw some darn good things outside of the quarterback position. Running back C.J. Anderson put up north of 1,200 total yards of offense. Meanwhile, receiver Demaryius Thomas caught 83 passes during the season.
The issue here was simple. None of the three quarterbacks Denver threw out there were anywhere near starter material. Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler and Paxton Lynch combined to throw 19 touchdowns compared to 22 interceptions while completing less than 59 percent of their passes.
Denver’s defense is still one of the top five in the league. Its offensive line is coming along fine. Anderson can hold the fort down at running back. The pass catchers aren’t a detriment. Instead, John Elway and Co. must go out there and get a quarterback. Someone of Kirk Cousins’ ilk would immediately make this team one of the top three or four contenders in the AFC. It’s that simple.
Miami Dolphins: Get that running back
The Dolphins are committed to Ryan Tannehill as their starting quarterback in 2018 after he missed the entire 2017 season to injury. Even if Jarvis Landry doesn’t return in free agency, the team has a solid duo on Kenny Stills and DeVante Parker to pick up the slack. Despite yielding the fourth-most points in the NFL, Miami’s defense is also pretty talented with the likes of Xavien Howard and Cordrea Tankersley looking to take their games to the next level in the secondary.
If the Dolphins were able to somehow add an elite-level running game to what they have on offense, it would take pressure off Tannehill under center and put the team’s defense in a better situation to succeed. That’s where adding another running back to go with an impressive Kenyan Drake could make waves in the AFC East. It would give Miami a ball-control offense and a defense capable of actually resting with the other side of the ball being able to convert on third downs at a higher clip.
Oakland Raiders: Pony up for a Pro Bowl defender
There’s no reason to rehash Derek Carr’s struggles last season. He had a down year. It happens. His previous track record suggests this was a mere anomaly. Maybe Carr’s back was hurting more than he let on. But the Raiders doubled down on their franchise quarterback by hiring Jon Gruden as head coach. He’ll have a hands-on approach here, something that should help Carr return to 2016 form when the Raiders posted a 12-4 record despite ranking in the bottom 13 in points allowed.
This leads us to our primary point here. Oakland’s offense was an issue last season. But there’s talent there that can be coached up. On defense, there’s not a lot here. Outside of Khalil Mack, the Raiders lack any real threat to get to the quarterback in the front seven. And in the secondary, it’s an utter dumpster fire.
Let’s say the Raiders’ offense finds a way to return to 2016 form. If that’s the case, ponying up money for an elite-level defender to team up with Mack could make this team a true contender. That’s where someone like Los Angeles Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson could come into play.
Cincinnati Bengals: Move on from Andy Dalton
It sounds harsh, but the Bengals are not going to go anywhere with Dalton under center. Heck, the decision to retain Marvin Lewis as head coach likely means this will remain the case over the short term. It really is the definition of insanity, and Bengals fans themselves are the ones impacted the most.
There’s a somewhat easy on-field fix. Cincinnati can save nearly $14 million against the cap by releasing Dalton this spring. If that were to happen, the team would be in position to pony up cash for someone like Kirk Cousins in free agency. With one of the best receivers in the game in A.J. Green and a solid young running back in the form of Joe Mixon, that would create some major issues for opposing teams. Add in a defense that yielded the eighth-fewest yards in the NFL this past regular season, and contention in the AFC wouldn’t be out of the question.
Los Angeles Chargers: Continue, full-speed ahead
Most objective football observers were hoping that Los Angeles might be able to inch into the playoffs. This team ended the season winning nine of its past 12 after an 0-4 start. That span of action saw Philip Rivers lead the Chargers’ offense to an average of nearly 24 points per game. Defensively, Los Angeles yielded the third-fewest points in the NFL and led the league with 56 sacks.
Sure the Chargers have to make some moves this offseason in order to keep the momentum going. But we’re simply asking for more consistency from this team in 2018. The talent is there to contend for a conference title. It’s now all about showing it over a full 16-game slate. If that happens, they could very well be one of the biggest threats to New England in the AFC next season.
Baltimore Ravens: Use a long-term strategy
There’s really not enough talent on this roster to contend for a conference title over the short term. We’re not saying Baltimore should blow it completely up. Instead, the team needs to seriously consider a future without Joe Flacco under center. Since leading the team to a Lombardi Trophy back in 2012, the 33-year-old Flacco has regressed a great deal. This past season saw him throw 18 touchdowns compared to 13 interceptions en route to leading the NFL’s 29th-ranked passing offense.
There are young pieces in place on defense for the Ravens to contend within a year or two. It’s now all about finding an heir-apparent to Flacco under center. With a rare pick in the middle of the first round, the time might be ripe for GM Ozzie Newsome and Co. to finally bite the bullet and prepare for the future. No single move outside of this is going to help Baltimore contend in the AFC moving forward.
Buffalo Bills: Exhaust it all on that one quarterback
Fresh off their first playoff appearance since 1999, the Bills are in prime position to keep the positive vibes flowing. But it’s going to take a lot of work at quarterback — a position that likely won’t include Tyrod Taylor moving forward. He’s just not going to be the guy to lead this team to the next level.
Flush with two first-round picks and two second-round picks, the time is now to move up for that franchise quarterback in the draft. There’s a lot to offer teams selecting in the top 10. And if the Bills fall in love with say Josh Rosen or Sam Darnold, they simply need to go make that move now. It would narrow the gap between Buffalo and New England pretty extensively moving forward.
Tennessee Titans: Air it out, spread it out
The decision to hire a defensive-minded head coach in Mike Vrabel didn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense at first. And it still doesn’t. But depending on who Vrabel brings in to run the offense, we might very well be watching a more high-octane unit in 2018. It’s something Vrabel has discussed since being hired, primarily bringing Marcus Mariota back to his Oregon roots.
This just makes too much sense. Mariota struggled significantly running a pro-style offense this past season, throwing just 13 touchdowns compared to 15 interceptions. Despite this, the Titans were able to make it all the way to the AFC Divisional Playoffs.
Imagine what this talented offense might be capable of if a new coordinator opened it up more and created a spread-style system. Receivers Corey Davis and Rishard Matthews have more than proven themselves capable. Former Heisman winner, running back Derrick Henry, has also been mighty impressive in his first two NFL seasons. At this point, there’s no reason for the Titans not to change up their offense to fit Mariota’s skill set.
Kansas City Chiefs: Move on from Andy Reid
Now that Reid will take over play-calling duties with former Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy in Chicago, we can expect much of the same from Kansas City in 2018. Sure having a talented Patrick Mahomes likely under center to replace Alex Smith could open things up. But Reid’s track record as a play caller has been disastrous.
Back in 2016, Reid called his own plays for the Chiefs. They finished 20th in total offense. With Nagy calling the plays this past regular season, the team’s offense finished fifth overall. It’s not an exception to the rule. It’s a trend. And until the Chiefs move on from Reid completely, they’ll be nothing more than fake news in the AFC.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Make that tough decision
Move on from Blake Bortles. Add Alex Smith or Kirk Cousins. And give the Patriots nightmares for the next couple seasons. This has to be the Jaguars’ primary goal heading into the spring.
We know Bortles led Jacksonville to the AFC Championship Game. Heck, he almost pulled out a win against the Patriots. But raise your hand if you weren’t worried he was going to throw an interception every time he dropped back to pass. He’s still a mistake-prone quarterback. He’s still going to be a detriment to the team. And with the ability to get out from under his contract, the Jags need to do that right now. Period.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Invest in defense
Or fire defensive coordinator Keith Butler. If one thing was clear in the team’s AFC Divisional Playoff loss to Jacksonville it was that this defense was completely out-schemed and over matched. It really was a sight to behold. But at this point, it looks like the Steelers will double down with Butler for at least one more season.
If that’s the case, the only recourse is to go out there and invest in defense. Whether it’s adding another front-seven player to team up with Cameron Heyward and T.J. Watt or a truly elite defensive back, it’s something the Steelers are going to have to do if they want to be taken seriously in the AFC next season.