Amongst all the rumored turmoil surrounding the Patriots and Bill Belichick essentially banning Tom Brady‘s personal trainer Alex Guerrero from the sideline during games, New England could not be happier with the way the AFC playoffs are shaping up. It seems that there is an overarching assumption that the drama will affect the Patriots Super Bowl run. But it won’t.
Belichick’s team is simply too good to miss the Super Bowl — especially in the lackluster AFC where New England holds the home-field advantage.
The Patriots were projected to breeze through the season on route to another Super Bowl appearance, but then the season actually started and things become a little more complicated when they started 2-2. After that disappointing start, Brady and company ended the season on an 11-1 run, only dropping one game on the road to the rival Miami Dolphins. This Pats team over the past 12 weeks has more resembled the one people expected to see straight out of the gate in 2017 and is poised to walk right through the AFC playoffs and into Minnesota. No team in the AFC at this point has a good shot at beating New England and in three weeks time, the Patriots find themselves ready to play at U.S. Bank Stadium in Super Bowl LII.
Why The Patriots Will Return to The Super Bowl
The Steelers Are Not As Threatening As Advertised
The Pittsburgh Steelers have been labeled for the past two season as the only team that rivals New England as the king of the AFC. However, that statement hasn’t held any real validity considering that the Steelers can’t seem to beat them. It doesn’t matter where they play either. Many could point to the Steelers being very close when they played at Heinz Field during Week 15, but they still fell short due to a Ben Roethlisberger terrible fake spike play at the end of the game.
It is understandable to think that Pittsburgh’s electric offense can carry them into the Super Bowl, but because of their lapses on defense towards the end of the season, beating Brady will be a challenging task. Over their last six games, the Steelers gave up 28 points to Brett Hundley, 400+ yards to the Ravens 27th ranked offense and lost to New England — scary numbers for a team defense ranked fifth in the NFL. The defense has been a high point for the Steelers in 2017 but as the season wears on, every game gets tougher. The loss of Ryan Shazier obviously hurts but every team has injuries.
The Steelers haven’t beaten the Patriots since 2011 and haven’t won in Foxborough in over 20 years. Antonio Brown‘s return helps the offense of Pittsburgh but a first game back from injury never goes as smoothly as planned. They can’t get over the hump and it’s hard to see it happening this year after the 36-17 beat down they were handed in last years AFC Championship game. They also have to beat Jacksonville to get to New England first…who also beat them down week five 30-9.
The Ravens and Chiefs Are No Longer Threats
For whatever reason, the only two AFC teams that have a legitimate shot at beating the Patriots in any game are the Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs. Both these teams continually have great games against the Patriots no matter when they matchup but both find themselves out of the playoffs in 2018.
For Baltimore, there is a case to be made that the Ravens should have beaten the Patriots the last three times they have met in the postseason. The Ravens only came away with one victory, a 28-13 win in Foxborough on route to their franchises second Super Bowl. Joe Flacco has a 2-2 record against Brady in the playoffs and is always a different animal in January football games.
The Chiefs just play some of their best football against New England. Both teams do not play often but over their last three games, the Chiefs hold a 2-1 advantage. Their only loss came in last years playoffs where the Patriots ground out a 27-20 victory at home. In both their wins, the Chiefs have also scored over 40 points. The offense may not have been as explosive had they met this postseason with the loss of Travis Kelce, but the Chiefs always bring their A-game against Brady and Belichick.
With these two teams already eliminated from the playoffs, no AFC team left has any real history of beating New England over the past decade. The only options besides to Pittsburgh to even beat the Pats are the Titans and their unstable defense and Blake Bortles who looks like he was throwing live fish in his first playoff game last weekend. The Patriots are really good and are going to need to face a really good team on a good day to lose before the Super Bowl.
The Patriots Defense Has Immensely Improved During The Second Half
Of all the offseason moves that made the Patriots such a juggernaut coming into the regular season, the biggest improvements might have been on defense. Stephon Gilmore was signed to become a 1B corner beside Malcolm Butler, Dont’a Hightower was re-signed to be captain of the defense for years to come, and Lawrence Guy was brought in to add depth to an already good run stopping defense. With all the new additions no one expected the Patriots to give up over 400 yards of offense in each of their first six games.
The defense that represented the Patriots in the next 10 games was leaps and bounds better than the one that started the season. After New England’s bye, their defense would only surrender an average 14.6 points per game and hold their opponents to single-digit points three times over its last eight contests. This was all without Hightower who was lost to a season-ending injury before New Englands week eight matchup with the Chargers. Gilmore and Butler have both stepped up to finally look like the elite pair they were supposed to be all along and should both be capable of locking up any wide receiver not named Antonio Brown or Julio Jones.
The Patriots defensive success has mainly come from its secondary but the defensive line has improved as the season progressed. Malcolm Brown and Trey Flowers have both had fairly consistent seasons and if James Harrison is able to make a strong impact on the field, the Patriots defense is going to be tough to break down no matter who’s playing offense.
The Re-emergence of Dion Lewis
Talking about how great Brady is is always nice but a huge part of New England’s success in 2017 was that Brady didn’t have to win every game by himself. The Patriots are known for their running back by committee approach, but Dion Lewis has re-established himself as a dominant lead back in the NFL. It took a while for Lewis to force himself back into a starting role but once he did, there was no turning back.
Lewis began to get starts and become effective as early as week six but the Patriots did not fully commit to him until week 11. From week 11 on, Lewis would lead the New England backfield in carries every week and averaged an impressive 5.3 yards per carry. He also proved he could be a workhorse over the last two weeks of the season when he carried the ball a combined 50 times for 222 yards.
Lewis’ receiving stats might not be as impressive as his ones on the ground and it is easy to forget he is also a threat through the air. Back in 2015 when he was first New England’s lead back, he totaled 388 receiving yards in just seven games. He’s only managed 214 yards through the air over the 2017 season but has out caught James White in three of their last four games.
Though he emerged later in the season, Lewis has always had the potential to be a swiss army knife in the New Englands backfield. Everyone knows what to expect from the Patriots quarterback but the versatility and workability of Lewis give them a whole other tool to exploit defenses with. When Brady and Lewis both get going, they can rival any QB-RB duo in the NFL.
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