Over the last sixteen seasons, a shadow has loomed over the American Football Conference, and that shadow belongs to Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and the New England Patriots. They’ve won five Super Bowls, seven AFC Championships, and they’ve appeared in the conference championship game 11 times. They’ve been the best team in the NFL, let alone the AFC, since the moment Brady stepped on the field. It begs the question, who will supplant the New England Patriots?
Who Will Supplant the New England Patriots?
There are a few teams that come to mind in the AFC. The Pittsburgh Steelers have been one of the NFL’s elite teams in recent memory, Andrew Luck makes a mediocre Indianapolis Colts team seem competitive, and the Tennessee Titans are putting some pieces together. However, these teams don’t fit the bill.
The Steelers are talented, but they’re not getting any younger. Star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is 35 and contemplating retirement. Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell are two of the best players in football, but even when everyone’s healthy, New England has their number.
As for the teams in the AFC South, they’re all missing something. As great as Luck is, he can’t seem to stay healthy and the team around him just isn’t good enough. The Titans have some pieces, but it remains to be seen if Marcus Mariota can stay on the field. If the entire division pooled their talent, they could unseat New England, but it’s hard to imagine one team getting it done. At the end of the day, there’s only one team that can unseat New England in the AFC.
Just Win, Baby
Right now, it seems like the Oakland Raiders are the biggest threats to supplant to New England Patriots. They’re a young, talented team that looks primed to make the big push. Three years ago, they won four games. Two years ago, they won seven. Last year, they won 12. They’ve been getting better every year, and in 2017, they face off against New England.
No-name teams don’t win championships. You need players like Tom Brady, Von Miller, Richard Sherman, or Ray Lewis to win titles. If a team hopes to compete with the Patriots, they’ll need a few stars of their own. Fortunately, the Raiders have no shortage of starpower.
Derek Carr, Khalil Mack, Marshawn Lynch, and Amari Cooper are bonafide stars in the NFL. Cooper, Carr, and Mack in particular have serious potential. Games against the New England Patriots have a certain big fight feel, and everyone knows the stars shine brightest in the main event.
You can’t make a movie without supporting actors, and the Oakland Raiders have quite a cast. Donald Penn, Kelechi Osemele, Rodney Hudson, and Gabe Jackson are very good offensive linemen, and they help support Oakland’s offense. Michael Crabtree is talented, when he’s actually holding onto passes, and young players like Karl Joseph and David Amerson have shown flashes of brilliance.
The Oakland Raiders rely heavily on their stars, but that it takes a village, and the Raiders have plenty of role players. Hopefully some of Oakland’s draft picks pan out better than expected, and the Raiders can make a real push this season.
While the Oakland Raiders are the best suited to take on the New England Patriots, it might not be time just yet. While the Oakland defense has plenty of talent, it has yet to manifest on the field. They were dead last in sacks last year, and struggled mightily against the run.
There are still questions about Oakland’s linebacking corps, and it’s no secret that Tom Brady will target and attack his opponent’s biggest weakness. Unless Oakland’s off-season acquisitions cause a dramatic transformation on defense, the two teams will be locked in a shoot-out in Mexico City.
It might not be in Mexico City, it might not be in the playoffs, and it might not be in 2017, but one thing is looking very likely. All empires are eventually conquered, and while the New England Patriots have enjoyed an iconic run, there is a silver and black storm on the way.