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AFC power rankings: Patriots are No. 1

Tom Brady of the New England Patriots at

Tom Brady of the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on Aug. 29, 2019. Credit: Getty Images/Adam Glanzman

1. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

Coach/GM: Bill Belichick (20th yr., 225-79-0, .740)

2018: 11-5-0, 1st in AFC East. Playoffs: Divisional round def. Chargers, 41-28; Conf. Championship def. Chiefs, 37-31; Super Bowl def. Rams, 13-3.

Outlook:

If it feels like forever that the Patriots have dominated the NFL, well, it almost has been that long. At least in football terms.

Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have been together for 20 years, a partnership that has been — by far — the most successful in NFL history. The greatest coach in NFL history and the league’s greatest quarterback have produced six Super Bowl championships in that time.

And while they are both much older now than when they started, they are no less effective. The Patriots are coming off yet another Super Bowl win, and there’s no reason to think they can’t get in position to win once more. Especially with the signing of receiver Antonio Brown, who was released by the Raiders.

It won’t be easy, just as it wasn’t last year, when they needed overtime to vanquish the Chiefs on the road in the AFC Championship Game. But if we have learned anything about Belichick and Brady over the last two decades, it is to never count them out. Ever.

Brady is now 42, an age most quarterbacks can only dream of playing until. And while he may not have the arm strength he once did, he certainly hasn’t lost much off his fastball. And it seems that Belichick, at age 67, can coach  as long as he wants.

What’s their secret? Talent, an iron will, and excellent training techniques are at the heart of Brady’s success, while genius is Belichick’s biggest asset.

But there’s something else at work here, something that no amount of ability or intelligence can equal. It’s the incredible ability of both men to start at the  beginning every single season, whether they’re coming off a Super Bowl win or a devastating playoff loss. 

“Every year has its different challenges,” Brady said. “We’ve got to find ways to make improvements. That’s what this time of year is all about.”

“Every year is its own year,” Belichick said, “so we start all over again every year. We’re not really worried about last year. We do what we need to do. We need to have as productive a practice as we can have every single day. Our focus is on what we can do to get better. I don’t see that changing.”

It’s a simple strategy, but it also requires Herculean discipline to pull it off. After all, even the greatest champions surely experience some form of complacency. But the Patriots are the rare team that so successfully fights against it.

Their reign of supremacy is unlike any other we’ve seen in the NFL. Yes, there have been dynasties — the Packers of the 1960’s, the 1970’s Steelers, the 49ers of the 1980’s and ’90s. But never has a franchise produced the extended period of domination as the Patriots.

Two decades and counting. 

2. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

Coach: Andy Reid (7th yr., 65-31-0, .667)

GM: Brett Veach (3rd yr.)

2018: 12-4-0, 1st in AFC West. Playoffs: Divisional round def. Colts, 31-13; Conf. Championship lost to Patriots, 37-31 (OT).

Outlook: Patrick Mahomes had a breakout year in 2018 and would have gotten to the Super Bowl had it not been for the Chiefs’ leaky defense in an overtime loss to the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. Mahomes led the NFL with 50 touchdown passes – at age 23. The sky is the limit for this amazing talent, and the Chiefs’ outside speed at receiver featuring Tyreek Hill, as well as tight end Travis Kelce give him plenty of options. The big key for the Chiefs is if new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo can put it together – a big if, considering a significant roster transition. Spagnuolo replaces longtime coordinator Bob Sutton, who finally ran out of chances for the uber patient Andy Reid. There’s not only a big transition on defense with the coach, but the players as well. Gone are veteran pass rushers Justin Houston and Dee Ford. The Chiefs acquired Seahawks pass rusher Frank Clark in a bid to keep the pass rush viable.  

3. PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Coach: Mike Tomlin (13th yr., 125-66-1, .654)

GM: Kevin Colbert (20th yr.)

2018: 9-6-1, 2nd in AFC North. Missed playoffs.

Outlook: The Steelers lose a major weapon after the Antonio Brown trade, but they believe it will be addition by subtraction (of the distraction). JuJu Smith-Schuster now leads the receiving corps, while James Conner, who had a terrific 2018 season in the absence of holdout Le’Veon Bell, returns at running back. Ben Roethlisberger remains an elite quarterback at age 37 and entering his 16th NFL season. He has the luxury of playing behind an elite offensive line that features guard David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey. The Steelers believe they finally have a defense that is now capable of contending with the NFL’s best offenses. Linebackers T.J. Watt, the younger brother of J.J., and Bud Dupree are coming into their own, and veteran cornerback Joe Haden and second-year safety Terrell Edmunds anchor the secondary.

4. CLEVELAND BROWNS

Coach: Freddie Kitchens (1st yr., replaces Hue Jackson)

GM: John Dorsey (3rd yr.)

2018: 7-8-1, 3rd in AFC North.

Outlook: After year of futility – decades, actually – the Browns come into the season full of optimism, and much of it well-earned. Baker Mayfield showed plenty as a rookie last year, and the addition of Odell Beckham Jr. will only help. Jarvis Landry came over from Miami last year, and tight end David Njoku looks like he is ready to flourish. Much of the type surrounding the Browns centers on the offense, but the defense is potentially quite good. Pass rusher Myles Garrett has been dominant at times and hopes to be a more consistent force. Cornerback Denzel Ward might to turn into one of the league’s best defenders, and the Browns acquired former Giants linebacker/defensive end Olivier Vernon.

5. SAN DIEGO CHARGERS

Coach: Anthony Lynn (3rd yr., 21-11-0, .656)

GM: Tom Telesco (7th yr.)

2018: 12-4-0, 2nd in AFC West. Playoffs: Wild Card def. Ravens, 23-17; Divisional round lost to Patriots, 41-28.

Outlook: It was a memorable playoff run for Philip Rivers last year, and he seems to have lost nothing off his fastball. Rivers is one of those quarterbacks who can carry a team on his back, and the Chargers will need him to do that once more in 2019. The Melvin Gordon holdout could factor in early and limit the Chargers’ running game, but Rivers has shown enough resourcefulness to overcome any issues. The defense looks strong once again, with Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram leading the way. The Chargers showed great versatility in fending off the Ravens in the wild card round by using seven defensive backs, but they were burned by that strategy the following week against the Patriots. They’ll need better play from the front seven to think about a Super Bowl run.  

6. BALTIMORE RAVENS

Coach: John Harbaugh (12th yr., 104-72-0, .591)

GM: Eric DeCosta (1st yr.)

2018: 10-6-1, 1st in AFC North. Playoffs: Wild Card lost to Chargers, 23-17.

Outlook: Lamar Jackson got plenty of experience as a rookie, and coach John Harbaugh believes his quarterback will be a phenom this year. He has a terrific arm, but his running ability is simply exceptional. And therein lies the riddle with Jackson; you can’t risk him running too much because of the wear and tear. New offensive coordinator Greg Roman will need to figure out a plan, but part of the answer will require making Jackson a better pocket passer. It helps that the Ravens brought in former Saints first-round running back Mark Ingram. The Ravens’ defense needs to find a pass rush after the departure of Terrell Suggs. Former Seahawks All Pro Earl Thomas takes over at free safety and adds a veteran presence the Ravens will need for a defense in transition.

7. HOUSTON TEXANS

Coach: Bill O’Brien (6th yr., 42-38-0, .525)

GM: None (Bill O’Brien/Jack Easterby sharing)

2018: 11-5-0, 1st in AFC South. Playoffs: Wild Card lost to Colts, 21-7.

Outlook: Houston did a nice job rebounding from a sluggish start last year to win the AFC South, with quarterback Deshaun Watson continuing to make improvement through the early part of his career. The season-ending knee injury to tailback Lamar Miller is a huge loss, but the Texans had wisely traded for Cleveland’s Duke Johnson before Miller was hurt. The Texans addressed their offensive line issues by trading for Miami's Laremy Tunsil. DeAndre Hopkins is one of the NFL’s top receivers, and he's now joined by Kenny Stills after the trade with Miami. J.J. Watt returned to form last year after two injury-riddled seasons, producing 16 sacks and a league-high seven forced fumbles. The Texans will need another dominant year from their best defender, especially after they traded Jadeveon Clowney to the Seahawks. 

8. NEW YORK JETS

Coach: Adam Gase (1st yr., replaces Todd Bowles)

GM: Joe Douglas (1st yr.)

2018: 4-12-0, 4th in AFC East. Missed playoffs.

Outlook: Sam Darnold looks like he’s ready to take a big step forward in Year 2, and Adam Gase gets another chance as a head coach with a legitimate quarterback. Darnold had a solid rookie year, especially after he returned from a foot injury, and he is now fully in control of the offense. He has an offensive-minded coach in Gase, who comes to the Jets after three seasons with the Dolphins, and also has the benefit of working with newly signed running back Le’Veon Bell, who returns after missing the entire 2018 season in Pittsburgh because of a contract dispute. The Jets also signed inside linebacker C.J. Mosley to improve a defense that will be led by coach Gregg Williams. The Jets’ biggest problems: a lack of depth at cornerback, a four-game suspension for tight end Chris Herndon, and a banged-up offensive line.

9. JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

Coach: Doug Marrone (4th yr., 16-18-0, .471)

GM: David Caldwell (7th yr.)

2018: 5-11-0, 4th in AFC South. Missed playoffs.

Outlook: Nick Foles nearly retired from the NFL a few years ago and climbed to the mountain top with the Eagles in their Super Bowl run of 2017. Can he do the same for the Jaguars, who imploded last year under the weight of injuries and Blake Bortles’ regression? Foles will be asked to bring some much-needed stability on offense, but he can only do so much. Running back Leonard Fournette needs a big year to help the play-action passing game. But it’s the defense that needs to step up even more. A once-dominant unit that got to within a game of the Super Bowl in 2017, the Jaguars badly underperformed last year.

10. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

Coach: Frank Reich (2nd yr., 10-6-0, .625)

GM: Chris Ballard (3rd yr.)

2018: 10-6-0, 2nd in AFC South. Playoffs: Wild Card def. Texans, 21-7; Divisional round lost to Chiefs, 31-13.

Outlook: It was all looking so good for the Colts, who produced an unexpected playoff run last season with first-year coach Frank Reich and built up the talent base on both sides of the ball, thanks to some smart drafting by general manager Chris Ballard. But Andrew Luck’s lower leg problems now cloud their outlook. At first, it was a calf injury, then an ankle problem. Whatever the case, the Colts are nowhere without their starting quarterback and most valuable player. Luck benefited last year from Ballard rebuilding the offensive line, and the defense was much improved with the addition of Pro Bowl linebacker Darius Leonard. Ballard worked on the secondary this year, making Temple cornerback Rock Ya Sin his centerpiece addition. Bottom line, though: It all comes down to whether Luck can play.

11. BUFFALO BILLS

Coach: Sean McDermott (3rd yr., 15-17-0, .469)

GM: Brandon Beane (3rd yr.)

2018: 6-10-1, 3rd in AFC East. Missed playoffs.

Outlook: Josh Allen believes he’s ready for a breakout season, and he’ll need it if the Bills want to compete in the AFC East. The second-year quarterback has a big arm, but coach Sean McDermott would rather see Allen complete the shorter throws with greater frequency. That means a big role for former Cowboys slot receiver Cole Beasley. The Bills are counting on an improved defensive performance, which means second-year linebacker Tremaine Edmunds needs to establish himself, as well as former first-round cornerback Tre’Davious White.

12. TENNESSEE TITANS

Coach: Mike Vrabel (2nd yr., 9-7-0, .563)

GM: Jon Robinson (4th yr.)

2018: 9-7-0, 3rd in AFC South. Missed playoffs.

Outlook: This might be Marcus Mariota’s last chance to prove he is the Titans’ answer at quarterback. Second-year coach Mike Vrabel won’t commit to Mariota for the long haul unless he sees genuine improvement this season. Mariota was one of college football’s all-time greats at Oregon, but he hasn’t lived up to his billing so far in the NFL. Tailback Derrick Henry offers reliability in the running game, and Tennessee boasts a solid offensive line. The Titans’ defense is good, not great. Pass rush remains the biggest challenge, although the secondary is solid.

13. OAKLAND RAIDERS

Coach: Jon Gruden (6th yr., 42-38, .525)

GM: Mike Mayock (1st yr.)

2018: 4-12-0, 4st in AFC West. Missed playoffs.

Outlook: They gambled on WR Antonio Brown to spark the offense, but he spent most of training camp embroiled in controversy and was finally released two days before the opening game. How will any of this help QB Derek Carr, who lost his favorite receiver, Amari Cooper, in last year’s trade with the Cowboys. The Raiders hope first-round TB Josh Jacobs can infuse the running game. There’s still no adequate replacement for Khalil Mack, who was traded last year to the Bears.

14. DENVER BRONCOS

Coach: Vic Fangio (1st yr., replaces Vance Joseph)

GM: John Elway (9th yr.)

2018: 6-10-0, 3rd in AFC West. Missed playoffs.

Outlook: John Elway tore things apart in the off-season, bringing in Vic Fangio as coach and Joe Flacco as quarterback. He also drafted Missouri’s Drew Lock in April, although Lock will have to wait his turn now that the former Ravens Super Bowl MVP quarterback is under center. Free agent running back Phillip Lindsay was terrific as a rookie last season, and he’ll need to be at least as good this year to help an offense in need of playmakers. The Broncos hope the pass rushing tandem of outside linebackers Von Miller and Bradley Chubb can create havoc, and Chris Harris remains one of the NFL’s most reliable cover corners.

15. CINCINNATI BENGALS

Coach: Zac Taylor (1st yr., replaces Marvin Lewis)

GM: Mike Brown (29th yr.)

2018: 6-10-0, 4th in AFC North. Missed playoffs.

Outlook: Andy Dalton gets another chance – possibly his last – with Sean McVay protégé Zac Taylor. The Bengals finally parted ways with longtime coach Marvin Lewis, hoping Taylor can get more out of Dalton. That’s a tall task, considering Dalton’s limitations that have already been exposed. The Bengals already suffered a major injury with the loss of first-round left tackle Jonah Williams. A.J. Green is one of the NFL’s best receivers, but recent injury problems have limited his effectiveness. He'll now miss some time with an ankle injury. Geno Atkins remains the centerpiece of the defense, but he’ll need plenty of help around him. Cincinnati has finally moved on from hot-tempered linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who is now with Raiders.

16. MIAMI DOLPHINS

Coach: Brian Flores (1st yr., replaces Adam Gase)

GM: Brandon Beane (3rd yr.)

2018: 7-9-0, 2nd in AFC East. Missed playoffs.

Outlook: First-year coach Brian Flores won a Super Bowl with the Patriots last season as defensive coordinator but will be hard-pressed to win five games with a talent-starved Dolphins’ roster. Miami picked up journeyman quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and former Cardinals first-round passer Josh Rosen in the off-season. Wide receiver DeVante Parker is the team’s best offensive player now that tackle Laremy Tunsil, along with Kenny Stills, was traded to the Texans. The Dolphins added former Clemson defensive lineman Christian Wilkins, but Flores will need a lot more than that to compete in the AFC East, especially against his former team. This will be a long rebuilding process. 

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