Are Patriots AFC’s Best Team? Making Case For, Against Each Contender

The 8-4 Patriots sit just a half-game back of the No. 1 seed


December 2, 2021

It’s now an undeniable fact: The New England Patriots are one of the best teams in the AFC.

But are they the best?

Twelve weeks into the 2021 NFL season, the Patriots sit atop the AFC East and just a half-game back of the No. 1 seed in the AFC. They’ll almost certainly be back in the postseason after a one-year hiatus and they’re making a strong push for the conference’s lone first-round playoff bye.

Should New England be viewed as the favorite to represent its conference in Super Bowl LVI, as several analytics-based outlets have indicated? Let’s break down the cases for and against five of the AFC’s leading contenders:

The case for: They have one of the game’s most electric quarterbacks in Lamar Jackson, and head coach John Harbaugh has done a masterful job of winning games amid a near-constant deluge of injuries to key players. The Ravens currently own the AFC’s best record despite losing the likes of J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards, Marcus Peters and Ronnie Stanley to season-ending injuries. That’s impressive resilience. Baltimore’s Jackson-led rushing attack remains one of the NFL’s best, its defense has been great situationally (first in third-down defense and red-zone defense) and no team is better on special teams.

The case against: Have you seen their offense lately? In the last three games, the Ravens have scored 10, 16 and 16 points. Tyler Huntley was in at quarterback for one of those games, but even when Jackson has been active, this has not looked like an especially explosive outfit of late. Baltimore also has a beast of a remaining schedule: at Steelers, at Browns, home against Packers, at Bengals, home against Rams and home against Steelers. Green Bay, Cincinnati and Los Angeles all would be playoff teams if the season ended today, and Pittsburgh and Cleveland are difficult AFC North matchups.

The case for: Bill Belichick’s club has been flat-out annihilating teams during its current six-game win streak, outscoring opponents 211-63. The Patriots’ ball-hawking defense — a deep, versatile group led by Matthew Judon, AFC Defensive Player of the Month J.C. Jackson and others — is arguably the NFL’s best, their Damien Harris- and Rhamondre Stevenson-led run game is tough to stop, and quarterback Mac Jones is playing like a seasoned veteran. The Patriots still have some remnants from their last Super Bowl core (Devin McCourty, Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, David Andrews, Matthew Slater, etc.) and have received major contributions from both their veteran newcomers (Judon, Kendrick Bourne, Hunter Henry, Davon Godchaux, Jalen Mills) and their promising rookie class (Jones, Stevenson, Christian Barmore). Add in the NFL’s best coach, and they have all the pieces to make a deep playoff run. New England also lost by more than one score just once all season, with its other three defeats coming by one, two and six points (in overtime). Both FiveThirtyEight and Football Outsiders have the Patriots pegged as the favorites in the AFC, with the latter viewing them as the most likely Super Bowl champion.

The case against: This doesn’t invalidate their winning streak, but the Patriots have been catching a lot of breaks lately. They played a Carolina Panthers team with a limited Christian McCaffrey, the Browns without Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, the Atlanta Falcons without Calvin Ridley and Cordarrelle Patterson and the Tennessee Titans without Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown and Julio Jones. They also lead the NFL in missed field goals by opponents. What’s more, they just let up 270 rushing yards to a Henry-less Titans squad — a potentially concerning sign for the league’s top-ranked defense. And as good as Jones has looked thus far, he’s still a rookie. No rookie QB ever has led his team to a Super Bowl. With the Buffalo Bills, Indianapolis Colts and a Bills rematch up next on their schedule, we’ll learn a lot about the Patriots’ championship bona fides in the coming weeks.

The case for: The Titans’ track record speaks for itself. They’ve beaten the Colts (twice), the Bills, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Rams, and they were competitive with the Patriots for three quarters despite missing a slew of key players. Mike Vrabel’s bunch is a tough, physical team that’s built to win in cold weather. If they can get healthy, this isn’t a group you’d want to face in a playoff game.

The case against: That’s a very big “if.” Tennessee has not looked like the same team without Henry, its All-Pro running back, and it remains unclear whether he’ll be able to return at any point this season. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill is heavily reliant on the play-action passing game, and his productivity has taken a dive with Henry sidelined, posting his three worst Pro Football Focus grades of the season in the last three weeks. The Titans still lead the Colts by two games in the AFC South, but those teams seem to be trending in opposite directions.

The case for: Patrick Mahomes. Tyreek Hill. Travis Kelce. An improved offensive line. A defense that’s finally looking capable. It’s not hard to envision the team that’s played in each of the last two Super Bowls reaching another this season. After an uninspiring 3-4 start, the Chiefs have won four straight, tied for the second-longest active winning streak behind the Patriots.

The case against: Kansas City looked like a mess until about a month ago, and even some of its recent wins haven’t been overly impressive. The Chiefs beat the Packers, but that was with Jordan Love at quarterback. They beat the Cowboys when Dallas didn’t have Amari Cooper or Tyron Smith and lost CeeDee Lamb before halftime. In both of those games, the Chiefs failed to crack 20 points. Defense was Kansas City’s biggest issue early in the season, but lately, Mahomes hasn’t looked like the all-world talent he is. The 2018 NFL MVP shredded the Las Vegas Raiders three weeks ago (406 yards, five touchdowns, no interceptions) but his other performances over the last five games have been mediocre at best: two total touchdowns, three picks, 226.8 yards per game, 5.8 yards per attempt. Could the Chiefs find their stride come playoff time? Absolutely. But this is the shakiest KC squad we’ve seen in years.

The case for: It starts on defense. If the Patriots don’t boast the NFL’s top D, then it resides in Orchard Park, N.Y. Even after an ugly 41-point showing in Week 11, the Bills rank first in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA, first in pass defense DVOA, fourth in rush defense DVOA, first in total defense, second in yards allowed per rush and per pass attempt, second in interception rate, first in first downs allowed per game, tied for second in takeaways and second in points allowed per game. They’re also top-10 in a host of other defensive categories, including third down (fourth) and red zone (seventh). Buffalo’s Josh Allen-led offense hasn’t been as efficient — it’s middle-of-the-road in all three DVOA categories — but it’s putting up the second-most points per game in the NFL, trailing only Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bills also lead the league in point differential, are tied for third in turnover differential and have a massive lead in yardage differential, outgaining their opponents by 114.1 yards per game. The Bucs are second on that list at 73.3.

The case against: This is a team that lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars a few weeks ago. The Jaguars! Then, they were blown out at home by the Colts, allowing 185 rushing yards and five total touchdowns to Jonathan Taylor (and a whopping 264 rushing yards overall). Buffalo rebounded with a lopsided win on Thanksgiving, but that was against a New Orleans Saints team that was down its top two running backs and starting Trevor Siemian behind center. The Indy game spotlighted a potential flaw in this formidable Buffalo defense, which also was torn up by Henry in Week 6 (143 yards, three touchdowns in a 34-31 Titans win). It’s struggled against top-tier rushing attacks, which could lead to problems in its two upcoming Patriots matchups. The Bills also will be without star cornerback Tre’Davious White for the rest of the season after losing him to a torn ACL. Allen, too, hasn’t looked like the MVP candidate he was in 2020, regressing in nearly every passing category. He’s already matched his 2020 interception total with six games to go and has seen his QBR drop by more than 20 points.

Also in contention: Cincinnati Bengals (7-4), Los Angeles Chargers (6-5), Las Vegas Raiders (6-5), Denver Broncos (6-5), Indianapolis Colts (6-6), Pittsburgh Steelers (5-5-1), Cleveland Browns (6-6), Miami Dolphins (5-7)

Thumbnail photo via George Walker IV / / USA TODAY NETWORK
New England Patriots linebacker Matthew Judon
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