By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Another outstanding season for Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and the 14-2 New England Patriots has them as a heavy favorite to once again represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. Brady put together an MVP-caliber season in just 12 games, while the defense has grown and improved over the course of the season and is playing its best football at the most important time. Of course, the Pats still need to win two games to get to Houston for the Big Game, but it’s fair to consider them the most likely team to make it out of the AFC.
Still, that doesn’t mean that the Patriots are a perfect team – or that an AFC opponent couldn’t find a way to pull the upset in Foxboro.
Since it’s just boring to constantly talk about how great the Patriots are, and because it’s horribly short-sighted to just overlook the next two games, let’s go over what could keep the Patriots away from the Super Bowl. There are a few overriding factors that could come from one of several potential opponents, and if a team picks off the Patriots at Gillette in either the Divisional Round or the AFC Championship, it’s likely that it will be for one of these reasons.
A good quarterback with a talented offense exposes their defense. This is the way that the Pittsburgh Steelers could potentially knock the Patriots off in Foxboro. The Patriots defeated the Steelers in Pittsburgh 27-17 in Week 7, but that, of course, was without Ben Roethlisberger.
With Big Ben back under center, the Steelers have the best possible combination of a great, battle-tested quarterback, a dynamic No. 1 wide receiver, and a talented running back who is also a threat in the passing game. The Patriots defense hasn’t faced such an offensive combination all season, certainly not a QB-WR combo like Roethlisberger and Brown. Even with Landry Jones throwing him the ball, Brown made seven catches for 106 yards.
If Roethlisberger can get the Steelers into the red zone, he has as good a chance as any QB in the league to actually get the ball into the end zone. And if he finds success with a particular matchup or package of plays, it’s likely that he’d exploit it up and down the field all game. As far as a QB who could potentially match the production of Brady, Roethlisberger has the best chance in the conference.
A good defensive front exposes the offensive line. Dante Scarnecchia has been a wizard in engineering the incredible turnaround for the Patriots offensive line, especially for Second Team All-Pro Marcus Cannon. But you know when the Patriots also supposedly had a great offensive line? 2007. Oh, and 2011, too.
The Patriots did make the Super Bowl those seasons, but once they ran into a strong defensive front that could consistently pressure Brady with just three or four down linemen, they couldn’t find an answer for it on offense. It’s still a problem that could doom the Patriots if it pops back up at some point in the playoffs.
The Patriots could potentially run into this issue against Kansas City, Oakland, or Houston. The Chiefs defense, in particular, could present serious problems up front with some combination of Justin Houston, Tamba Hali, Dontari Poe, Chris Jones, and Dee Ford. It shouldn’t be shocking if Scarnecchia suddenly can’t scheme his way around overwhelming talent on the defensive line, because we’ve seen it before.
The Patriots turn the ball over too much. This is another reason that the Chiefs might actually be the biggest threat to the Patriots in the AFC. Kansas City led the league in total takeaways with 33, including the top spot in both interceptions (18) and fumble recoveries (15).
The Patriots, meanwhile, fumbled the ball 27 times in all three phases, but only lost nine of them. Could the ball bounce the other way in the playoffs?
The turnover battle could decide any NFL game, really. This isn’t just about the Patriots. But it’s fair to say that they’ve had their share of lucky bounces in the fumble department, and if they can’t recover their own fumbles against a team like Kansas City, they could be in trouble.
The Bottom Line
The Patriots remain the favorite to make it to the Super Bowl out of the AFC, and they should be. They enter the playoffs as clearly the best team in the conference. But there’s also the possibility that one of the aforementioned problems could rear its ugly head at the worst possible time. They’ll probably make it to the Super Bowl, but if they do not, it will likely happen because of one of the factors mentioned above.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.