By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots are the overwhelming favorite to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LII, but which team has the best chance of unseating them? Most would point to the Pittsburgh Steelers, who ESPN says have a 15.4 percent chance of making the Super Bowl out of the AFC compared to 50.7 percent for the Pats.
But, if you want to really scrounge for another scrap out of the AFC heap, maybe the Patriots’ biggest challenger actually resides in Denver.
What’s so funny?
After sending a noodle-armed Peyton Manning off into the sunset with his second Super Bowl victory, mostly thanks to a transcendent defense, the Broncos missed the playoffs in 2016 with a 9-7 record. Their defense was still spectacular but not quite unstoppable, while the offense sputtered behind a toxic mix of Trevor Siemian and unproven rookie Paxton Lynch at quarterback.
Linebacker Brandon Marshall was asked about the Broncos’ trying follow-up to their 2015 Super Bowl triumph, and admitted that the team may have suffered the dreaded Super Bowl “hangover.” He also held himself accountable for his own performance.
“I wouldn’t blame it on one specific thing. I think there were some distractions and maybe a Super Bowl lull,” Marshall said on Thursday (via Pro Football Talk). “At the end of the day, nobody cares about that. All they care about is, did you make plays or not? And I didn’t. I want to reverse that this year.”
The Broncos didn’t have a bad day on defense when they faced the Patriots in Week 15 last season at Mile High. The Patriots mustered only 16 points, scratching only a LeGarrette Blount touchdown run and three field goals across the board. But the Broncos were that much worse with only three points of their own against a stingy Patriots defense.
The Broncos probably won’t have a sniff of dethroning the Patriots in the AFC unless Lynch can emerge as a viable starting quarterback. But the talent on defense is still there and they should still be among the best in the league, even without Wade Phillips.
Even if the Broncos can’t rebound from a down 2016, Marshall at least knows how hard it is to remain consistently competitive year after year – which has only made him respect the Patriots more.
“[The Patriots] are always in the AFC Championship or the Super Bowl,” said Marshall. “They have a great quarterback, Tom Brady. They have a great staff. Bill Belichick is probably the greatest coach in NFL history. I will definitely give him that. All of those things come into account. But I do think it’s weird because no matter who they put in or who they put on the team, they still play well. It doesn’t matter. The one constant is Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. They pick and plug guys and they’re still successful, which is crazy.”
It’s not so crazy or weird to those in New England who have watched Belichick, Brady, and the Patriots stay in the Super Bowl mix year after year. They have a rare level of consistency and a mind-blowingly short memory that allows them to put up an impenetrable wall between the current and previous seasons. Matt Ryan and the Falcons are trying really, really, really hard to do the same thing. Meanwhile, the Seahawks have taken a jackhammer to the last two walls.
One can only hope that the Broncos will be back in the mix in 2017. Otherwise, it could be a boring regular season for a Patriots team waiting for a real challenge.
Matt Dolloff is a writer/producer 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.