With football season rapidly approaching the starving fans (myself included), it is time for fans to wonder whether their team will make the playoffs.
For New England Patriots fans? It’s a matter of who they will be facing in the playoffs, and most likely, another AFC Championship game appearance, which will be their seventh consecutive championship game appearance.
Head coach and general manager Bill Belichick has done a terrific job adding and retaining talent this offseason, so let’s see how the 2017 New England Patriots match up against potential playoff foes.
Starting with one of the more likely playoff matchups, the Pittsburgh Steelers have been working hard this offseason to incorporate more man to man coverage to help slow down the high octane Patriots offense.
In last years AFC Championship game, Tom Brady and co. decimated the Steelers zone-heavy defense, so this seems to be a direct reaction to that game.
The Steelers offense brings back the explosive wideout Martavis Bryant, after being suspended for the entirety of the 2016 season. This group’s performance lies in the hands of the veteran quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger.
On paper, Big Ben had another solid season. But dive into the more advanced statistics, and you will see Roethlisberger struggled massively on the road, posting a 78.4 passer rating away from Heinz Field, a stark contrast to his 116.7 passer rating at home.
The defense is improved, and defensive end Cameron Heyward returns after his 2016 season was cut short due to injury. The secondary, though, still does not have the talent to slow down Tom Brady and his improved supporting cast.
There is not much depth behind cornerback Artie Burns, which is not a formula for success to stop one of the best offenses in the league, that is bringing in the playmaking wideout Brandin Cooks.
The Oakland Raiders had a chance to improve a young, talented squad this offseason. Yet, they made the interesting choice to not add much talent, particularly on defense, via free agency.
I think this decision will bite them if/when they face the New England Patriots in the postseason. The Raiders have a ton of talent, but there are a lot of flaws in the team, as well.
They do not have a reliable third wideout, and with the Patriots starting cornerback duo of Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore, the top two options will be hard pressed to find quality chances to make plays.
The Raiders did make one big acquisition, and that was to bring formerly retired running back Marshawn Lynch out of retirement and in the Raiders backfield. The Patriots counter with the third best defense against the run, with their big and disciplined front seven. Running on the Patriots has always been hard since Bill Belichick took over.
On the other side, the Raiders lack answers for the Patriots short and intermediate passing attack. If healthy, tight end Rob Gronkowski will have a field day against the weak Raiders linebacking corps, along with the pass catching halfback James White.
The Texans, believe it or not, may present the biggest challenge to the Patriots in the postseason. That prediction is made solely because of their uber-talented defense.
They have a wildly talented front seven, headlined by JJ Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus. They also have a trio of talented cornerbacks, along with tackling machine inside linebackers.
For Texans fans, though, it is a question they have heard many times. How much can they expect out of their starting quarterback?
The Brock Osweiler experiment failed miserably, and forced them to trade up to draft quarterback DeShaun Watson. I am a big fan of Watson, but he needs at least a year or two to learn how to effectively run a pro offense.
The offensive line is shaky outside of left tackle Duane Brown, and running back Lamar Miller disappointed in his first year as a Texan.
The Texans will be able to slow down the Patriots offense, but for how long? Eventually, Tom Brady will put up points on you. It’s just a matter of how many the Texans offense will be able to score.
On to the NFC side of the playoffs and who the Patriots could potentially face in the Super Bowl, if they advance, Seattle looks to rebound from another second round exit.
The Seahawks are looking to reincorporate the power running game they used to go to two straight Super Bowls, by addressing the offensive line this offseason and signing running back Eddie Lacy. Again though, the Patriots excel at stopping the run.
The offense should drastically improve, mostly because of the addition of left tackle Luke Joeckel, and drafting center Ethan Pocic.
Their defense is again expected to be a top five unit. It will be interesting to see how well safety Earl Thomas plays after suffering a brutal leg injury to prematurely end his 2016 season. The same could be said about cornerback DeShawn Shead, who tore his ACL in the playoffs last year.
Richard Sherman had a solid 2016 campaign but did not play up to the top five status he has held throughout most of his career. The defensive line suffered injuries last year, but they return healthy and the pass rush will be scary yet again.
The Seahawks vs Patriots rivalry will only continue if both teams reach the Super Bowl. For fans of good football, hope for this matchup, as the last three games between these three have been fantastic games.
The Cowboys returned to the playoffs last year, and I expect them to return again. The talented trio of Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliot and Dez Bryant will carry the offense, along with the reliable Cole Beasley.
The dominant offensive line lost two starters this offseason, but should still be one of the best units in the league. If these two teams face in the Super Bowl, it will be interesting to see how Belichick game plans against this offense.
Will he allow Prescott to dink and dunk, and force him to go 12-14 plays per drive, and see if the young quarterback makes a mistake? Or will he dial up the pressure and blitz him constantly? That is a big reason why I hope this matchup becomes reality.
The defense could have been improved, although the Cowboys struggled to free up cap space. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli did a terrific job with a similar squad last year, and I expect the defense to be solid this year as well.
The Patriots offense will decimate this squad though. There is not much depth behind the starting cornerbacks, and again Tom Brady has not had a more talented supporting cast in quite some time.