New England Patriots vs Jacksonville Jaguars

Patriots quarterback Mac Jones (10) gestures towards the sideline during a football game between the New England Patriots and the Jacksonville Jaguars at the Gillette Stadium in Foxborough.

The New England Patriots have issues.

Here's a few: they've lost three of their last four games; they're falling behind early; they can't consistently stop the run; they have a rookie at quarterback; and, late in games, they can't get the other team's offense off the damn field.

But guess what? When it comes to issues, the New England Patriots are far from alone. Every team in the AFC, from the Tennessee Titans to the Las Vegas Raiders, and every team in between, has issues. Some of them, big issues.

It's been at least two decades since the Super Bowl championship is anybody's ballgame. Remember that Baltimore Ravens-N.Y Giants debacle in Tampa Bay in February of 2000? Trent Dilfer versus Kerry Collins. It was game dominated by kickoff and punt returns.

Well, that's what 2021 has felt like, a bunch of OK teams slamming heads. An "Any Given Sunday" kind of season.

So why not New England?

As crazy as this sounds, the Patriots have as good a shot as anybody, particularly in the AFC, of getting to Los Angeles for Super Bowl XVII on Feb. 12. 

Could the Patriots lose in Buffalo on a chilly Saturday night? Absolutely. In fact, bettors believe it will happen. But would you be surprised if the Patriots didn't blow the game in the first quarter, fought tooth and nail the rest of the way, maybe have a small lead, and actually win? That's exactly what happened, in somewhat similar conditions back on Monday, December 6 when they beat the Bills.

Would you be totally shocked if the Steelers beat the Chiefs on Sunday night? I wouldn't. There are no 2019 or 2020 Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC; this year's Chiefs are the closest, but they are going through things right now and don’t appear to be special, especially on defense.

And the rest of the AFC -- Tennessee, Buffalo and Cincinnati, three higher seeds than the Patriots? Nothing special. At all. Buffalo might be really good, but they took a step back in 2021 from a year ago. Tennessee is tough and with Derrick Henry, tougher than tough. But the Titans have quarterback issues. They haven't proven yet, during his reign, that Ryan Tannehill can make that comeback. And Cincinnati? While I love Joe Burrows, when I think of think of the Cincinnati I think of the Bungles. Maybe next year.

The Chiefs are the team that legitimately could figure this out an be the AFC rep in the Super Bowl, but I’m not feeling it with Patrick Mahomes this year. Something isn’t right.

Which brings me back to the Patriots.

With the Patriots, there are legitimate question marks. Can their defense get a very good running game off the field, late in the fourth quarter, to get the ball back on offense? Can Mac Jones overcome a deficit, maybe even a two-score deficit in very loud stadiums, in Buffalo, Tennessee or Kansas City, in the second half of a late January game? Are the Patriots talented enough at linebacker and wide receiver, two inconsistent areas, when the team needs it most?

But the Patriots have one thing on their side that the other decent to good playoff teams don’t have: Bill Belichick. This is what he is made for ... January game plans. He has a history against the three key teams in front of the Patriots this playoff season – Kansas City, Buffalo and Tennessee. He has tangible evidence and tape to work with.

The Bills (Josh Allen) and Titans (Henry) rely heavily, almost too heavily, on one player. That’s a specialty, usually, for Belichick.

The Patriots are not chopped liver. They had a good season in 2021 with a rookie quarterback handing every important snap. They won seven straight games and went 6-2 on the road. Edge rusher Matthew Judon is elite, and the running back tandem of Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson borders on elite. Cornerback J.C. Jackson is also elite.

Another factor is the Patriots will finally be healthy in Buffalo on Saturday night, with every key starter back.

The AFC is there to be had. We'll worry about the NFC in February.


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