If they want to knock off the Patriots, AFC elites have to knock off drama


FOXBORO – We don’t really have to roll through the whole catalog of the Patriots sustained success, do we?

We don’t have to point out how the past nine seasons have somehow been even more dominant than the first nine, which included three Super Bowls in four seasons and the only 16-0 regular season in NFL history?

We’re good with the understanding that the Patriots have run away and hidden with the AFC and will only have it pried loose after they are tracked down and forced to eat the wiggling mass extracted from Andy Reid’s navel?

I figured we were.

So let’s cut to the chase, that being the reality that — even as the Patriots approach a season without Gronk, without a dedicated defensive coordinator, without an established left tackle and without a collection of wideouts that would make any secondary blink — the rest of the AFC still hasn’t gotten its feces together enough to pose a legitimate threat.

When Peyton Manning was alive, it didn’t matter whether he was in Indianapolis or Denver, his team was going to be a problem. There used to be really terrifying defenses — the Ravens, the Steelers, the Broncos. When all this started for the Patriots, the Dolphins, Titans and Chargers weren’t teams you wanted to visit. Or be visited by.

Now? The No. 1. trump card to any discussion about the Patriots losing their grip on the conference is, “Who’s gotten better?”

And that’s being underscored right now as training camps open. Almost every “good” team in the AFC has something going on with a very good player that takes away from them focusing on the only thing that matters: unseating New England.

In Kansas City, Tyreek Hill dodged NFL discipline and has been drawn back into the team’s warm protective embrace but that feels real tenuous. And the distracting scrutiny isn’t going away anytime soon.

Meanwhile, Chris Jones, who had 15.5 sacks for them last year, wants a new deal and isn’t coming in until he gets one.

The Jaguars threw away 2018 after being stupid enough to believe what Blake Bortles did in the 2017 playoffs was sustainable. They also believed they’d arrived after an early-season manhandling of the Patriots. Now, with Bortles gone, Nick Foles in and the talented defense intact, you’d figure they’d be ready for some bounce.

They are not. Pass-rush specialist Yannick Ngakoue is holding out and cornerback Jalen Ramsey hasn’t yet realized that “distracting buffoon” isn’t part of the job description for a great corner.

The Chargers? Hottest team in football before being cannibalized by the Patriots in the AFC Divisional Playoff? That game ended with Philip Rivers bathing in a vat of his own tears and this season begins with running back Melvin Gordon holding out.

The Titans? They waxed the Patriots last season. They have the makings of a capable team. They are without Taylor Lewan for the first four games of the regular season.

Even if they aren’t poised to win the AFC, everybody’s giddy about how watchable the Browns are going to be. I am too. But the whole situation has implosion written all over it. Brilliant but self-centered receivers in Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry mixed with a “say anything he wants” quarterback in Baker Mayfield all working for a classic nice-guy, first-time head coach in Freddie Kitchens. Freddie’s going to have wheel marks all up and down his back by the end of October from getting run over.

The Steelers' two irritating All-Pros have landed on different coasts so they have a shot at improving through the old “addition by subtraction” equation. But the bloated and entitled Ben Roethlisberger remains, and if he hasn’t passive aggressively shanked Mike Tomlin for something before Columbus Day, that would be an upset.

Know who I like? The Texans. Know who doesn’t like the Texans? Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who is planning to hold out throughout camp, and former GM Brian Gaine, who the Texans popped in June.

You could say the Colts have themselves decently squared away entering the season, then you remember who owns the team and wonder when GM Chris Ballard went from workaday personnel honk to the most visible personnel man with one playoff win on his résumé in NFL history.

This brief enumeration of distractions around the conference isn’t a declaration the Patriots are immune. Hell, Gaine got fired in Houston because the Texans thought they could hire Patriots GM Nick Caserio. The Patriots blocked Caserio, threatened tampering charges and who knows where the relationship between Caserio and the team currently is. Meanwhile, we’ve talked about the absence of a Tom Brady contract already.

But the Patriots have proven year after year they can deal with the most bizarre distractions. Somehow, drama actually seems to steel their focus. In this way, as in so many others, they are extreme outliers.

Meanwhile, so many other teams get taken hostage by things that have nothing to do with winning and losing and — before they know it — the season’s been flushed and they’re left wondering “what if?”

There’s tons of time for all these disgruntled players to get gruntled and into camp so they can help their teams mount the unified challenge necessary to knock off New England.

But we gotta be honest: The AFC ain’t hitting the ground running in the race to unseat the Patriots.


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