The New England Patriots are huge favorites to run through the AFC on the way to a seventh Super Bowl since the turn of the century. The team has been to the AFC Championship five years in a row, and there’s nothing to suggest that this season’s version of the Patriots should have any trouble making it six in a row.
The team’s 14-2 record is its best since 2010 and one of the only two losses in 2016 came without Tom Brady, who missed the first four games of the season due to his DeflateGate suspension.
Simply put: The Patriots look unstoppable and the other teams in the AFC look far from that. According to Bovada, New England has -180 odds to make it to Super Bowl LI, while the Pittsburgh Steelers have the next best chance at +350.
So can the Patriots be stopped? And even if they can, is there any team in the AFC able to pull off the upset?
If so, that team will have to follow a formula that few have been able to pull off during the Patriots’ impressive era of excellence under Bill Belichick:
How to beat the Patriots 101
Since Belichick took over in New England, only five different teams have beat New England in the postseason: the Denver Broncos (three times), Baltimore Ravens (twice), New York Giants (twice), Indianapolis Colts, and New York Jets.
With the exceptions of a 38-34 loss to the Colts 10 years ago and a 26-16 loss to the Broncos in 2013, the formula to beat the Patriots has always included an elite defensive performance. And that Super Bowl-winning Indianapolis squad held its other three postseason opponents to an average of 10.3 points and forced an average of four turnovers.
Getting into a shootout with Brady just hasn’t worked for anyone except Peyton Manning, and even that future Hall of Fame quarterback was 0-2 in his first two postseason meetings against Brady before winning the last three.
Step one: Rush Tom Brady
In New England’s AFC Championship loss a year ago, the Broncos managed to sack Brady four times. Von Miller led the way with 2.5 of those sacks, but even those numbers pale in comparison to the real effect of the Denver pass rush. Altogether, Brady was hit 23 times in the game.
Under so much pressure, Brady completed just 48.2 percent of his passes, and while he was still able to rack up 310 passing yards and threw a touchdown that nearly saved the day, he also threw two interceptions.
That’s not to say Brady panics under pressure. He handles it well, but any offense can be slowed down by pass rushers:
Passer rating while under pressure— Pat Thorman (@Pat_Thorman) January 13, 2017
In each of New England’s two Super Bowl losses to the Giants, Brady struggled to handle the New York defense, which tallied seven sacks in the two games.
Step two: Win the turnover battle
There’s an element of luck involved with turnovers, but the Patriots are consistently among the NFL’s best at avoiding them. The 11 giveaways by New England in 2016 were the fewest in the NFL, just like the 14 in 2015 and 13 in 2014 that also landed the Patriots at No. 1 in giveaways.
So forcing mistakes is difficult, but close to a must. New England was 10-0 in the 2016 regular season when it avoided a turnover and 4-2 when it had at least one giveaway.
In the Belichick and Brady era, the Patriots have 18 turnovers in the nine postseason losses and 22 in the 22 victories.
Simply put: Making mistakes is a problem, and not capitalizing on the Patriots’ rare mistakes is worse.
Step three: Win the time of possession
The Broncos’ 26-16 win over the Patriots in Jan. 2014 wasn’t exactly lighting up the scoreboard, but Manning certainly racked up big stats. He finished with 400 passing yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions in a dink-and-dunk attack that featured 93-yard and 80-yard touchdown drives that each lasted more than seven minutes.
"To keep Tom Brady on the sideline is a good thing," Manning said, via The Associated Press. "That's something you try to do when you're playing the Patriots."
Unlike Manning’s strategy, controlling the time of possession typically means finding success on the ground. That can be difficult against the No. 3 rush defense in the NFL, but the Buffalo Bills managed to find 301 rushing yards in two meetings with the Patriots in 2016 and win one of those games.
Who can follow the formula?
The Houston Texans are up first for the Patriots, but they already have a 27-0 loss to New England under their belt. And that was when the Patriots had Jacoby Brissett at quarterback due to a suspension for Brady and a injury to Jimmy Garoppolo.
Yes, the Texans have begun to gel on defense, but that hasn’t stopped oddsmakers from making the Patriots the biggest favorite in a postseason game in nearly two decades.
But how close is Houston to having the pieces necessary to turn things around? And if the Texans can’t pull off the upset, how do the Kansas City Chiefs and Pittsburgh Steelers match up?
Rushing Tom Brady: C+
Win the turnover margin: D+
Win time of possession: A
The Texans are good on defense and lean heavily on Lamar Miller on offense. That’s why only three teams have a better time of possession than Houston.
However, Houston doesn’t have an elite pass rush and hasn’t forced many turnovers. It’s a big reason why the No. 1 total defense in the NFL was No. 11 in scoring defense.
It’s exacerbated by an offense that has struggled with Brock Osweiler, who finished the regular season with 15 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.
Kansas City Chiefs
Rushing Tom Brady: C+
Win the turnover margin: A+
Win time of possession: B-
Justin Houston is the most dangerous pass rusher on the Kansas City defense, but he has just four sacks in the five games he managed to appear in while dealing with knee problems.
With Houston sidelined, the Chiefs defense finished ahead of only the New York Jets, Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns, and Oakland Raiders in sacks. The team finished the last 10 quarters of the regular season without a sack, and Dee Ford’s breakout year stalled with six straight games with zero sacks.
If Houston returns to form, the Chiefs could have the defense to pull it off, especially considering its ability to force turnovers. But that’s a big if.
Rushing Tom Brady: B
Win the turnover margin: B-
Win time of possession: B-
The Steelers might have all of the pieces, but they also might not. Pittsburgh is top-10 in sacks but doesn’t have a single pass rusher with more than five sacks in 2016.
Pittsburgh forced seven turnovers in its last two wins, including three against the Miami Dolphins a week ago. But was below the league average in takeaways before Week 17.
But if Le’Veon Bell can continue to patiently bulldoze his way to big yardage like he has in his last seven games, that could help the Steelers keep the ball out of Brady’s hands. Yet, the big-play Pittsburgh offense has been near the league average in time of possession. And even when Bell racked up 167 yards against the Miami Dolphins, the Steelers still had the ball for 27:58.
The top priority for any team trying to stop the Patriots is to limit the effectiveness of Brady. But that’s a tall task for any defensive unit — especially in the playoffs.
No quarterback has passed for more yards or more touchdowns in the postseason, and no quarterback has more wins.
The few teams that have managed to get by the Patriots did so by making him uncomfortable and more prone to mistakes — or by just plain keeping him off the field as much as possible.
All three teams left in the AFC have some of the elements that previous teams rode to victory, but the Texans, Chiefs, and Steelers all have big challenges and will be significant underdogs in a matchup against New England.