The New England Patriots are once again the favorites to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. They've done it seven times since 2001, and in order to prevent the defending champs from having an opportunity at going back-to-back for the first time since 2003 and 2004, one of the other AFC contenders is going to have to knock them off before they get there.
Of course, that's easier said than done. That's why, in the space below, we're going to attempt to explore how each team that remains in the playoff race would beat the Patriots, if they were actually able to do it.
Steelers: Killer B's
The Steelers came damn close to beating the Patriots in Week 15, and they did it mostly without the services of Antonio Brown. If Pittsburgh is to finally topple New England in the playoffs, it would likely happen in a game that developed in a similar fashion. Ben Roethlisberger distributing the ball to Brown and Le'Veon Bell, with dashes of JuJu Smith-Schuster, Martavis Bryant, and Jesse James mixed in as well.
Pittsburgh's defense started the season strongly, but has dropped off in recent weeks -- especially after the scary injury to Ryan Shazier. They'd be unlikely to win a low-scoring defensive contest; instead they'd want the game played in the mid-20's or higher, potentially turning into a track meet where they could trust Ben to get his weapons the ball in the open field, and maybe just get the last score of the game.
Jaguars: Turn Up The Pressure
The Jaguars, surprisingly, have maybe the most obvious formula for beating the Patriots, if only because they resemble other teams that have surprised the Patriots with postseason upsets before.
Like the Giants and Broncos before them, the Jaguars have an elite pass-rush that can get pressure on Tom Brady without having to resort to the blitz. If they can hit him all day, move him off his spots, and count on Jalen Ramsey, A.J. Bouye, Barry Church, and Tashaun Gipson to do the tough work of sticking with Brady's receivers on the back end, they can potentially replicate those surprising victories from years past.
The issue with this formula is that it also depends on the Jags not turning the ball over to the Patriots, and they'd be relying on Blake Bortles to take care of the football in an important playoff game. Bortles has been quite good over the last few weeks, but he also hasn't faced Bill Belichick yet. That's obviously a whole different ballgame.
Chiefs: Ball Control
The Chiefs would likely beat the Patriots the same way they just beat the Chargers, which happens to be the same way they beat the Patriots in the 2017 season-opener: with a heavy dose of Kareem Hunt.
New England's defense has improved over the course of the season, but it still ranks dead last in rush defense DVOA. (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, which adjusts performance for down, distance, and opponent.) The Chiefs' run-blocking has gotten back on track over the last few weeks, and if that continued into the postseason, they'd have the advantage in that area of the game once again.
Alex Smith is one of the least turnover-prone quarterbacks in the NFL, and with his low-risk passing game combined with a lot of touches for Hunt, Kansas City could keep the ball away from Brady and the New England offense as well as any other playoff team could. A good way to prevent the Pats from scoring is to not let them have the ball all that much, so this strategy could be a successful one.
Titans: Out Of Body Experience
The Titans are 8-6 but have been outscored by 23 points this season. They rank 22nd in yards gained, 19th in points scored, 19th in offensive DVOA, 13th in yards allowed, 18th in points allowed, and 32nd in defensive DVOA. They don't do anything well.
The idea that they're going to beat the Patriots in New England in the playoffs is ridiculous on its face, but we'll engage with it for a minute and lay out the scenario: Marcus Mariota plays the game of his life. DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry rip holes in the Patriots' defensive front. Tennessee's corners suddenly develop lockdown ability (or Logan Ryan gives them helpful hints at how to defend the New England receivers) and an average pass-rush suddenly becomes unstoppable.
In other words, the Titans have an out of body experience and morph into a different team entirely on the day of the game.
Bills: Run It Down Their Throats
This one's easy: it's all about Shady McCoy. Still one of the NFL's most slippery and versatile weapons out of the backfield, McCoy is capable of breaking big plays and/or repeatedly ripping off clock-killing runs for an entire afternoon. He's single-handedly won games before, and he could do it again in the right circumstance. (Side note: if it happens to be snowing for this game, don't bet against McCoy.)
Buffalo's rush offense has dropped off badly this year from where it was during 2015 and 2016, but they still rank very high in open field yards and generating long runs. If the blocking coalesces correctly, it could lead to a big day for McCoy. Of course, Tyrod Taylor's mobility helps on that front, and if the defense starts collapsing on McCoy, he can take off with the ball around the end.
Ravens: Turn It Into A Slugfest
I'm not sure I need to go into too much detail about how the Ravens would beat the Patriots in a playoff game. We've actually seen them do it before, and it always happens the same way. The Tom Brady-era Pats have squared off with the Ravens in the playoffs four times. The Pats have won twice and the Ravens have won twice.
What did Baltimore's two victories have in common? They held New England to 14 points in the first (2009), and 13 points in the second (2012). In their two losses, the Ravens allowed 23 points (2011) and 35 points (2014). The formula here is simple: the Ravens have to figure out a way to ensure Brady doesn't start denting the scoreboard with crooked numbers.
Luckily, the Ravens again have one of the NFL's best defenses. Baltimore ranks 10th in yards allowed, fourth in points allowed, and second in defensive DVOA this season, and has a top-10 mark in Adjusted Sack Rate. They need to turn this potential playoff matchup into a defensive slugfest and hope they can grind out a win.
Chargers: Pressure and Philip
The Chargers may have the best hope of simply beating the Patriots with straight-up better performances on both sides of the ball. They have an excellent pass rush led by Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. They have a terrific secondary fronted by Casey Hayward and Trevor Williams. Combined, that foursome holds the key to locking down the New England offense. Get pressure on Brady without blitzing, jam the receivers at the line and take away the short passing game, and force Brady to hold onto the ball long enough so that he gets hit a ton and can't get into a rhythm.
On the other side of the ball, the Chargers have an uncoverable monster in Keenan Allen. They have field-stretching weapons in Travis Benjamin and Tyrell Williams. They have two backs capable of making plays in the passing game, which can help take advantage of New England's linebackers in coverage. And they have Philip Rivers, who is capable of figuring out which of those players should get the ball at any given moment.
Raiders: 2016 Derek Carr Shows Up
Oakland's defense is abjectly terrible, so the only way the Raiders are beating the Patriots is by turning the game into a shootout. If they're going to win a shootout, they need Derek Carr to fire the ball all over the field to Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree, Jared Cook, Seth Roberts, even Cordarelle Patterson. It would be nice if the 2016 version of Carr were the one doing the firing, because the player we've seen for much of this season isn't capable of out-dueling Brady head-to-head.
Dolphins: Another Gronk Suspension
That's basically the only way this is happening.