We're not even past the 2018 NFL Draft but that hasn't prevented analysts from already anointing the New England Patriots as the favorites to win the AFC again this upcoming season.
That should come as no surprise to anyone, seeing as the Patriots have played in seven consecutive AFC title games. Heck, even saying that in the month of April doesn't offend me as much as it should. However, the silver lining to that dark cloud hanging over Heinz Field is that, after the Patriots, there is a slew of teams within striking distance of knocking them from atop the mountain.
One of those teams is (surprise) our overwhelming favorite to do so: the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Steelers look like a team that has already adjusted to several of their weaknesses from the disappointing finish to last season. They have made several coaching changes, replacing offensive coordinator Todd Haley with former quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner, as well as swapping out Carnell Lake with a new defensive backs coach, Tom Bradley.
Fans looked to questionable playcalling and in-fighting with franchise QB Ben Roethlisberger as a problem within the organization. The defensive secondary has been suspect for years, but now gets a new leader who already has different pieces to work with after the team said "c'est la vie" to William Gay plus safeties Mike Mitchell and Robert Golden, then signed veterans Morgan Burnett and Nat Berhe.
Unless Le'Veon Bell doesn't sign his tag or something else drastic happens there, many of the key components return from a team that was looking to challenge New England in the conference championship last season.
An overlooked reason as to why the Steelers have an advantage over other teams is that they aren't entirely rebuilding. With the experience of Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback, and the return of receivers Antonio Brown, and Martavis Bryant, much of the same core of players return in 2018. JuJu Smith-Schuster also adds another year to his experience and Vance McDonald will get an entire training camp to mesh with the offense.
The entire offensive line returns intact, while most of the defensive starters are entrenched as well. Sans adding a few more weapons in the draft, the Steelers have a better starting point of reference than other franchises who appear to have more questions than answers right now.
That's why the latest bet365 NFL odds have the Steelers at 9/2 to win the AFC conference this season, behind 7/4 favorites the New England Patriots. Outside of the top two, the next teams are the Jacksonville Jaguars, Houston Texans, Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders.
However, all of those have questions to answer. With the exception of the Jags, the other teams all need to bounce back from poor seasons. It also appears all of those teams are banking on their quarterbacks to be top notch as well.
This is something the Steelers don't have to do: they have kept the same core together and despite the final result, performed to the "standard" last season.
Yet I'd be remiss to mention that the Patriots are looking to also set the standard once again. It is highly likely they will always be AFC favorites while Tom Brady is under center. Keep in mind the Patriots season didn't end as they would've liked either and Brady will be looking to bounce back from their Super Bowl disappointment last season.
That's something you can never overlook from Pittsburgh's main non-division nemesis.
Then there are the moves New England continues to make. They acquired more draft picks and shuffled players through trades in a busy offseason. As usual, it's tough to dismiss that they won't rebound back into a top spot in the league.
However, the Patriots do rely a lot on Tom Brady, and that could be their downfall. If he happens to have a problem or the team suffers key injuries, I wouldn't be so certain that they can overcome them like last season (where several questionable calls/no-calls worked in their favor... cough... Jesse James...)
If Brady isn't defying Father Time, or New England's latest moves fail to work out like they have in the past for them, the AFC could be wide open for the Steelers taking. With other teams having question marks next to their name, Pittsburgh seeks to maintain their standard. They swept their division last year and if they can come out easily on top again in 2018, they could be staring at another postseason berth along with a bye week to rest.
That has to be the goal going forward, and seeing as they have a bad taste left in their mouth from their early exit at the hands of the Jaguars, this is a group of players who know what is expected of them. There are no more question marks as this experienced team moves forward toward their eventual goal of winning another Lombardi trophy.