The start of the NFL season is still four months away, but it's never too early to talk about potential Super Bowl favorites. In the AFC, the three best teams are head and shoulders above the rest: the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers and Indianapolis Colts. Not coincidentally, those three teams all have on thing in common: good quarterbacks.
Beyond the top three, the rest of the AFC is substantially worse. Sure, the Denver Broncos have the league's best defense led by Von Miller, but they still have questions at quarterback thanks to the retirement of Peyton Manning and the free-agent departure of Brock Osweiler. Heck, they may not even be the best team in their division.
Without further ado, let's take a look at the Super Bowl favorites in the AFC.
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1. New England Patriots
Whether Tom Brady plays in the first four games of the season or not, the Patriots are the far-and-away favorites in the conference. That's partly due to the easy schedule in the AFC East, but mostly because they have the best pure passer in the NFL. Rob Gronkowski is healthy, as is Julian Edelman, and Danny Amendola was brought back on a substantial pay cut, giving Brady all of his weapons from a year ago. Additionally, the Patriots traded for guard Jonathan Cooper, a former first-round pick who's expected to solidify a shaky offensive line. At this moment, the Patriots have the best odds in the NFL to win Super Bowl 51, sitting at 15-to-2, according to Vegas Insider. It would be no surprise to see Brady lead the Patriots to Houston for yet another Super Bowl trip.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers likely would have made a serious run at a championship last season had it not been for injuries to both Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell. Bell missed 10 games including all of the postseason, while Brown missed the postseason game against the eventual champion Denver Broncos due to a concussion suffered against the Cincinnati Bengals. And not to mention, Ben Roethlisberger was forced to miss four games due to a knee injury. The Steelers' high-powered offense remains intact (minus the suspended Martavis Bryant), which bodes well for their chances at a Super Bowl. It's the defense that needs to pick up the slack. If Ryan Shazier can stay on the field and a combination of Jarvis Jones and Bud Dupree can get consistent pressure on the quarterback, they can mask the less-than-stellar secondary, led by William Gay. Still, they'll give the Patriots a run for their money in the AFC and are 10-to-1 favorites to win the Super Bowl.
3. Indianapolis Colts
At the start of the 2015 season, the Colts were considered Super Bowl contenders. That's because Andrew Luck was expected to play all 16 games, and not just seven. His car-crash like injuries to his kidney and abdomen completely derailed the Colts' season, leading to a mediocre 8-8 campaign. Luck now has "no limitations" and is ready to go for 2016 as he looks to return to his 2014 form. In the AFC South, the Colts have been favorites to win the division and that won't change this season, though the rest of the teams have certainly caught up. But a weak schedule will greatly benefit the Colts this season with only six of their opponents reaching the playoffs in 2015. At 20-to-1, Indianapolis isn't among the top five favorites but as long as Luck stays healthy, they have a good shot at making a playoff run.
4. Cincinnati Bengals
Yes, Andy Dalton is 0-4 in his postseason career. Yes, the offense lost Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, and Tyler Eifert is questionable for the start of the season. But few teams have as talented of a roster as the Bengals. Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard are as good of a one-two punch as any at running back, and Dalton is still a very talented quarterback despite his playoff struggles. What's standing in the Bengals' way is a very strong division, led by the Steelers. If Cincinnati can win the AFC North, it has a very good shot at reaching the Super Bowl. But again, it will come down to the play of Dalton in the postseason. Rookie cornerback William Jackson III immediately gives the Bengals a ball hawk in the secondary and dramatically improves the defense as a whole. Additionally, wide receiver Tyler Boyd, linebacker Nick Vigil and nose tackle Andrew Billings all have a very good shot at starting right away. At 16-to-1, the Bengals have as good a shot at winning a Super Bowl as any team.
5. Denver Broncos
Had the Broncos gone out and landed a top-tier quarterback in the offseason, or retained Osweiler, they likely would have been No. 2 in the AFC. Instead, they have Mark Sanchez as their starter with Paxton Lynch waiting in the wings. If the Broncos hope to win back-to-back titles, it will come down to the defense carrying them, as it did a year ago with Manning at the helm. Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware are back, as is the entire starting secondary, led by Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib. On offense, C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman are the lead backs once again, which helps take some pressure off of Sanchez. The Broncos have the firepower on both offense and defense to return to the big game; it will just depend on the type of play they get from their quarterback(s). Vegas still gives them a great chance to do so, giving them 12-to-1 odds to win another ring.
6. Oakland Raiders
For the last 14 years, the Raiders have been terrible. They haven't had a winning record since 2002 when they lost in the Super Bowl. There isn't a team in the NFL poised to break out more than Oakland in 2016, though. Derek Carr is the real deal at quarterback, as is Amari Cooper on the outside. And on defense, their moves this offseason make them a team to watch. Rookie safety Karl Joseph is an Earl Thomas-type player with range and hitting ability and should have an immediate impact as long as he's healthy. Sean Smith and Bruce Irvin are two other noteworthy additions on that side of the ball as they'll be Week 1 starters at corner and pass rusher, respectively. Most importantly, Khalil Mack has emerged as a top-notch sack artist. He was second in the NFL last season with 15 sacks, and Carr is predicting him to double that number in 2016. The Raiders will give Denver a run for its money in the AFC West, and as long as Carr continues to improve, their 35-to-1 odds will get better and better by the week.
7. Houston Texans
Like the Raiders, the Texans somewhat overhauled their roster this offseason. Sure, J.J. Watt is still there, as is Vince Wilfork and Jadeveon Clowney, but the offense got substantially better in the past few months. Brock Osweiler will be under center with Lamar Miller as the starting running back, who should thrive in the Texans' scheme. Additionally, they added two immediate starters in the draft in Will Fuller and Nick Martin at wideout and center, respectively. They managed to make the playoffs last season without Osweiler, Miller or Fuller, meaning they're going to improve in 2016. Reaching the Super Bowl and winning it will require some stellar play from Osweiler, but a full offseason as the surefire starter will help his development. The Texans are only going to get better by the week. Right now, their Super Bowl odds sit at 40-to-1, but in a division filled with uncertainty, they should reach the postseason and could very well make a run at a championship.