Are the Titans the Patriots' next challenger in the AFC?

Tennessee Titans / AP Photo

After a miraculous Super Bowl comeback and a killer offseason, the Patriots are presumptive favorites to sweep the AFC and return to the big game. Yet while they're clearly a cut above the rest of the competition, it looks like a new contender is ready to usurp the usual suspects and become New England's primary challenger.

That team is the Tennessee Titans. While they only went 9-7 last year and finished among the middle of the pack in most major statistical categories, they're poised to improve on 2016's mediocre finish for a few key reasons. First, last year's team was hamstrung by its dearth of talent in the secondary. GM Jon Robinson (former Patriots Director of College Scouting) went out and thoroughly addressed that problem, signing Logan Ryan away from New England and drafting explosive USC corner Adoree' Jackson. Better yet, Robinson signed former Jaguar Jonathan Cyprien to anchor the back end of the defense--the 2013 second-round pick led all safeties with 126 tackles last year.

On the offensive side, the Titans are based around a strong ground game. Their O-line is among the best in the league, and their two-headed backfield of Demarco Murray and Derrick Henry can mash the ball against any defense. But without a potent aerial attack, Tennessee struggled coming back from deficits and working against the clock. After drafting Western Michigan's Corey Davis at #5 overall and signing Eric Decker on Sunday, the Titans have surrounded Marcus Mariota with weapons--and have added a new dimension to coach Mike Mularkey's "exotic smashmouth" offense.

With the new additions and returning talent, the Titans are ready to ascend into the AFC's top tier. Unlike the Steelers, who are limited by their lack of discipline and aging QB, and the Chiefs, who lost significant talent in the offseason and are limited by Alex Smith and Andy Reid, Tennessee is young and poised for dominance on both sides of the ball. As one of the NFL's premier new contenders, they should be fun to watch in 2017 and beyond--just as long as they don't usurp the Pats, of course.

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