Earlier this week, former Patriot Donte' Stallworth told ESPN.com that the 2017 New England squad is deeper than the 2007 juggernaut -- the one that nearly completed an undefeated run through the entire season. While there is no Randy Moss, the dizzying combination of Brandin Cooks, Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell, Dwayne Allen and Andrew Hawkins leaves many believing New England is a shoo-in to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LII.
Stallworth's comparison to 2007 was not the first time we've been asked to reconsider one of the greatest teams in NFL history this offseason. The hype around this Patriots team is real. But it also begs another question: If this year's Patriots are as good as the 2007 version, which team out there is capable of becoming this year's version of the 2007 Giants, who ultimately knocked New England off in Super Bowl XLII? That is to say, which teams out there are good enough to beat the Patriots in the 2017 regular season or playoffs?
Here is our best guess at which teams have a chance to make it happen:
1) Pittsburgh Steelers
Why they can do it:Ben Roethlisberger's 3-5 record against Bill Belichick is saying something at this point. There aren't many teams left with a legendary quarterback who can go 12 rounds with the Patriots on any given night. Plus, Roethlisberger's supporting cast should be more capable and focused than it's been in a few years. Rookie linebacker T.J. Watt and receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster are immediate upgrades who can help balance out the thinning lineup of a team that began taking too many personnel risks.
2) New York Giants
Regular-season matchup with the Patriots: None.
Why they can do it: This will have to go down in the Super Bowl, just like it's meant to (or, for all you diehards who believe every down matters, Week 4 of the preseason). There is no team in the NFL deep enough at cornerback to handle the Patriots' battery of wideouts, but the Giants do boast a layered secondary that might be able to match up well with New England's strengths. Eli Apple is developing into an aggressive, fearless cover corner in the NFL, while Janoris Jenkins is finally starting to earn the level of recognition he deserves. Having Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to bounce around doesn't hurt, either. Safety Landon Collins is a heavy hitter who might be able to throw Gronkowski off his routes at the line, while a thick defensive interior remains stout against the power running game -- the great counterbalance of New England's offense.
3) Atlanta Falcons
Why they can do it: Because this was a team beating the Patriots by 25 points in Super Bowl LI before having a foot-off-the-accelerator moment for the ages. This requires some belief that general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Dan Quinn's offseason *embrace the suck* tour is more than just a surface-level coping mechanism. But what has the recipe for beating Tom Brady always been? Pressure on defense, a good quarterback on offense and a moderately effective running game. The Falcons added all-over defensive lineman Dontari Poe in free agency and edge rusher Takkarist McKinley in the first round of the draft. The example of the Seahawks -- who apparently never got overtheir soul-crushing Super Bowl defeat -- looms, but emotions aside, the Falcons are hard to count out.
4) Oakland Raiders
Why they can do it: The addition of an apparently still-beastlyMarshawn Lynch gives this matchup some heat. Oakland has the experience at offensive line and the ground-game counterpunch to potentially score with New England, should the game bend a certain way. On paper, the defense has also improved, though probably not enough to significantly trip up the mechanically proficient Brady. Having Khalil Mack, perhaps the best defensive player in football, able to rush from various spots on the field could be effective -- much like how the Texans derailed New England's offense for part of their playoff matchup last season by knifing rushers into the A-gap. Mostly, we are putting a tremendous amount of faith in a still-ascending Derek Carr. Could he put it all together and maximize Lynch and the receivers at his disposal?
5) Miami Dolphins
Why they can do it: Once in a great while, there is an AFC East opponent capable of consistently troubling the Patriots. The Jets during Rex Ryan's zenith were one of those teams. The Adam Gase-led Dolphins could be another. Miami did not shy away from its veteran-laden roster this offseason, doubling down on its hope to become an intimidating, smash-mouth unit. In a lot of ways, the Dolphins are built like the Jets early in the Ryan era, with stars at wide receiver and running back and studs at linebacker and defensive tackle. The one missing component, of course, is stability across the secondary. Byron Maxwell showed an ability to play up to (and above) his potential last year, though Miami would still need an otherworldly performance from Ndamukong Suh, Cameron Wake, Charles Harris and the rest to make this happen.
6) Seattle Seahawks
Regular-season matchup with the Patriots: None.
Why they can do it: As with the Giants scenario, this would only happen in The Big Game -- and what a matchup that would be. It doesn't feel right to let the Brady-Belichick era end without giving the Seahawks one more chance to exorcise their demons. Clearly, this is not something Richard Sherman and Co. have gotten past emotionally. How would it work practically? This is still a team loaded with rugged superstars who live for games like this. The Seahawksout-wrestled New England last year with one of the few memorable Russell Wilson games from 2016. They rushed the ball effectively -- an aspect of their game they might have improved in this offseason -- while picking off Brady and getting him on the ground twice.