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AFC Preview: Quarterbacks are king in a highly-competitive AFC

This is part two of our conference preview series. Here, we examine the AFC. For a look at the NFC, click HERE.

The NFC is heavy at the top, with Philadelphia and San Francisco as good as any team in the league. But the AFC is far deeper, with as many as 12 teams having legitimate playoff aspirations and five or six with realistic chances to win the conference.

This depth is mostly a factor of the quality of its quarterback play. The AFC boasts an incredible blend of talent at the position, mixing future Hall of Famers (Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson?), current stars in their prime (Josh Allen, Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson), young talents with potential (Trevor Lawrence, Tua Tagovailoa, Kenny Pickett, Mac Jones), dependable veterans (Ryan Tannehill, Jimmy Garoppolo), and exciting rookies (C.J. Stroud, Anthony Richardson). Without taking a deep dive on the subject, it feels as though the depth and talent at the position in the AFC this season is unprecedented.

That makes evaluating the conference extremely difficult. The Chiefs, Bills and Bengals remain the teams to beat. But the talent elsewhere will make their road to the Super Bowl difficult. Potentially, a team that fails to earn the top seed and must win three games to secure the Lamar Hunt trophy could face some combination of Jackson, Lawrence, Herbert, Rodgers, Burrow, Allen, and Mahomes in the post-season. That will be daunting. Barring injury, there will be no easy outs come playoff time.

Who comes out on top, then? Here’s a division-by-division breakdown, with a way-too-early playoff forecast at the end.

AFC East

The East remains Buffalo’s division to lose. The Bills are deep and balanced on offense and fast and physical on defense. Allen struggled down the stretch last season, but that was likely a factor of an elbow injury limiting his effectiveness. Rookie tight end Dalton Kincaid could be a perfect piece to help Allen raise his game again. Anyone but the Bills winning the East would be surprising.

Miami has closed the gap, however, and appears to have set their sights on slowing down Buffalo’s passing game by acquiring star cornerback Jalen Ramsey. They’ve added more speed on offense, too, with running back Raheem Mostert. Head coach Mike McDaniel’s unconventional approach gives Miami an intangible that could benefit them as well. The key is Tagovailoa, who when healthy has been very good, but whose concussions and other various injuries bring his longevity into question.

Then there are the Jets, whom you may have heard acquired a pretty big name of their own. Watching the Rodgers era unfold in New York will be fascinating, beginning with their appearance on HBO’s “Hard Knocks.” New York is young and talented, and if Rodgers has a second act like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady did, the Jets may be for real.

Brady’s former team, the Patriots, appear to be the weakest in the division. You have to go back to the 1990s to find the last time that sentence was true. It will be interesting to see how much patience Bill Belichick has with Jones at QB, or whether he gives second-stringer Bailey Zappe, who did some good things in limited playing time as a rookie, a shot to supplant him.

AFC North

This division is loaded, with all four teams staking a claim as playoff contenders.

The Bengals are the defending champs and look to be the best team again. They are stacked with talent on offense, and Burrow hasn’t yet reached his peak. That’s scary for the rest of the conference. But the defense took a big hit by losing safeties Jesse Bates and Vonn Bell, and it will be interesting to see how well Cincinnati compensates.

The Ravens are rebooting Jackson’s career with Todd Monken at offensive coordinator. He’ll bring a very different approach than the one Greg Roman featured. Baltimore has added depth at wide receiver and surrounded Jackson with his best cast of weapons yet. This could be a big year for a Ravens team that, when healthy, might be as talented as anyone in the league.

Pittsburgh finished last season 7-2 over its final nine games and added plenty of depth this off-season. Their playmakers on offense are young and should be much better with the experience they gained last season. A healthy T.J. Watt should elevate the defense back into a Top 10 unit. The key is whether beleaguered offensive coordinator Matt Canada can solve the red zone woes that limited Pittsburgh to just 18 points per game last year. If so, the Steelers are a playoff contender.

Cleveland’s season hinges on how Deshaun Watson plays. Watson led NFL quarterbacks in QBR in 2020 but hasn’t returned to that form amid his controversies and suspension. The Browns have plenty of talent elsewhere, including one of the best offensive lines in football. Cleveland closes with a relatively easy slate, playing the Broncos, Rams, Bears and Texans in the final six weeks. If they can weather a difficult first-half schedule, and Watson regains his form, they can be a playoff team, too.

AFC South

The AFC South is better than its counterpart in the NFC, but not by much. Jacksonville won the division last year and should be improved in 2023. Trevor Lawrence led a remarkable comeback from 27 down in last year’s playoff win over the Chargers, which is the type of game that could change the culture of a franchise. The Jags have speed to burn on offense, with Calvin Ridley, Christian Kirk, Zay Flowers and Travis Etienne. But a shaky offensive line could be their undoing if they can’t keep Lawrence clean.

Indianapolis may start the season with Gardner Minshew at quarterback as they wait for rookie Anthony Richardson to develop. Richardson and Jonathan Taylor in the backfield together will certainly be intriguing. How quickly the Colts can get Richardson to recognize coverages and get the ball out of his hand may very well determine how soon he takes the field. Indy is young elsewhere, too, and while they will be exciting on offense, this is likely a year where the team takes its lumps as it matures.

The book on the Titans is pretty simple. Tennessee is going to struggle to score points this season. Tannehill and Derek Henry are getting older, and the offensive line ranks as one of the worst in football. It feels weird writing that about a team that has been stout up front for a long time. But it’s true. The Titans should be good enough on defense to win some games, but not enough to make a playoff run.

Houston is rebuilding behind the #2 and #3 picks in the draft in C.J. Stroud and Will Anderson. Those are two fine building blocks, and new head coach DeMeco Ryans could be a difference maker, at least on defense. The Texans will feature a wide zone, boot and play-action attack that should play to Stroud’s strengths. Still, Houston’s roster is one of the weakest in the NFL, and the Texans will do well to simply build on last season’s win total (3).

AFC West

The Chiefs remain the class of the conference. Mahomes is already a legend and is still just 27 years old, while Andy Reid is one of the best coaches in the game. That combination makes KC a favorite to win it all. But the Chiefs lost some valuable players on offense this off-season (Orlando Brown, Mecole Hardman, Juju Smith-Schuster) and could be thin if the injury bug attacks. In a highly competitive AFC, Kansas City is by no means a slam to dunk to take the conference.

The biggest push in their division should come from the Chargers, provided they can recover mentally from the gut-wrenching loss to Jacksonville last post-season. Justin Herbert gets better every year, and if he and new coordinator Kellen Moore can find a rhythm, LA should be excellent on offense. Of course, if they can’t stop the run on defense, Herbert won’t have the ball very often. LA ranked dead last in the NFL in rushing-yards-per-attempt last season. The addition of former All-Pro linebacker Eric Kendricks should help in that regard. If the defense can hold up, the Chargers are another playoff contender in the AFC.

The Raiders begin the post-Derek Carr era with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback. Jimmy G has been effective when healthy and boasts an impressive 40-17 record as a starter. He’s also missed 41 games since 2017 with an assortment of injuries. Journeyman Brian Hoyer is the backup, which provides little solace for a team with one of the worst defenses in the league. Look for the Raiders to struggle with or without Jimmy G in the lineup.

Denver has a new coach in Sean Payton and a new attitude. Reports suggest Payton has instilled a no-nonsense attitude at the team’s facility and is pampering no one. This includes Wilson, the quarterback who has been accused at times of being high maintenance and a diva. Payton could be just what the Broncos need. Or, it may all combust. I have no idea what will happen, but the combination of Wilson and Payton will make Denver anything but boring.

Predictions

I’m awful at predictions, largely because I’m an optimist and I find reasons to talk myself into things. This makes picking the AFC, with its dozen-or-so potential playoff teams, especially daunting. Nevertheless, here goes.

In the East, I think Buffalo and Miami are locks to qualify, while the Bengals remain the best team in the North. Jacksonville will be the only qualifier from the South, while Kansas City will win the West. That leaves two final playoff spots for five likely teams. New York, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Los Angeles are all good enough to qualify. Who will it be, then? New York may be the best of that group, so I’ll put my money on Rodgers to get the Jets to the post-season. And then, in part because I can’t separate my fandom from my objectivity, and in part because I think they’ll be much better than many expect, I’ll take the Steelers. A Lamar Jackson injury and a Chargers team that seems to perennially disappoint will help Pittsburgh get in.

From there, it’s anyone’s ballgame. Don’t pin me down on an AFC champ just yet. The pressure is simply too much…

Category: NFL

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