The AFC has easily been the conference of Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots since Peyton Manning retired in 2016, but a few challengers stepped up last year and got some jabs in. The Kansas City Chiefs, even though they lost in overtime in the Conference Championship, seem to have re-vamped and refreshed their defense with sight on future domination. The Denver Broncos added a quarterback who knows how to beat New England in the playoffs, and it looks as if Baltimore, Cleveland and Pittsburgh could break through and set up some good match-ups. It’s time to analyze who is the real deal and who could surprise given what’s going on.
AFC East: New England Patriots
Is anyone surprised by this? The New York Jets have been a dumpster fire even before Todd Bowles’ tenure, and Adam Gase can’t fix it. The Dolphins are quickly becoming the Jets, but the Buffalo Bills look like they can improve this year especially if sophomore quarterback Josh Allen can stay healthy. Still, the top dog in this division is lead by the dynamic duo of Bill Belicheck and Tom Brady. They’ll probably be slow for the first four weeks, but they’ll be back to good as normal by the time we hit November.
AFC North & official dark-horse pick: Cincinnati Bengals
This should get the attention of a lot of football fans and pundits, especially since the other three teams were headlined at the beginning. This isn’t a hot pick with a lot of people, but it is one that should it happen, makes a lot of sense. While most “experts” have the Cleveland Browns winning the division, there has been a lot controversy with quarterback Baker Mayfield verbally going after many people (players and coaches especially) and how Odell Beckham will fare this season. The Browns have a first year head coach who’s been an offensive coordinator at best in the NFL. Considering that these are the Browns, sports fans should be careful with the hype, because this could just be a .500 year from them.
As for the rest of the AFC North, Lamar Jackson, while showing he could light a fire under the Ravens’ offense last year and be dynamic for them, is too predictable now that the rest of the league has broken down his playing. Even the Ravens coaches have been trying their best not to make him too simplistic. Factor that in with Terrell Suggs and a few wide receivers gone and this isn’t what you consider to be a playoff team, but a team that may struggle all year to put points up. The Pittsburgh Steelers, while getting rid of two headaches in Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, can focus on football. They’re the least chaotic of the three, though their wide receivers coach Darryl Drake passed away before week two of the preseason rolled around. The Steelers had issues that were deeper than Brown and Bell last year, with conflicts arising among quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the future of Mike Tomlin if the team keeps losing to bad teams.
That leaves Cincinnati, the only team not filled with drama as the remaining choice. Team owner Mike Brown and his brass finally had the courage to fire Marvin Lewis and turn a new page toward what could be success. New head coach Zac Taylor is everything Lewis is not in terms of football and philosophies. The Bengals made sure to go over who they wanted carefully, and with two good quarterbacks who need an extra push or two, the Bengals could have a better season offensively, and that includes the dynamic, two-way threat of Joe Mixon in the backfield. As for the defense, it’s still a solid unit, but what may help the Bengals most is a different philosophy, especially when playing a team like the Pittsburgh Steelers or performing better in tight games. With the least amount of baggage and not a lot of expectations, this team could surprise a lot of people.
AFC West: Los Angeles Chargers, Kansas City Chiefs
The loss of safety Derwin James and Melvin Gordon III’s holdout will be issues during the season, however this team has a top tier head coach in Anthony Lynn and quarterback Philip Rivers, bolstered with a cohesive unit on both sides of the ball. Unless more players are hit with serious injuries, the Chargers still have a shot to win the division, especially against a Kansas City Chiefs team that will have last year’s film looked at by every team and broken down. If Los Angeles can take care of business against the Chiefs and the Denver Broncos, this team could get a top two seeding placement.
Kansas City bulked up defensively and got a defensive coordinator they wanted to fix last year’s debacles. We’ll see how additions like Khalen Saunders (drafted) and Frank Clark (traded for) fit in with the front seven. 2018-2019 NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes could have a drop in production from last year, most notably when the Chiefs face the NFC North this season. Still, this is a team that could still make the playoffs, even if there are off-field issues. Unfortunately for a team like Denver, unless a team vying for a wild card seed has a downward spiral, the Broncos may miss the playoffs on the proof that their offense would be their weakest link. Denver could display this year that they’ll stay in the race until the last few weeks of the regular season.
AFC South: Jacksonville Jaguars, Indianapolis Colts
Questions arise when a team that was so dominant one year falls off completely a year after. Sometimes, it’s certain players and not coaches, sometimes it is the coaches, and sometimes it’s one specific injury. Left tackle Cam Robinson went down after week two and it showed how sensitive the Jacksonville offense was. Quarterback Blake Bortles played terribly and the offense became a wreck, winning only three games after. The defense rebelled and looked like it didn’t want to play. Robinson will be back, but the Jaguars added Nick Foles to the mix and dumped Bortles. While we can talk about Bortles until the season ends, the addition of Foles is an upgrade needed and wanted. He’s everything this team needs, and what upper brass and former head coach Tom Coughlin wants: a good player with great character. The Jaguars still have their core, and even bolstered that with their recent draft picks. With the best roster in this division, they have to be in first…right?
As for Indianapolis, while Andrew Luck may be out a good part of the year, their chances to make the playoffs are still bright. Though there are debates on how the Titans and Texans will be, consider this; for Tennessee, they just aren’t in the discussion with the other three teams (Jacksonville being the third), and there’s too much pressure on Marcus Mariota, especially to remain healthy. For Houston, it’s the defense. They hit the reset button on the secondary, Jadeveon Clowney is holding out, and J.J. Watt has had injury issues the past five years.
That said, I like the Colts’ chances. There’s a good comparison with them and the Los Angeles Rams: their general manager can draft, the coaches develop the players well, the coaches are popular throughout the league, the offensive lines are among the best, but the Colts differ with their defense in that there will be progress built from last year. This team could be good enough to get the fifth or sixth seed.