The 2021 season was almost a total success for the American Football Conference. From the AFC South division race between Indianapolis and Tennessee to the Cinderella season for the Cincinnati Bengals, the biggest takeaway was the conference depth of playoff contenders in each division. The AFC West is now the toughest in division in the NFL. All four teams could make the postseason this year. There are three solid contenders in both the east and north. Last but not least, expect the same kind of playoff race both the Colts and Titans had in the south to heat up once again, this time with a more balanced roster in Indianapolis and a more desperate team in Tennessee.
It’s time to break down which seven teams in the AFC have the best chance of reaching the playoffs for 2023. By far the hardest conference to choose seven teams, not every pick will make the postseason listed, but there are some sure bets and teams that might surprise.
AFC North: Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers
A lot of people are high on both Cleveland and Cincinnati mainly because of acrobatic quarterback play and offensive stats. The Browns won’t have their franchise star acquisition DeShaun Watson for eleven games. The Bengals will be targeted just as much as the Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams. Both Ohio teams are shaky on defense especially in the secondary, something Baltimore and Pittsburgh took measures to build up in both free agency and the draft years ago.
The most important aspect early in the 2022 season are divisional games before November. Both Pittsburgh and Baltimore play both Ohio teams some time before that deadline. Their games against each other are late in the season, and will be watched by fans and analysts carefully throughout the country.
The good news for the Ravens and biggest difference this season is Baltimore isn’t injury plagued before week one. Last year the top two runningbacks and key starters of coach John Harbaugh’s defense suffered season ending injuries before playing a regular season game. Outside of an injury to runningback Gus Edwards, the Ravens look better and are on pace to finish better than last. Plus, Lamar Jackson is still the top quarterback in the division who can light up any defense at any given time.
Pittsburgh had everything except a quarterback who could throw past 15 yards in 2021. The Steelers were predictably spanked in their only postseason game and had to evaluate who should replace Ben Roethlisberger. The cheap signing of former Bears starter Mitchell Trubisky is an underrated move. Many forget Trubisky throws accurately when he scrambles and runs outside the tackles. Despite being a dual option threat, Pittsburgh prefers he runs when necessary and find ways to get sophomore runningback Najee Harris more carries.
The Steelers have a top ten defense, and special teams helps ease Trubisky into a better offensive system. Pittsburgh will be challenged early with playoff quality opponents. Coach Mike Tomlin must have his team ready against an upset Cincinnati team that swept them last year for week one.
AFC South: Indianapolis Colts
Regardless on whether you think Tennessee or Indianapolis wins the AFC South two things are clear: both teams will go all-out against the other and when healthy, the Colts have a championship caliber roster.
The Titans may have a quarterback and coaching problem on their hands. Their unexpected one-and-done playoff appearance after winning the AFC South last year led them to draft Malik Willis and trade A.J. Brown. Their offensive line is still a mess and while both teams will be tested early and face each other before November (twice), Indianapolis is easily the calmer of the two teams and the better coaching.
Many who have kept up with Indianapolis know the defense is a top five unit in the league. DeForest Buckner and Darius Leonard ravage offensive lines. The additions of defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, cornerback Stephon Gilmore and safety Rodney McLeod cements the Colts defense as one of the hardest to score on.
AFC East: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins
In the playoffs, the Bills are a punchline and synonymous with failure or choking. In the regular season, they’re one of the best teams. Despite the departure of offensive coordinator Brian Daboll to the New York Giants, Buffalo’s offense is in a good spot to dominate the conference and possibly the league.
The Bills added players in runningback and outside linebacker, positions they’ll perform better in this season. Two time Super Bowl champion Von Miller wants a challenge and runningback Duke Johnson should be a boost when Devin Singletary isn’t playing every down. Receiver Jamison Crowder makes up for the loss of Cole Beasley.
Buffalo has a tough schedule to start the season. Last year they had one hiccup loss until that last loss before the bye week. They start with Los Angeles, Tennessee (the team they lost to before that bye) and Miami. We’ll see how good they are early.
Speaking of Miami, this is the surprise pick of the conference. The Dolphins had a controversial offseason firing Brian Flores, a respected and honest head coach and hired Mike McDaniel from San Francisco. The questions on the organization’s credibility and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa will be answered this season. Miami added phenom receiver Tyreek Hill and Terron Armstead at tackle, cementing a deep and talented offense. The defense is still one of the best in the league with the best cornerback in Xavien Howard.
This is the year the Dolphins have to show that the “Tanking for Tua” narrative has paid off. The New York Jets aren’t going to make the playoffs with the amount of competition in the east, and there could be more regression in New England. It’s why the hiring of Mike McDaniel and the third year of Tagovailoa under center couldn’t be more important.
AFC West: Los Angeles Chargers, Denver Broncos
Like the Buffalo Bills, the Chargers are pretty good in the regular season (no postseason thoughts yet thankfully). Despite their comical decisions to not clinch a playoff spot last season, the roster received many upgrades on offense and defense. Khalil Mack and Joey Bosa will terrorize offensive lines if they stay healthy for even half the season. Middle linebacker brings more veteran leadership with Kyle Van Noy. On offense, Gerald Everett is another multi-faceted weapon for quarterback Justin Herbert to throw to on inside routes, and then the team picked up Sony Michel for runningback depth behind Austin Ekeler.
Coach Brandon Staley’s second season should elevate the team and make the leap to being a playoff contender. The Chargers do a great job bottling division rivals Kansas City and Las Vegas, who they play the first two weeks of the season. It’s not until a Monday night game against Denver that Los Angeles will face their first test in late 2022.
It’s another perfect time to bring in a wildcard contender. Denver’s injuries, just like Baltimore’s, won’t be as common place this season. Denver did lose more talented players this offseason than they gained, but they acquired the quarterback the franchise desperately needed to elevate team play in Russell Wilson. Wilson will face a rash of challenges, amplified by not playing in the preseason and an expanded contract. The Broncos have a steady and solid defense that former coach Vic Fangio tooled and tweaked, they just need to score more than 13 points a game.
Both teams give Kansas City and Las Vegas problems. The Broncos’ quarterback choice, as well as reinforcing both offensive tackles, finally poses a significant problem to both the Chiefs and Raiders. Regardless, the AFC West will be the funnest division to watch in 2022.
Last year’s AFC predictions: 1.5-5.5