The only thing I am sure about at this point in the NFL season is that the transitive property is not applicable to the NFL. The Titans beat the Bills, Chiefs, Colts, Rams and Saints but have had gut-wrenching losses to the Jets and Texans. This epitomizes the energy of this NFL season, where no one team is the clear favorite and where nobody really knows what is going on. This is especially the case in the AFC.
If the playoffs started today, here are the seven AFC teams in order: Titans, Ravens, Patriots, Chiefs, Bengals, Chargers, Bills. While the Chargers and Bengals have been pleasant surprises this year and have several very strong wins, both teams are too inconsistent and lack playoff experience to be legitimate challengers for the AFC this season. Despite the fact that the Titans are currently the No. 1 seed, the Texans exposed the fact that Tennessee is not a genuine contender without the Derrick Henry-driven running and play-action offense. Ryan Tannehill is a solid quarterback but is not somebody you want throwing 52 times per game, which does not bode well for Tennessee’s postseason chances.
While I would not be shocked at this point if the Patriots made it to the AFC title game, I would be shocked if they won it. They have defied expectations this year (including mine), as Belichick has supported his rookie quarterback with an airtight defense and spotless special teams. The reality is that the offense has been average and in the words of The Athletic’s Sheil Kapadia, “Most weeks, they are winning with Jones, not because of Jones.” I want to make the point that having an NFL average offense with a rookie quarterback is a great feat and a testament to the great work of Mac Jones and Josh McDaniels. At the same time, an expectation-defying rookie season — however exciting it may be — does not launch the Patriots into Super Bowl contention. The Patriots could be legitimate contenders if Jones continues to develop at this rate and the Patriots get one more dynamic weapon on offense, but not this year.
That leaves the Ravens, Chiefs and Bills as my top-tier AFC contenders. The Bills’ season has been extremely inconsistent, largely due to the regression of Josh Allen from his MVP-caliber season a year ago. I tend to believe in the Bills because between their top defense and the talented receiver room, I think this team has one of the highest ceilings in the NFL and can win a Super Bowl if they show any consistency or get hot down the stretch. With Lamar Jackson’s giant strides as a passer this year, I’d rank the Ravens as the second best team in the AFC. Between Jackson’s dynamic dual-threat ability and improved receiving corps, they arguably have the best offense in the league that has definitely addressed their previous shortcomings. My only reservation is their defense, which has been decimated by injuries. I believe in defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale to make the most of what he has, but I am worried that what he has to work with might not be enough for a Super Bowl run.
This leaves us with a familiar concept: the Chiefs as the most likely team to come out of the AFC. You figured Andy Reid, Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce were going to figure it out; it was a matter of whether the defense was going to be anything better than the worst in the league. Their trade for Melvin Ingram is very underrated, as it has allowed Chris Jones to move back into the interior and help the Chiefs’ defense to reach second in EPA per snap in their recent four-game winning streak. The reality is that the Chiefs have the highest ceiling of any team in the league and with offense starting to rediscover its groove and defense showing signs of life, the rest of the AFC should treat the Chiefs as the team to beat for the rest of the season.