Brian Sullivan (@MadManScouting)
I’ll start by saying that this isn’t a prediction on how these teams will perform. These are not power rankings either. This takes into consideration not just talent, but level of interest. It also does not consider schedule whatsoever. A team in a lower tier might end up performing better due to an easier schedule. I’ll have some season predictions right before the season starts, but for now, here’s a look at how I view each team.
Tier 1 – The Patriots
New England Patriots
Until Tom Brady and Bill Belichick retire, the Patriots will be the favorite in the AFC. While I do believe that there’s more parity in the AFC this year, the Patriots remain in a class of their own until otherwise proven. The road will be tougher for them this season, but the path to the Super Bowl will likely go through New England again this postseason.
Tier 2 – The Steelers
I promise that after this, there are no more tiers with only one team. However, the Steelers are the only other proven commodity. Every other team feels so volatile. While I don’t think we’re set to see Patriots Steelers in the title game, it would be the smartest bet at this current juncture. The Steelers retained all of the pieces that made them competitive last season, and then they added some new pieces. They’re still ahead of everybody besides New England.
Tier 3 – The New Contenders
Los Angeles Chargers
Kansas City Chiefs
There is no particular order when it comes to these teams, hence the tiers. Any of these teams could finish 5-11 and I wouldn’t be surprised. But because of all of the upside they all possess, any of them could sneak into the AFC Title game. Once you get there, anything is possible. The Los Angeles Chargers are the best of the bunch, seeing as they’re the only team that can claim a balanced roster with an elite quarterback who has no injury history. The Texans have the highest upside. If Deshaun Watson can stay healthy, they could be borderline unbeatable. He’s that good, and they have a great roster aside from the offensive line. The Chiefs are similar to the Texans. Everything will hinge on Patrick Mahomes. But if he can prove that he was worth the investment, the Chiefs could have one of the most explosive offenses in football. Indianapolis will all be contingent on how long it takes for Andrew Luck to readjust to the game. Remember, he’s won 10 to 11 games with worse rosters. If he can find his rhythm this season, the Colts could be a hot team heading into the Playoffs. I know by now you’re wondering why I don’t have Jacksonville higher, considering they might have the best roster of the bunch. But Blake Bortles is a bottom tier quarterback, at least that’s what the evidence has shown. Unless he makes a massive transformation this season, the Jaguars will have a limited ceiling. The success of Tennessee will depend on the new coaching staff. Can they take advantage of one of the best offensive lines in football? Can they utilize their dynamic running back trio and their mobile quarterback? The defense is balanced, but the offense was mediocre last season. They have the power to be a serious dark horse, but who knows.
Tier 4 – Could Be Interesting, But Could Be A Dumpster Fire
New York Jets
I don’t necessarily see any of these teams as contenders, but I find them all fascinating. Any of them could prove that they’re a year away this season. They could be the classic example of a 3-9 team that lost 7 games by 3 points, and then when they beat a better team, ignorant football fans question how it was possible. The Ravens are the most likely to succeed this year, especially since Joe Flacco could end up performing well. They’ve made massive improvements to the offense, and the defense has never been an issue. The Browns actually have a really good roster, and Tyrod Taylor is a fine option at the quarterback position. Baker Mayfield makes the team even more interesting, and the idea of seeing what Josh Gordon can do with an actual quarterback is alluring. But they are still the Browns, can an 0-16 team turn into a 10-6 team? Well, the 1-15 Miami Dolphins turned into an 11-5 team overnight back in 2008, so it’s not impossible. The Jets have Sam Darnold, which is all that needs to be said. Even if they win 4 games, we’ll be watching the future right in front of our eyes. Josh Allen has been surprisingly impressive in the Preseason for Buffalo too. With Sean McDermott entering his second year, Allen at the helm, and a defense that is stacked with young talent, Buffalo is worth watching. Again, they might go 2-14, but they could show a ton of promise.
Tier 6 – The Least Interesting AFC Teams
These are the teams that could end up being that 9-7 team that sneaks into the Wild Card game, only to lose 31-0 against a more interesting team. Sure, they should all be better than the Jets or Bills. They might even be better than teams like Kansas City or Tennessee. The Raiders are the most interesting of the bunch, with Derek Carr and Jon Gruden. Maybe it’s unfair to put them in this tier, but their defense is still so awful that I wonder if they can compete with the high powered offenses in the league nowadays. Until they show promise there, I can’t endorse them. Kenyan Drake might end up being the most underrated running back in the league next season for Miami, but is anybody rushing to the TV to watch Ryan Tannehill? Does anybody outside of Miami see this as a contender? Same with Cincinnati, unless their offensive line blows everybody away, their offense will be limited, even with AJ Green and Joe Mixon. Andy Dalton behind a poor offensive line will not be fun to watch. Same with Denver, who are depending on Case Keenum. I can’t imagine a scenario where Case Keenum wins over 10 games for two years in a row. Denver has talent, but they don’t have the same crop of talent or coaching that Minnesota did last season. Again, any of these teams could be a wild card team. Oakland or Denver could even win the AFC West if the Chargers “Charger” it up or if Patrick Mahomes ends up being a dud. But I will go out on a limb and guarantee that none of these teams make it to the AFC Title Game. I’ll save this to, if I end up being wrong, I’ll gladly take the massive L. Sorry to the fans of these teams.
Image Credit – http://www.startribune.com/vikings-next-defensive-test-big-play-waiting-to-happen-antonio-brown/444239313/