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Previewing the AFC hierarchy for 2020 and where the Patriots stand relative to the rest of the conference

Related: AFC East Report: Week 1

NFL: Houston Texans at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

With the first week of the season under the books, the traditional AFC powerhouses at the end of the 2020 season all picked up wins. This conference has a lot of solid teams at the top and nine teams who I think have better than a 25 percent chance of making the playoffs, including the New England Patriots.

I ranked the teams in four separate tiers:

  1. Super Bowl Contenders: I can see this team winning a Super Bowl this year barring injuries or horrible luck
  2. Could Make Noise in January: Teams that have a good shot at winning their division or at least a wild card spot
  3. In the Hunt for a Wild Card Spot: Teams who I think could make the playoffs if things go right for them
  4. No Chance: The team is either too young or lacks enough talent to win enough games to compete for a playoff spot

Super Bowl Contenders

Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs looked very much like the team that steamrolled the 49ers in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIV when they played the Houston Texans in Week 1. Their star quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, is the face of the NFL and the league’s highest-paid player. At a minimum, opponents will need to score 30 points against them even with good defense because of the amount of ways they can break down defenses. The Chiefs’ defense has solid players as well, but lacks a lot of depth so they will need good health on that side of the ball to win another championship

Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens are a scary team when everything is clicking, but rank lower than the Chiefs because Lamar Jackson had laid two eggs in two playoff games against Wild Card teams. The 2018 exit was more explainable because the Chargers finished tied for first and Jackson was a rookie that year. Jackson will be competing with Mahomes for the league MVP award for the next decade and the Ravens have some big time contributors at the tight end position. Their defense will be Top-10 in the league in both yards and scoring, which means this team should be in position to grab a bye.

Could Make Noise in January

Pittsburgh Steelers: Ben Roethlisberger took two quarters to get into rhythm, but was unstoppable in the second half against the Giants. They don’t have a game-breaking receiver or back, but have excellent depth at both positions. Their defense led the league in takeaways last year, which makes them a tough team when everyone’s healthy, but they lack the depth on that side to compensate for potential injuries. If there is a team in this tier that could make it to the AFC Championship or Super Bowl LV, the Steelers have the best odds.

Houston Texans: This team would be in the top tier if they had a better head coach and general manager than Bill O’Brien. There is a lot of talent on the roster and the pieces are in place for a potentially deep playoff run, but O’Brien’s handling of the AFC Divisional Round game and his team’s uninspiring loss to the Chiefs should have him on the hot seat right now. Of the teams in this tier, I give them the highest odds to miss out on the playoffs and having a new coach in 2021. That is still somewhat unlikely, as the team is still talented enough to put up 10+ wins.

Tennessee Titans: The Titans’ roster has a lot of good players, but the team looked pedestrian and needed a Gostkowski field goal to walk away with a two-point win against a mediocre Broncos team. The combination of Derrick Henry and their lethal play action passing game makes Tennessee a tough offense to stop in most weeks. Their defense isn’t great, but they’re situationally sound enough to force teams to kick field goals down there. Their kicker issues could become a problem in a tight game.

Buffalo Bills: The limiting factor of this team is how their QB, Josh Allen, plays. They have the best defense in the AFC, perhaps even the NFL, and very few roster holes overall. Their head-to-head with New England has not been good under McDermott/Allen, going 0-4 in those games. With the defense, running game, and special teams play, the Bills will be competitive in the vast majority of their games and should win at least nine games.

New England Patriots: Cam Newton impressed in his Week 1 debut, but the Patriots will have to open up their playbook as they face tougher defenses later in the year. The biggest issue with the Patriots is the lack of superstar talent on offense, which will likely be their fatal flaw in January. They will win 10 games this year because of superior coaching and having enough depth to withstand the rigors of a season. If the young players on the team can step up and be contributors, I think they win the AFC East for the 12th year in a row. If the Patriots didn’t have the best head coach and offensive coordinator in the NFL today, I’d put them in the next tier.

In the Hunt For a Wild Card Spot

Las Vegas Raiders: The Raiders turned Khalil Mack into a stockpile of high draft picks and have turned those picks into starters. Their defense is still a work in progress at best, but they have plenty of offensive firepower as Derek Carr seems to be hitting his stride at quarterback. The Raiders have a Top-10 running back in Josh Jacobs and the receiver depth to challenge the cornerback depth of every team in the AFC — except the Patriots, who have four to five starting caliber players at the position — so they’ll be Top-Five in scoring this year. As their young talent matures, they could be a tough out for any division winner in January. The reason they’re not in the second tier is simply because they have no chance of playing at home in January.

Denver Broncos: The Broncos believe Drew Lock is their franchise QB and he looked solid against the Titans in Week 1. A critical fumble in the second quarter ended up swinging the game Tennessee’s way, however, and the Broncos couldn’t seal the deal. They have solid talent in their defensive front despite losing their best defensive player, Von Miller, to Covid-19 in the offseason.

Indianapolis Colts: They gave Philip Rivers $25M to lead their team for one year and he laid an egg in the second half against Jacksonville as the Colts choked a win away from the Jaguars. The team has arguably the best offensive line in the NFL and a reliable running back duo in Marlon Mack and Nyheim Hines, but their QB situation isn’t an enviable one with Rivers’ post-Chargers career off to a slow start and Jacoby Brissett not being a difference maker. There are still 15 games to be played and they can turn it around.

Jacksonville Jaguars: I would have put them in the No Chance tier, but this team is a total wild card whose quarterback has vastly exceeded pre-draft expectations. Gardner Minshew threw more touchdowns (three) than incomplete passes (one) against the Colts, leading them to a fourth quarter comeback win. The Jaguars’ offense wasn’t great overall, but made enough plays in the right situations to steal a win. If Minshew continues to develop into a quality starter, this team becomes dangerous.

No Chance

Cincinnati Bengals: I put the Bengals in the same boat as the Dolphins, although I could see them jumping to at least 6-7 wins this year as they have solid players on both sides of the ball. Joe Burrow was playing with training wheels in Week 1 and still put his team in position to win if not for the refs calling a ticky-tack pass interference on A.J. Green in the end zone. The Bengals’ offensive line isn’t good, so they’ll be focused on the quick passing game so Burrow doesn’t get crushed at this level. I believe he could ascend to the dominant tier of passers in the right situation and could make the Bengals a second tier AFC team if they don’t blow it, possibly a Super Bowl contender if they make the right moves.

Cleveland Browns: The Browns have a very talented roster, but until they stop doing Browns things I’m not going to count on them making the playoffs. With the talent they have their front office and locker room leadership has been dysfunctional over the past decade, leading to a highly combustible team. Baker Mayfield is still turnover-prone and that will prevent them from winning close games despite having the best one-two punch at both receiver and running back in the NFL.

Miami Dolphins: Ryan Fitzpatrick is a place holder for Tua Tagovailoa at QB and the Dolphins have an anemic offensive attack outside of DeVante Parker overpowering defensive backs at the line of scrimmage. The one area where they’re sound on is coaching, which could make them more dangerous in close games once they have better talent on the roster and their young guys mature. For 2020 no more than five wins is my prediction, but 2021 could be a different story.

New York Jets: They’re as dysfunctional as the Browns and their QB is equally as turnover-prone, although unlike the Browns they lack elite offensive talent. I don’t see them as a threat to the Patriots, whose defense matches up well against Sam Darnold’s weaknesses as a passer.

Los Angeles Chargers: The Chargers won in Week 1, but they don’t have the horses necessary to compete with Tyrod Taylor, who is neither capable of winning or losing games at the position, at quarterback and Justin Herbert not ready to take over yet. They have solid depth at the running back and wide receiver position, but their offensive line has not been good for years and the team has not invested a lot of capital at the position of late. Herbert will likely be the starter at QB by Week 10 if the Chargers struggle on offense.