Does anybody want to win the AFC in the 2021 NFL season? The two-time reigning conference champion Chiefs have opened the door with their slow first half, but no team has taken advantage of the opportunity to get ahead in the race to displace them in Super Bowl 56.
The Bills (5-3), who went into Week 9 as the No. 2 seed in the AFC, lost a low-scoring shocker to the Jaguars, 9-6, despite being double-digit point favorites in Jacksonville on Sunday. The Raiders (5-3), who went in as AFC West leaders, fell in their post-bye trap game against the Giants, 23-16.
The Bengals (5-4), who after Week 7’s big win at Baltimore were the No. 1 seed in first place in the North, were handed their second consecutive defeat at home vs. Cleveland, 41-16, to fall all the way down to No. 9, out of the AFC playoffs for now. The Ravens (6-2) now look ready to go back to No. 1, should the Titans lose as substantial underdogs at the Rams on Sunday night.
At the same time, the Patriots, Browns and Broncos all went on the road and improved to 5-4 during the early Sunday afternoon action of Week 1. The Chiefs (5-4), Titans (6-2), Chargers (5-3) and Steelers (4-3) are in the process of shaking things up more with their respective later results.
When adding it all up, there are an incredible 11 AFC teams set to be better than .500 going into Week 10, battling for only seven spots. Here are some of the key questions to make sense of the AFC playoff picture:
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Should the Bills worry about the Patriots in the AFC East?
Buffalo was supposed to run away with its own division again and not worry about taking care of business there first. But now New England is a half-game behind and the rivals have yet to play each other this season.
The Patriots lost at home to Miami in Week 1, but the rest of their defeats are rather acceptable, coming against winning NFC teams New Orleans, Tampa Bay and Dallas. They’re on a three-game winning streak and have some chances to stay hot coming up, vs. the Browns, at the Falcons and vs. the Titans. After that stretch, they get their first shot at the Bills in Buffalo on Monday night in Week 13, before a bye in Week 14.
The Bills seemed to be ticketed to No. 1 when they beat the Chiefs in Kansas City in Week 5, getting to 4-1. But they have lost two of three around a bye since, badly timed with the Patriots figuring out more things with Bill Belichick and Mac Jones. The good news is, the Bills’ closing schedule is favorable, outside of the pair with the Patriots and one each against the Buccaneers and Saints. The bad news is, they can’t afford any more ridiculous stumbles like the one against the Jaguars. Count on the Bills still winning the division, but they will need some help to get back to No. 1.
Are the Chiefs the best bet to win the AFC West again over the Raiders?
The Chargers are the new first-place team with the same record as the Raiders, because they own a first-half home victory over the Raiders. They also have a win over the Chiefs in Kansas City. They beat Cleveland in Los Angeles, but also lost to New England there last week before rebounding in Philadelphia in Week 9.
The Raiders’ three big conference wins are over Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Denver. As for the Chiefs, they still have only one win over an AFC opponent, Cleveland back in Week 1.
What helps the Chargers is the fact the Raiders and Chiefs still have their two games against each other. Those teams also still need to play Dallas, to whom Los Angeles lost. All three teams still play the Bengals.
How about the Broncos, who just beat the Cowboys to match the Chiefs’ 5-4 record, a half-game behind the Chargers and Raiders? They have five division games left after losing at home to Las Vegas. Like everyone else in the West, they also still need to play the Bengals.
However, you look at it, starting with quarterback, the Broncos, with Teddy Bridgewater, and the Raiders, with Derek Carr, are not on the same level of talent and coaching as Justin Herbert’s Chargers and Patrick Mahomes’ Chiefs. That should develop to be the two-team race in the West, with Week 15’s Thursday night game with Kansas City and Los Angeles helping to decide it. For now, the Chargers are sitting on the No. 3 seed and that also might be the current No. 8 Chiefs’ ceiling for playoff positioning.
Are the Ravens worthy of being the new AFC favorites?
Baltimore was the No. 1 seed in 2019 when Lamar Jackson carried the team in a breakout MVP campaign. Their path to 6-2 has been paved much differently this season, winning a lot of close games, including over the Chiefs and the Colts. They also soundly beat the Broncos and Chargers. Their losses were in overtime to the Raiders in Week 1, and that Bengals flop two Sundays ago.
Looking back, they have navigated well through a tough schedule, batting major running back injuries and a defensive dropoff. Jackson has had ups and downs, but he has mostly played well in the clutch, doing a lot with his more dangerous downfield passing on top of his dynamic running.
The Chiefs have Mahomes and the Bills have Josh Allen.Joe Burrow and Carr have been doing a lot to lift the Bengals and Raiders. But Jackson’s performance deserves more MVP consideration for leading four successful fourth-quarterback comebacks out of six wins.
The Ravens can score with anyone now and their defense will keep cleaning things up as the season progresses. Their resume is strong enough to declare them the latest “team to beat in the AFC”, for whatever’s that worth until a couple more wild weeks are in the books.
Who else in the AFC West and AFC North can feel good about a wild card?
The Bengals have also gone from first to last place in their division. The Browns could move up to only third with the same record of 5-4, because, the Steelers, who beat them last week, can improve to a half-game better at 5-3 should they beat the NFC North’s Bears on Monday night.
There will be four good teams left out of the AFC playoffs. There’s room for everyone in either the West or North, not both. In the West, whoever doesn’t win the division, between the Chargers and Chiefs, should be no lower than No. 7.
Going into Week 10, the three wild-card teams are the Raiders, Steelers and those party-crashing Patriots. The Patriots’ resume, with a 4-1 conference record with a win over the Chargers last and the Browns next, is continuing to build.
The Bengals, based on the gauntlet ahead, will have a tough time digging out of their hole. The Raiders and Broncos also have it rough the rest of the way. So while the Patriots and Chargers look more and more like new AFC playoff teams in 2021, that leaves one more spot.
The Browns’ win in Cincinnati was massive as it proved how good they can be with key defensive players healthy and their brand of run-based explosive offense. The Steelers are also starting to put more things together to complement their strong defensive backbone.
Both Cleveland and Pittsburgh made the playoffs around Baltimore last season, meeting in the wild-card round. This year, the Browns and Steelers’ Week 17 meeting at Heinz Field is set up to decide who joins the Ravens this postseason. Expect two playoff teams from the West and two from the North, no more, no less.