The Kansas City Chiefs are coming off the worst two months since the start of the Patrick Mahomes era. Just remember that these are champagne problems. This is an organization that is a coin toss away from three straight AFC titles led by a quarterback whose first three seasons as a starter rival any QB span in the history of the sport. The Chiefs remain conference favorites until proven otherwise, but they've given hope to the rest of the pack because of an offseason which has gone sideways like their latest Super Bowl appearance.
After three months of hirings and firings, cuts and signings, let's break down the AFC hierarchy heading into the 2021 NFL Draft.
The Chiefs and Bills are the only two teams I can't imagine missing the playoffs, barring disastrous injury problems. Buffalo elevating this high is a credit to the methodical decisions made by coach Sean McDermott and his hand-picked general manager, Brandon Beane, since their arrival in 2017. By the time McDermott's fundamental defense experienced a so-so year in 2020, the offense was fully formed enough to pick up the slack. I like the value in the Bills re-signing Matt Milano and tackle Daryl Williams. I love the offensive core of players, the coaching staff and most of the defensive core. The Bills could still use help in the defensive front seven via the draft, but their floor should be as a double-digit-win team.
The Chiefs didn't intend to have so much cap space left over for signings like defensive tackle Jarran Reed. They released OTs Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz with the intention to spend big on the offensive line. While they obtained guard Joe Thuney, Trent Williams turned down a big offer. They also weren't able to pull off a reunion with center Rodney Hudson, while JuJu Smith-Schuster passed on a chance to catch passes from Mahomes. Still, in an offense-first league, K.C.'s doing just fine. Needing two tackles entering the draft is a rough spot to be in, but not as rough as being one of the 31 other teams that don't have Mahomes.
Playoffs or bust
The Browns have experienced the better offseason of the AFC North rivals. They have the better overall offense and an offensive line that should prevent slumps. The Ravens stick ahead of them in this in-between tier because of organizational consistency and Lamar Jackson. Baltimore's front office has experienced disappointing offseasons before -- like last year! -- and they almost always solve roster problems when no one is looking.
Cleveland's front office is earning that trust. Their sensible signings, including improvements in the secondary, help push them toward the AFC's top tier. Anything short of a playoff berth would be a huge disappointment for both of these franchises, with Jackson and Baker Mayfield still on their rookie contracts.
Half of this group, at most, will make the playoffs. Each team has a strong case to pull it off.
The Steelers and Colts are similar, as stable organizations with mostly well-built rosters and a big question at quarterback. I'd take 2021 Ben Roethlisberger over 2021 Carson Wentz, but I also have extreme faith in Frank Reich making Indy's offense work. Between the retirement of left tackle Anthony Castonzo and the downgrade at quarterback, though, a step back is possible. The same is true for the Titans, who lost play caller Arthur Smith and playmakers Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith. Coach Mike Vrabel and general manager Jon Robinson have struggled to build a championship defense.
Justin Herbert's presence makes the Chargers difficult to rank any lower. New head coach Brandon Staley has a ton to work with on defense, too. By the time the season starts, I'll be ready to fully overrate the Chargers even more. Again.
I'm not buying that the Patriots' problems are solved just yet. They improved one of the most talent-poor rosters in football, but it's still average overall. Sprinkle in some great coaching and mediocre quarterback play, and they still look middle-of-the-pack unless the draft goes better than it has over the last three years. The Dolphins made me look dumb in this exercise a year ago because I didn't see the roster talent. Brian Flores has proven he's as good at coaching a squad that is greater than the sum of its parts as he is at changing coordinators. Folks are way too down, too quickly on Tua Tagovailoa.
The final two teams in this tier are both from the AFC West and both have playoff potential, despite differing offseasons. The Raiders took a clear step back on offense and are hoping a coaching change can fix a lackluster defense. The Broncos' defense is loaded, and there are enough offensive playmakers to make Denver fun to watch if Drew Lock can shoot straight. I'd love to see the Broncos add Teddy Bridgewater on the cheap because this team only needs replacement-level quarterback play to have a winning record. (Justin Fields would be an even better idea.)
This tier is the soft middle of the NFL, where every team's fans believe they are going to make the playoffs and every other team's fans end up ornery.
Uphill battle to the playoffs
There is no easier pro sports league to go from worst to first. There isn't a huge gap between teams that finish 6-10 and 10-6. (Wait ... 7-10 and 10-7. This will take some getting used to.) With that "hope springs eternal" disclaimer out of the way, a lot would have to go right for these teams to make the playoffs.
The Jets are easily in the best long-term shape of this quartet. They have a raft of quality draft picks, a promising GM-coach combo and the excitement of a No. 2 overall pick quarterback on the way, presumably Zach Wilson. They also have a roster that went 2-14 last season without a lot of clear strengths beyond a promising defensive line. Even if Wilson lives up to the hype, 7-to-8 wins would be a great step forward.
The Bengals can't even enjoy the normal buzz that would accompany a fun young quarterback because Joe Burrow is coming off a torn ACL. I like the players around Burrow, but the defense and offensive line remain problems. After logging just six wins over two seasons, Zac Taylor may need at least that many in 2021 to get to Year 4.
What is old is new again with the AFC South looking like one of the worst divisions in football. The Jaguars should at least be fun to watch with Trevor Lawrence at the helm, but I need to see Urban Meyer as a difference-making coach (and team builder) before I believe it. The Texans appear to be in between quarterbacks and are rebuilding mostly from scratch without many good young players to start from. A winning record would result in David Culley winning Coach of the Year.