How Every AFC Team Can Have A Successful 2020-2021 NFL Season

This year’s NFL preview will be split into two parts across two different mediums.  With Chiefs-Texans – two AFC teams – kicking off the season tonight, below is a breakdown of how every team in the conference can have a successful season, followed by predictions for the division standings and playoff standings.  Tomorrow, the NFC preview will go up, but in a different way than usual.  Stay tuned.

Baltimore Ravens: Win Super Bowl 55

Kansas City is Baltimore’s only excuse left.  A loss to them in the AFC Championship Game or a loss in Super Bowl 55 are the only acceptable outcomes for the Ravens this year, or else it’ll be three straight years of playoff letdown.

Despite Earl Thomas’ stunning release, the Ravens roster is better than it was last season.  They’ve added a necessary punch to both sides of the ball.  J.K. Dobbins will serve as a pass catcher out of the backfield next to Mark Ingram, and Devin Duvernay could emerge as the second wide receiver they need aside Marquise Brown.  Defensively, the line is now stacked after stealing Calais Campbell from Jacksonville, and Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison give them some youth in their linebacking core.

Even with a lack of receiving talent, this is one of the best rosters in football thanks to its best player and leader, Lamar Jackson.  He’s perfectly capable of back-to-back MVPs, and if he’s so special that he becomes the first player in over ten years (Peyton Manning 2008 and 2009) to do it, then the Ravens should be good enough to take home the Lombardi.

Buffalo Bills: Hope the Patriots aren’t good, win the division and see legitimate growth from Josh Allen

Just when it seemed to be the Bills year, the Patriots struck again.

The Cam Newton signing may not have the impact we all think it does, but it certainly raises New England’s potential.  New England’s ceiling is legitimately being Super Bowl Champions yet again.  If that (unlikely) scenario rises, the Bills are the Bills we’ve seen for the past 20 years.

Regardless, the extra playoff spot – new this year – helps significantly.  It’s a bit of a buffer incase Josh Allen doesn’t improve, which is more of a detriment to the front office and his long term viability than it is the team’s record (We’ve seen Buffalo be average-to-good with Allen in his current form).  If Allen is who he is, the Bills are stuck being at-best .500 with a quarterback being their only problem.  That’s not someone you want to commit to long-term.

Allen should be able to improve slightly.  The Bills got him Stefon Diggs, a true No. 1 receiver he’s lacked throughout his career thus far.  He’s the perfect anchor next to John Brown, Cole Beasley and Dawson Knox, who’s an intriguing middle of the field target that could alleviate Allen’s noted downfield struggles.

If Allen doesn’t take the step up or is perhaps worse, the Bills can run the ball.  Zack Moss seems primed to be Buffalo’s lead back at some point this season with his tight ball security and workload ability.  Moss was a beast in college at Utah, and was the focal point of a good offense that typically had average quarterback play.

Buffalo’s defense is the valley and the offense is the mountain.  The Bills have one of the best defensive groups in the league.  It’s deep and has almost zero holes.  It’s the type of group that can drag an average offense and quarterback to a .500 record and into the playoffs.  It could take this team even further than that, dependent on Allen’s performance.

Expecting Buffalo to win the division could be a little overzealous.  The Patriots are always scary, and Allen’s a wildcard.  But this defense is so good that anything above average from the other side could have them in the playoffs, and even making noise.

Cincinnati Bengals: Joe Burrow proves he’s the real deal right away

The Bengals go as far as Joe Burrow takes them this season. 

There’s talent on defense, but it’s not a group that will carry an average offense to a decent record.  The offensive line is a little frightening in spots, though the debut of 2019 first round pick Jonah Williams should add some stability.

Potential lies in what Burrow has to work with.  The Bengals just committed to running back Joe Mixon for four years  – he gives a potentially struggling Burrow a nice backbone to rely on.  Every receiver in the mix has questions, but conversely the group could be one of the best in the league if everything works out right.  John Ross just needs to put it together.  AJ Green just needs to stay healthy.  If one of those two things happen, Burrow will be out of excuses.  Tyler Boyd and Auden Tate are fantastic options as No.2 and No.3 receivers, but elevating them to a primary role like Boyd was in last year leads to a dip in production.  Green and Ross staying healthy would also alleviate pressure on Tee Higgins, who was a steal in the second round of April’s draft.  Rookie receivers are a 50-50 bet, though.  Higgins being a luxury is the best option for him now.

If the weapons go off the deep end, Burrow is going to have to make up for it.  That may not be too much to ask from him given what we saw last year at LSU.

Cleveland Browns: Confirm Freddie Kitchens was Baker Mayfield’s – and the team’s – problem

Even though the Browns haven’t done anything substantial in  ~ check notes ~ 25 years, this team is running out of excuses.

While this is head coach Kevin Stefanski’s first year at the helm – a year in which he’s had very little time to teach a new offensive system and work with Baker Mayfield – the clock is ticking.  With a roster this good, owner Jimmy Haslam, who’s the sole reason for the franchise’s dismaying history, is likely to be impatient.  He was with former general manager John Dorsey, who helped orchestrate and build important parts of this group, and he’s been the same way with literally everyone he’s hired since owning the team.

The hope is that last year’s letdown was solely rooted in the inexperience of Freddie Kitchens calling plays, leading to Mayfield’s lack of progression and the team’s overall poor performance.  Stefanski has gotten the absolute best out of Kirk Cousins, and was in the room when Case Keenum almost went to the Super Bowl.

Mayfield may not be the superstar some thought he could be – which includes Dorsey, who drafted him No. 1 overall in 2018 – but there are ways to salvage him.  Mayfield seemed overwhelmed last year despite weapons like Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry around him.  Nick Chubb was fantastic in 2019-20, but didn’t seem to get the ball enough.

Stefanski had gotten away with Cousins at quarterback in Minnesota by relying on Dalvin Cook heavily in the run game.  That opened up the play action for Cousins, which simplified things and allowed for easier throws.  Chubb could be Cook-lite, and using Mayfield only when necessary could result in the success similar to what Cousins had when he was throwing to a two-headed monster at receiver in Diggs and Adam Thielen.

The Browns division is tough, though.  Baltimore is expecting a championship, and Pittsburgh could be in for a rebound year.  But with the expanded playoffs, Cleveland should be at least in the fold, and if they miss it, contender status in 2021-22 shouldn’t be too much to ask for.

Denver Broncos: Contend for a playoff spot, and hope Drew Lock makes use of his weapons

Like Cincanatti, the Broncos probably go as far as Drew Lock takes them.  The difference is that the basement is much higher with Denver.

Even with Von Miller potentially being out for the season and Bradley Chubb possibly not ready for Week 1, the Broncos have one of the best defenses in football.  A suspect linebacking core has a first line of defense in front of it, thanks to newly acquired Jurrell Casey and staples like Shelby Harris around on the defensive line.  Behind them is also a new Bronco in AJ Bouye – who was received for nothing from Jacksonville – and Justin Simmons at safety.  You would never guess Denver lost its best cornerback to the Chargers in free agency with the secondary they’ve put together.

Lock can show us he’s not the guy this season and the Broncos could still be quite good.  There’s legitimate 2018-19 Bears potential here, but projecting Lock to be as bad as Mitchell Trubisky feels like an insult.

First, Lock isn’t only supremely more talented, but has way more to work with than Trubisky ever did.  Jerry Jeudy falling to the Broncos at No. 15 overall in the draft was a god-send, and pairs him an already established No. 1 wideout in Courtland Sutton.  The slot features KJ Hamler, who could probably play outside despite his size thanks to his vertical jump and speed, and Noah Fant just needs to not drop footballs thrown his way to be unstoppable.

To get into the playoffs or further, it’s going to be up to Lock.  He has everything he could ask for as a young QB.  Denver will be watching closely.  If he’s not it, they have to pivot fast, because this roster is too good to waste.

Houston Texans: Win the division, and hope DeShaun Watson can carry the load once again

Houston is one of the most frustrating teams in the NFL.  They have the best quarterback in their division by far.  They have one of the most fearsome defensive players in football.  They have a defense that’s close to elite status, but a few key holes prevent that from being so.

They only added to the frustration in the offseason by trading DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona for David Johnson and a second round pick.  While they have a bit more depth in their receiving core now, every player in the rotation has questions.  The only question they had to answer with Hopkins was whether he was the best or second best receiver in football.

Once again, it’s up to DeShaun Watson.  The case can be made that it was up to him with Hopkins as well, and that adding more options reduces the odds that it does come down to him, but reducing your already low amount of elite talent seems unwise.  If everyone is healthy (the biggest question) and plays well (another big questions), then Houston’s receiving core could actually be better than it has been in the past.  Will Fuller’s only question is his health.  The same can be said about Brandin Cooks, who gives Houston speed they’ve desperately lacked in the Watson era, and Randall Cobb then fits perfectly as the third option, which is probably his ceiling at this point in his career.

These are a lot of “ifs”, and deservedly so.  There’s no real reason to believe anything can go right with Houston, but if it does, then they should be the best team in the division.

Indianapolis Colts: Hope Phillip Rivers isn’t washed

The Colts decision to presumably move on from Jacoby Brissett as their starting quarterback is still confusing, especially considering Phillip Rivers is 38 years old and Brissett is 27.

Performance also matters.  Brissett beat expectations last season until T.Y. Hilton went down, leading to a dip in production that was understandable.  Rivers looked old by making bad decisions, blatantly missing throws and failing once again to get a Chargers team to meet its preseason hype.

Sure, Rivers dealt with a lack of weapons and injuries up and down Los Angeles’ roster, but Brissett did as well in Indianapolis.  On top of that, Brissett never made costly choices.  He may not have elevated the Colts, but he certainly didn’t hurt them.  

The Colts need to hope that last year’s Rivers is a product of a Chargers team that was clearly ready to move on. Indianapolis has some barriers in place that could prevent that, most notably head coach Frank Reich, who got Nick Foles to win a Super Bowl, had Carson Wentz playing the best football of his career thus far, made Eric Ebron not drop passes and catch touchdowns instead while also making Brissett look like a viable Andrew Luck replacement early last year.  If anyone can suck any remaining value out of Rivers, it’s Reich.  The Colts also have a bounty of running backs in line to help take the burden off Rivers, even though having Marlon Mack and Jonathan Taylor in the same backfield seems a bit unnecessary.  

There could be some scary parallels to the Chargers, though.  The Colts receiving talent behind T.Y. Hilton is still a bit weak.  Michael Pittman Jr. could be a stud, but giving Rivers inexperienced receivers isn’t what he needs at this point in his career. In San Diego/Los Angeles, injured weapons held Rivers back a lot.  It limited the talent he had to work with.  Indianapolis might not experience injuries, but they could face similar talent deficits.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Make sure Gardner Minshew isn’t (?) your guy

Speculation about Jacksonville tanking this year in order to obtain Trevor Lawrence feels odd and a bit contradictory. 

Gardner Minshew wasn’t amazing last year, but he wasn’t bad enough that the Jaguars felt he couldn’t be something.  He was the exact reason they traded Nick Foles away to Chicago.

Minshew deserves another year to prove himself.  If there’s no improvement or outlook toward success, then Jacksonville can start over in the 2021 Draft.  But this roster isn’t bad enough to tank, and it’d be disappointing to see them finish with the worst record in football.  A tough schedule won’t help, but Jacksonville could come away looking better than a poor record suggests.

Minshew has more around him than given credit for, which could be the Jaguars line of thinking if their plan is to truly move on.  If Minshew fails, Jacksonville could easily say that they gave him enough to work with.  DJ Chark is a legitimate No. 1 receiver, and Jacksonville got insane value with Collin Johnson in the fifth round and Laviska Shenault Jr. in the second of April’s draft.  Shenault Jr. is a big question mark health wise, hence his fall in the draft.  While rookie receivers are tough to bet on, if the Jaguars are truly insistent on Minshew not being the guy, they’ve done enough propaganda work to justify it by adding talent for him to sling it to.

In the backfield, they’ve done the opposite.  But Leonard Fournette’s release had a lot more to do with him not being good at football than it did Jacksonville tanking or purposely not helping Minshew.  Them getting a true sense of what Minshew brings means running the ball less, and they’ve enabled themselves to do that with the dumping of Fournette.

There might be nothing Minshew can do to save himself as the Jaguars long-term answer this season.  But don’t be surprised if he makes it a bit more controversial than we anticipate.

Kansas City Chiefs: Repeat as Super Bowl champions

There isn’t much to go over here.  Kansas City is probably better this year with a workhorse running back now in the fold.  Clyde Edwards-Helaire, while going way too high in fantasy drafts, gives the Chiefs a dimension offensively they haven’t had since they began shredding the league in 2018.  Damien Williams – who opted out of the season – was never getting 20 carries a game and putting up 120 yards on them.  He would have been the perfect secondary back to Edwards-Helaire this season, but now it’s all on the LSU rookie.

Kansas City doesn’t have to rely on him though.  Why would they?  Patrick Mahomes is probably the most talented quarterback ever, and that shouldn’t be controversial to say.  The man got a $500 million contract for a reason.

Repeating is hard, and the Ravens are on their tail.  But for a team led by as much talent as Kansas City is, in addition to the continuity they possess in a year where it will matter greatly, a Super Bowl loss would be a disappointment.

Los Angeles Chargers: Hope whichever quarterback that’s playing is just good enough

The Chargers were in a tough spot this offseason.  Practically their entire roster was set and stacked with talent, except for the most important position: quarterback.

It’s a sticky situation.  Most of the time, starting over at quarterback means rebuilding.  The Chargers have a roster that looks like it just finished a rebuild.  It shouldn’t be starting one.

In a way, having a roster as stacked as Los Angeles’ is could be a good thing, especially once/if Justin Herbert ever takes over.  The Chargers might be good enough to overcome his likely mistakes.  Their loaded defense, which is so good that the loss of Derwin James hurts but isn’t a death blow, could be good enough to carry a poor-to-average offense.

The offense is a question mark.  Regardless of the quarterback play, it might be tough for it to be competent.  To be successful, Tyrod Taylor needs significant help around him, on the field and on the sideline.  Austin Ekeler getting the full-time role at running back should lead to increased production, but the receivers, while intriguing, are tough to project.  Keenan Allen is a stud, but health is always a question with him, making the new contract he was just handed feel risky.  Mike Williams is already dealing with an injury, and Hunter Henry’s almost a shoe-in every season to miss some amount of time.

The good news is that head coach Anthony Lynn has a prior relationship with Taylor from their Buffalo days, and the offensive line is as good as it’s ever been the past six years or so.  Still, it’s going to be up to one of these quarterbacks to elevate this team past mediocre.  Health is the key with Taylor under center, and a quick learning curve would be needed with Herbert running the show.  The lack of a true offseason is a disaster for a QB like him, who needed substantial time to develop anyways.  It’s possible we see Taylor for an extended period of time this year, and if everything goes right and they get some luck, he could keep the job for all 16 games.

Miami Dolphins: Be careful but don’t hold back Tua Tagovailoa

While inhibiting a talented defense, the Dolphins are still likely a couple years from being real players, making this season a bit of a wash.  If Tua Tagovailoa was 100 percent and ready to go, things could be different for the Dolphins.  But Ryan Fitzpatrick is primed to be the starter to open the year, and could have that job for awhile depending on how Miami’s medical staff feels about Tagovailoa suiting up.  He needs to be 110 percent in order to do so.  There is no reason to take a risk here.

If Tagovailoa plays, the goal for the Dolphins should be to evaluate him and see what else they can do to support him.  Miami not adding a receiver to his mix of weapons in the draft was a bit surprising, and it leaves a below-average core surrounding him.  The Dolphins have a variety of different running backs to use, which could be a strategy they utilize heavily given Tagovailoa’s lack of weapons.  At the same time, the offensive line still has some holes despite the draft capital used to plug them.

Miami likely won’t be relevant this year, and they shouldn’t strive to be.  Getting a top pick in the 2021 draft and coming into next year ready to contend with Tagovailoa ready from Day 1 should be the goal.

New England Patriots: Prove everyone wrong, and find out if Cam Newton is the long-term answer

The Patriots hopes of legitimately making noise this year dwindled after opt-outs hit them hard.

While their secondary still remains among the best in football, it seems far-fetched that the defense could carry the offense like it did last season.  That means it will be up to Cam Newton to return as close to MVP form as he possibly can.

Newton doesn’t have too much help around him offensively – New England’s weapons core hasn’t changed much from what Tom Brady had to work with last year.  Newton could play well and the offense could still struggle.

But if Newton is good enough with the group he has, it could lead the Patriots to invest more into it in the offseason, and try and contend again in 2021-22 with Newton under center.

Bill Belichick is out to prove a lot of this year.  New England won’t be irrelevant.  But they have bigger things to worry about than making the playoffs.  A reckoning of the future should be on the forefront, and this season can be used to develop a strategy for it.

New York Jets: Hope Sam Darnold gives you any confidence in him

Washington and the Jets have the worst rosters in the league and it’s not close.

That makes New York’s task of truly evaluating Sam Darnold extremely tough.

It’s probably fair to assume Darnold will never be a star.  If that was true, he’d already be getting it done.  That doesn’t mean he can’t be fixed, it just means that there’s probably a firm ceiling on what he can be.  

Whether it’s high or not, the Jets are a long ways away from reaching that, unless Darnold makes the progression himself.  It would be quite stunning, giving his receiving talent and his head coach.  Perhaps the Jets need to move on from Adam Gase, and hope Darnold can have a rejuvention similar to Tannehill after he got out from under his former coach’s teachings.  But by then, it could be time to pay Darnold, and instead moving on could be a more viable option

Las Vegas Raiders: Figure out whether Derek Carr is the guy or not

The Raiders seem to have gone as far as they want to when it comes to giving Derek Carr chances.  It’s possible they could have done more, but investing two high picks in April’s draft and giving Tyrell Williams a healthy contract certainly shows some form of respect.

Williams won’t play this season after suffering a shoulder injury.  It’s unfortunate, but it can’t let either side dictate what happens this season at the quarterback position.  If Carr’s the guy, he should be able to overcome it.  On the flip side, Carr relying on two rookie receivers to help him this season maybe isn’t the most fair play.

Las Vegas’ defense is better than years past but probably won’t do the offense any favors.  With that precedent, it’s really going to be up to Carr to carry the offense.  The front office seems impatient with him, evident in their Marcus Mariota signing that was surprisingly rich (Two years, $17.6 million).  Even with the picks they spent on Henry Ruggs III and Bryan Edwards, it feels like a ploy to get Carr out.  Ruggs III is not the receiver Carr needs.  He’s best as a downfield threat, which are not routes Carr exceeds at making throws to.  

Las Vegas’ front office could be putting Carr in a catch-22 here.  They give him weapons like Ruggs III, and he says they don’t fit him.  Why, they ask?  Well, Carr can’t get the ball to them. An exchange like that might give the Raiders the answer they need to hear.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Hope Ben Roethlisberger stays healthy and is actually good

The Steelers going 8-8 in 2019-20 with a combination of Mason Rudolph and Delvin Hodges as their quarterbacks was no fluke.  It was a testament to the talent on the roster and the coaching of Mike Tomlin.

This year, both of those things remain the same, and their biggest barrier is now likely out of the way.

Ben Roethlisberger is a large unknown in multiple ways.  First, he has to stay healthy, or else the Steelers are going to be a reincarnation of last year’s team after not attempting to upgrade backup quarterback over the offseason.  Second, even if Roethlisberger does stay healthy, what to expect of him is tough to quantify.  It’s been two years since we’ve seen a legitimate game from the long-time QB, and it wasn’t all pretty.  In 2018-19, Roethlisberger put up his typical numbers but also led the league in interceptions.  Pittsburgh missed the playoffs, and at-times bone-headed decisions from Roethlisberger were costly.  It’s been two years and a new UCL since we saw that QB.

Week 1 last year wasn’t all that promising either, but it’s hard to judge just a single game.  

The unknown with Roethlisberger is frustrating from a projection standpoint and disappointing from a fan point of view.  Pittsburgh has the talent to compete with the likes of Baltimore for the division, and the Chiefs and those same Ravens for a trip to the Super Bowl.  While continuity is being praised heading into this season, the Steelers have less of it than we may think, and that could be costly.

Tennessee Titans: Hope regression doesn’t strike

The problem with the Titans is that last season feels like the ceiling of what this roster can achieve.  Derrick Henry was arguably the best running back in football, which slightly came out of nowhere.  Ryan Tannehill played as well as he had in his career so far and breached the waters of average, emerging just above the surface.  Tennessee found themselves in the AFC Championship Game after beating two of the best teams in the league throughout the playoffs.  All of it was stunning.

Which is why none of it feels repeatable.  Henry was on a historic run toward the end of the season and postseason – that type of production just doesn’t reproduce.  Tannehill had never played that well in his life, and it still wasn’t necessarily good enough.  The Titans feel like a team destined for a hangover, even though they didn’t make the Super Bowl.

Unlike most teams that experience a drag the next year, the Titans got better.  Adding Jadeveon Clowney a week before the season’s kick-off was a steal, and makes their front seven terrifying.  They sured up potentially holes in the secondary with LSU cornerback Kristian Fulton in the second round of April’s draft – how he fell that far remains mystifying.  

Any team that made changes – smart or not smart, positive or negative – could be coming into this season behind those who didn’t due to the lack of a preseason and real training camp.  Tennessee didn’t really overhaul anything, and their changes weren’t super significant.  They essentially ran it back.  Even if the Titans are projected to be worse after last year’s historic run, at least we know it’s coming.

AFC Standings Predictions:

AFC East

  1. Buffalo Bills, 11-5
  2. New England Patriots, 9-7
  3. New York Jets, 2-14
  4. Miami Dolphins, 2-14

AFC North

  1. Baltimore Ravens, 15-1
  2. Pittsburgh Steelers, 10-6
  3. Cleveland Browns, 10-6
  4. Cincinnati Bengals, 2-14

AFC South

  1. Tennesse Titans, 12-4
  2. Houston Texans, 10-6
  3. Indianapolis Colts, 6-10
  4. Jacksonville Jagurs, 2-14

AFC West

  1. Kansas City Chiefs, 16-0
  2. Denver Broncos, 8-8
  3. Las Vegas Raiders, 5-11
  4. Los Angeles Chargers, 3-13

AFC Playoff Standings

  1. Kansas City Chiefs
  2. Baltimore Ravens
  3. Tennessee Titans
  4. Buffalo Bills
  5. Houston Texans
  6. Pittsburgh Steelers
  7. Cleveland Browns