By this point in the season people can usually make a solid prediction for which teams will be left standing in late January. They might not always get it right – but there are strong arguments that can be made.
However this year, it’s not that easy. Most good teams have suffered embarrassing losses, whilst the others have started on the back foot and will struggle to get the wins necessary for strong seeding – which will affect their chances come playoff time. If anyone claims to have a ‘lock’ for who’s making it to Super Bowl LVI, they’re either delusional or have stolen Doc’s Delorean, gone back in time and given their past self a sports almanac from the future.
This topsy-turvy season has definitely been stranger on the AFC side of the league – which I’m calling the Always Fluctuating Conference. There are obviously going to be some favourites in the mix but that’s the issue with this half of the league, none of these contenders stand out from the rest.
Let me put it this way. Here’s a few matchups amongst the AFC contenders – with a couple of other teams thrown in the mix to show just how turbulent these teams have been. The Ravens beat the Chiefs and Chargers but lost to the Dolphins and Titans. The Titans beat the Chiefs and Bills but lost to the Jets. The Bills beat the Chiefs but lost to the Titans and Jaguars. The Chiefs lost to all three of the previous contenders and the Chargers but beat the Browns. Meanwhile Cleveland took down the Bengals, who beat the Ravens, but got rolled by the Patriots. New England also beat the Chargers but lost to the Dolphins.
The only team that doesn’t have an embarrassing loss between these teams so far this season are… The New England Patriots. It’s an absolutely mind-melting scenario that the AFC has found itself in. But there’s beauty in the madness because it’s going to make the home stretch even more exciting. To get a better picture of the state of this conference, let’s dive into each of the contenders.
So why not start at the top? It was a fair assumption at the start of the season that the hopes of the current number one seed Titans rested on Derrick Henry’s shoulders. He’s led the league in rushing yards for the past two seasons and helped Ryan Tannehill to feel as comfortable as possible with a successful play action game. They’ve run the 10th most play action plays in the league and have the 9th most yards out of those snaps. Which is why it’s even more shocking that they’ve won two games without their star running back over the past fortnight. One of those being against the Super Bowl hopeful LA Rams.
That’s not to mention that they absolutely manhandled the Chiefs in week seven and took down the Bills, another AFC contender, the week before. With all this being said… How did they lose to the 2-7 Jets? Now I know one loss isn’t the be all and end all but it certainly raises questions about the reliability of this Tennessee side. If they can lose to a team that’s second last in the conference, they can lose to anybody.
They’re also keeping a lot of their games close this season. They’ve already had three overtime matches and five of their eight wins have been one possession games. Mike Vrabel’s Titans are playing some great football, especially defensively, but the difference between success and failure might be closer than you think.
One of Tennessee’s close victories came against Josh Allen’s Bills – and when I say Josh Allen’s Bills – I mean Jaguars’ defensive end Josh Allen. He wreaked havoc against Buffalo in week nine – finishing the day with a sack, a pick, a fumble recovery, and the most tackles from either team. The 9-6 loss certainly bruised some egos in the Bills’ locker room – a team that boasts two shutout victories so far and were sitting pretty on top of the AFC standings earlier this year.
So just how good is this Bills’ side? Most of the stats are in their favour. Their +1.6 turnover differential is the best in the league and they’re also second in points per game with 31.1 whilst their defence is first in opponent points per game at just 15.
This success has earnt them first place in the AFC East. But heavy is the head that wears the crown as the Patriots are picking up steam and Sean McDemortt’s side hasn’t been playing its best football this past month. Buffalo has Super Bowl ambitions but may have a dog fight in their own division if Bill Belichick keeps his foot on the gas pedal.
And with that almost seamless transition, what about New England? They may have gotten off to a slow 2-4 start but they’re really starting to turn some heads. Mac Jones is settling into the offence nicely and the defence is just behind the Bills in opponents points per game with 17.7. If there’s one thing Bill Belichick does best, it’s put his quarterback in positions to win games. Look no further than their week ten matchup against the Browns to see this in action.
So are the Patriots really back? Well, despite beating the Browns and edging past the Chargers, they’ve not exactly played the crème de la crème of the league. Their other five wins have come against the Falcons, the Jets twice, the Texans, and the Panthers. Now they can only play the opponent that’s in front of them but it does still leave us with some questions about the legitimacy of their chances this year.
That’s why the next month is so crucial – we’ll truly get to see what this team is capable of because New England’s schedule gets tough. They’re hosting Tennessee next week before a primetime matchup against Buffalo in week 12. It’s then onto one more AFC opponent in the Colts before another game against the Bills. The next four weeks will potentially decide the fate of the AFC East and the Patriots’ season as a whole.
But one team they don’t have to come up against this season are the Chiefs. This team has been highly regarded as the juggernaut of the AFC over the past few years but they’ve had their fair share of issues which have threatened to derail their 2021 season. Losing to the Bills, Ravens, Titans and Chargers put them on the backfoot in their conference and they struggled more than they should’ve done against some of the weaker opponents on their schedule like the Giants and the Rodger-less Packers.
Their offence hasn’t looked as potent as years past which slowed this team right down. Defences have adjusted and now the Chiefs need to make some alterations themselves if they want to get back on track. It looked like they began that process against the Raiders on Sunday Night Football last week, beating them 41-14, but they now need to build upon that success to turn their season around. They’ve not completely exorcised their demons and if they return to their lackluster ways this season they may struggle to get a high seeding – which will make life difficult come playoff time.
People are rightly saying that this has been the worst start to Mahomes’ pro career so far. He’s been ignoring the easy checkdowns and short yardage passes so that he can try to go deep but it’s resulted in incompletions and even turnovers – he’s thrown the second most interceptions this season. Having said that, he’s also second in both passing yards and touchdowns during this slump. So if he can reduce the turnovers and make the right reads, they have a good chance of regaining their stride.
The question for Kansas City is: is it too late?
Baltimore is another team that has the potential to pull it all together but have had some hiccups along the way. Everyone was talking about them after going 5-1 at the beginning of the year – beating the Chiefs and Chargers along the way. Lamar Jackson was in the MVP conversation, especially due to the injuries the team suffered before the season started, and they looked like true competitors.
However a beat down by the Bengals in week seven has raised questions about this team. People began to write them off yet again saying that they had lost their mojo and didn’t have the pieces to compete against some of the other AFC contenders. Despite what the week-to-week hot takes might say, this team can hang with the best of them, they’re just lacking some confidence right now. They needed to bounce back from the Cincinnati game and had their bye week to right the ship. But ended up struggling against the Vikings in an overtime victory in week nine and then lost by double digits to a poor Dolphins side.
John Harbaugh needs to build this locker room morale from the ground up and take each week as it comes if they want to succeed in their own division, let alone the conference. The AFC North is shaping up to be one of the most competitive divisions in the league – all four teams have lost a divisional matchup this season. If the Ravens want to come out on top, they need to take care of business. But it’ll be tough as they’ve got four divisional games in the next five weeks, including both Browns games, who are right on their tails.
Who do you think is coming out on top of this crazy conference? Let me know on Twitter @WiddowsonOwen. Also, be sure to see where these AFC contenders size up in Owain’s weekly Power Rankings.