AFC Conference Projections: Can Anyone Stop Mahomes and The Chiefs?
Preseason games have begun. Training camp battles are unfolding around the league. Injury reports are already getting longer. It’s NFL football season. Let’s take you through Stats Insider’s projections for the AFC conference s as the pursuit of Super Bowl LVI begins in earnest.
Kansas City Chiefs
Conference Projection- 23%
It is hard to pick against the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC. Stats Insider has the Chiefs as the AFC favourite with a 23% chance of representing the AFC for a 3rd-straight season.
There’s no need to overthink the matter: With Patrick Mahomes at quarterback, the Chiefs have the best player in the NFL at the sport’s most important position. Aaron Rodgers and Lamar Jackson might have won the last two NFL MVP awards, and they certainly deserved them, but Mahomes is the league’s best player on an annual basis. He makes throws no one else can make. He’s elusive in the pocket and can scramble for first downs on the rare occasions when defences successfully take away his downfield throwing options. The Chiefs’ offensive line was dominated by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV this past February, but the Chiefs gained reinforcements by picking up Orlando Brown and Joe Thuney, two high-end performers. As long as Mahomes stays healthy and comfortable, the Chiefs remain an attractive choice to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
Fun Fact- No AFC team has ever hosted four AFC Championship Games in a row. The Chiefs could be the first to do it.
Conference Projection- 11.5%
The Buffalo Bills are second in Stats Insider’s 2021 AFC projections, and they should be. The Bills earned the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs last season and won two home playoff games to make the AFC title game for the first time in 27 years. The Bills rose to the top tier of the NFL because quarterback Josh Allen has become a top-five quarterback in the league.
Allen’s meteoric rise has been something to behold. Last season he jumped from 20 touchdowns and 3,089 passing yards to a franchise-best 37 touchdowns and 4,544 yards.
Whereas Patrick Mahomes became an instant NFL superstar, Allen has steadily improved but reached a very high ceiling, and has the potential for even more growth. Improving a completion percentage by over 16% in two seasons, while throwing for nearly 2,500 more yards and 27 more touchdowns, speaks to Allen’s work ethic, the Bills’ excellent investment of resources in their star player, and Buffalo coach Sean McDermott’s enlightened use of a pass-heavy offence that puts the ball in Allen’s hands.
Conference Projection- 10.7%
This is where the AFC really gets interesting. The Chiefs and Bills are the top two teams. The mad scramble to challenge them begins with the Baltimore Ravens, who are third in Stats Insider’s AFC projections and have a 10.7% chance of returning to the Super Bowl for the first time in 9 years.
The early read from Ravens camp is not encouraging. On Aug. 12, a total of 18 Ravens didn’t attend practice. That number was over 20 a few days earlier. The AFC North is arguably pro football’s toughest and most bruising division. The Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Cleveland Browns are all very physical teams. The Ravens need depth more than most NFL teams do, given that they are in a difficult division.
A key loss for Baltimore early in training camp is receiver Rashod Bateman, the team’s first-round draft pick. He will miss at least the first two to three weeks of the season with a groin injury. The Ravens keep (necessarily) drafting receivers to give Lamar Jackson help in the passing game. Bateman missing multiple games immediately puts a dent in the Ravens’ plans to improve their passing offence which failed them very conspicuously in each of the team’s last two playoff losses.
Conference Projection- 9.5%
The Cleveland Browns are fourth in Stats Insider’s AFC rankings, with a 9.5% probability of reaching the Super Bowl. The Browns enter their most anticipated season since 1989, the last season in which they reached the AFC Championship Game. Cleveland, having come very close to making the AFC title game this past January, has legitimate reason to think that it can reach the first Super Bowl in franchise history, which would rate as one of the NFL’s greatest stories of all time should it happen.
The Browns’ potential this season is summed up very simply: A team which almost knocked off the Chiefs in last year’s playoffs (losing by only five points) without Odell Beckham now gets the elite receiver back in good health. The Browns didn’t need to make a splashy offseason trade to take the next step to the Super Bowl; they simply needed their superstar receiver to return. Combined with a high-level running game featuring the 1-2 punch of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, the Browns ought to expect nothing less than the best from their offence.
Fun Fact- The Browns have still not won a home playoff game since January of 1995. They hope to change that this season.
Conference Projection- 6.2%
After the top four, the AFC picture becomes even more unpredictable. The Denver Broncos and Indianapolis Colts are tied for fifth in the AFC, with each boasting a 6.2% chance of advancing the Super Bowl. Denver has Teddy Bridgewater battling Drew Lock for the starting QB job and have a gentle start to the season with their first 3 opponents combining for just a 9-39 record last season.
Conference Projection- 6.2%
The Colts are banking on Carson Wentz, who was injured in training camp and is questionable for Week 1 against the Seattle Seahawks. Even if Wentz gets healthy, he needs to prove he can regain the level of form he displayed a few years ago with the Philadelphia Eagles. The Colts bet on Wentz because their head coach, Frank Reich, was Wentz’s offensive coordinator when Wentz had his best NFL seasons in Philadelphia. It remains to be seen whether Reich can enable Wentz to rediscover the full measure of his talents.
Conference Projection- 5.7%
Presently, the Titans are Stats Insider’s next favourite to grab the AFC’s seventh and final playoff spot. Derrick Henry is there, Ryan Tannehill is there, but the Titans lost offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, who is now the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons. They lost tight end Jonnu Smith to the New England Patriots while their offence doesn’t appear to be as formidable as it was a year ago.
The best of the rest
The Miami Dolphins have a 5% probability of reaching the Super Bowl for the first time in 37 years. They barely missed a return to the playoffs last season and at as this stage are expected to just missed out once again. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa needs to take the next step in his evolution for Miami to make the postseason.
The New England Patriots and Los Angeles Chargers each have a 4.7% chance of representing the AFC in Inglewood next February. Questions surround Cam Newton as the Patriots’ quarterback after a terrible 2020 season. The Chargers’ offensive line meanwhile is a massive area of concern for first-year head coach Brandon Staley. Stanley is a defence-first coach who needs to prove he can give Justin Herbert the tools he needs to succeed.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have a 4.2% chance of graduating to the franchise’s 9th Super Bowl. Ben Roethlisberger is getting older, making it harder to trust a team who unraveled late last season after winning their first 11 games.
The Las Vegas Raiders have a 2.4% probability of reaching the Super Bowl. They nearly swept the Chiefs last season but crashed and burnt late in the year. The Raiders reshuffled their offensive line and remain burdened by erratic decisions from their front office.
The Jacksonville Jaguars (2%), Cincinnati Bengals (1.6%), New York Jets (1.6%), and Houston Texans (1%) are all in complete rebuilding mode and have been given very little chance of making much noise this season.
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