Every week during the NFL season, Tiebreaker.com will present our conference power rankings. The AFC will be on Tuesday, the NFC on Wednesday.
We begin in the AFC with the belief this will finally be the season the Kansas City Chiefs play in another Super Bowl.
Kansas City Chiefs
Everyone knows the Chiefs should have beat the New England Patriots in last season’s AFC Championship game. If only Dee Ford had stayed onside. If only their maligned defense could have stopped Tom Brady at the end. Well, we believe this will be the Chiefs year. Patrick Mahomes is only going to get better and the organization has continued to give him weapons, like LeSean McCoy. On defense, Ford has gone to the San Francisco 49ers. Out of sight, out of mind.
New England Patriots
Everyone knows the Patriots should have lost to the Chiefs in last year’s AFC Championship. Instead they rolled on to win another league title, using their defense to stifle the Los Angeles Rams in perhaps the dullest Super Bowl ever. Brady is back and until he needs a walker we’ll assume he hasn’t lost a step. What he won’t have anymore is tight end Rob Gronkowski, who waived the white flag on his career.
Los Angeles Chargers
It looks like the Chargers and halfback Melvin Gordon have reached a contractual impasse, meaning the team will be without one of its most dynamic offensive performers this season. Hey, not having Le’Veon Bell really didn’t hurt the Pittsburgh Steelers and life will go on. Philip Rivers is one of the most underrated quarterbacks of our generation and the Chargers will persevere solely because he won’t let them fail.
The Steelers will be a better team without Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell hanging over their heads. Those two were a major pain-in-the-ass to an organization that never quite found its footing in 2018. Now it seems that Ben Roethlisberger is comfortable again, re-established as the organization’s alpha male. And he’ll have James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster to help him move the ball.
If you subscribe to the hype, the Browns are on their way to the AFC North title, maybe even the conference championship. We think the truth is somewhere in the middle. No team has done as much to improve their fortunes in the offseason. There’s no doubt the Browns will be the most entertaining team in the league – Baker Mayfield and Odell Beckham Jr., will make it so. But the hidden secret of this team’s evolution will be their defense.
Lamar Jackson really caused a ruckus when he showed up and showed everyone that a running QB could succeed in the NFL. His play was one of the best things about the second half of the NFL season. But Jackson likely will not physically survive the 2019 season unless he calms down and starts to use his arm. Problem is, he’s a better scrambler than he is a passer. Can they score enough points to thrive? Can Earl Thomas re-discover his form at safety?
Truth is, Jacoby Brissett is not a bad QB, even though the Colts won only four games with him as their starter in 2017. Bill Belichick once showed great faith in him in New England. Brissett is no Andrew Luck, but he does have the ability to move in the pocket and a strong enough arm to connect with all the weapons the organization has assembled. The question will be whether the Colts believe in Brissett. Colts coach Frank Reich will make sure Brissett is put in good situations. Don’t be surprised if they approach 10-6 again.
Will the addition of running back Duke Johnson from the Cleveland Browns compensate for the loss of Jadeveon Clowney along the defensive line? We don’t think so. But the Texans are going to need to be more productive on offense to help compensate for the loss of one of the league’s top defenders. What’s clear is Deshaun Watson has two fine receivers in DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller.
No team disappointed more in 2018 than the Jags. Then went from the precipice of a Super Bowl appearance two years ago to being a dysfunctional laughing stock. Nothing went right. But now they have Nick Foles at QB and that’s a major upgrade over Blake Bortles. If halfback Leonard Fournette can stay healthy, the offense should be on the rise.
New York Jets
The Jets new uniforms suck. We have always favored the kelly green Joe Namath wore so proudly in Super Bowl III. But maybe the new look will correspond with the new outlook intense head coach, Adam Gase, is trying to bring to a franchise that hasn’t won a league title in 50 years. Le’Veon Bell will spark their offense, but let’s see what new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams can do. They are still not beating the Patriots.
The Bills will battle with the Jets for second place in the AFC East. They have a really nice young quarterback in Josh Allen, a physical stud who has surprising mobility to go with his strong arm. But it’s not the offense that will carry the Bills to success this season, especially now without LeSean McCoy. The defense is the best thing about the team and is very capable of compensating for any interruption in Allen’s development.
Defensive specialist Vic Fangio is the new coach, which means Von Miller, Bradley Chubb and the boys will have someone who truly cares about their success this season. But the focus will be squarely on QB Joe Flacco, rescued from near extinction in Baltimore. Denver is depending on his strong arm to help them at least compete in the NFC West. But it’s hard to imagine they will have an impact this season.
Knock on wood if you believe Jon Gruden was the best thing about HBO’s “Hard Knocks” this season. The Raiders coach was profane and truly entertaining. But as confident as he appears to be about his new team, it’s hard to see them overcoming the Chiefs and Chargers in the AFC West, even if Derek Carr and Antonio Brown become the next dynamic duo. We’re betting that Brown continues to be a problem and the Raiders underachieve partly as a result.
This is one boring team. Is there anything to really get excited about with the Titans? It’s about time QB Marcus Mariota stays healthy and justifies being selected in the first round a few years ago. The best you can say about him is that he’s an OK player. And that’s not good enough. Maybe the addition of Ryan Tannehill from the Miami Dolphins to back him up might spur him to greater things if his impending free agency isn’t enough.
One train of thought suggests it’s hard to imagine the Bengals without Marvin Lewis as their head coach. Another train of thought wonders why it took so long to dump him. How much mediocrity can one fan base endure? New coach Zac Taylor is in rebuild mode, but the problem is two of his building blocks are questionable. QB Andy Dalton is on the downslide and receiver A.J. Green is hurt. It’s going to be a long season.
This is going to be a disaster for The Fish. They have jettisoned veteran players on both sides of the ball, with the exception of QB where they have handed the starting job to Ryan Fitzpatrick over Josh Rosen. It’s hard to envision the Dolphins being competitive and it could result in the kind of season we were used to seeing from the Cleveland Browns.