By Lance Tominaga, ESPN Honolulu Web Editor.
The 2021 NFL season has begun, and already there have been upsets and surprises. I’m holding firm on my preseason predictions, however. Here’s how I see the AFC shaking out:
1 – BUFFALO BILLS (13-4): Last season, with the help of his new No. 1 receiver Stefan Diggs, Josh Allen blossomed into an MVP-caliber QB. If the duo continues to play at a high level, the Bills have all the pieces in place to reach the Super Bowl.
2 – NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (10-7): The Cam Newton experiment only lasted one season. This is now a Mac Jones’ team, and how the rookie performs this season will largely determine the team’s success. Bottom line: Never bet against Bill Belichick.
3 – MIAMI DOLPHINS (8-9): Yes, Tua will be better. He has more weapons at his disposal, including his former Alabama teammate Jaylen Waddle. The Dolphins’ opportunistic defense will continue to be a strength. Miami will be better, but they’re still at least a year away from being a viable playoff contender.
4 – NEW YORK JETS (5-12): The Jets will be a fun team to watch develop. The defense is young and talented, and new defensive coordinator (and former University of Hawaii linebacker) Jeff Ulbrich is eager to mold his players into a solid unit. Ready or not, rookie QB Zach Wilson is the day one starter. He was impressive in the preseason, but, as team owner Woody Johnson noted, “He’s not in Canton yet.”
1 – BALTIMORE RAVENS (10-7): Injuries have already taken a toll on the Ravens, as CB Marcus Peters and RB Gus Edwards are lost for the season with ACL injuries. As long as they have #8 taking snaps and doing his thing, however, the Ravens’ offense will be hard to handle. Combine that with one of the league’s better defenses, and Baltimore should be the team to beat.
2 – CLEVELAND BROWNS (10-7): The Browns were one of the NFL’s pleasant surprise teams last season, reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and winning a postseason game for the first time since 1994. There’s no reason to doubt that the can duplicate that success, but can they actually become a Super Bowl contender? A lot will be riding on Baker Mayfield’s shoulders.
3 – PITTSBURGH STEELERS (8-9): Steeler fans received good news this week when the team signed defensive end TJ Watt to a four-year, $112-million extension. The move solidifies one of the league’s better defenses, which also includes star safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. The Steelers’ shortcomings are primarily found on the offensive unit. Ben Roethlisberger is on the decline and the offensive line struggled last season.
4 – CINCINNATI BENGALS (6-11): Joe Burrow is back and healthy, and that’s already a win for the Bengals. The second-year QB has been reunited with his LSU teammate, rookie receiver JaMarr Chase, who had been battling a case of dropsies in the preseason. This team looks to be a couple of years away from making the playoffs.
1 – TENNESSEE TITANS (10-7): Yes, the Titans certainly stumbled out of the gate, getting crushed by Arizona. But this is a weak division, and as long as Derrick Henry is healthy, Tennessee should be able to “run” away from their rivals.
2 – INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: (8-9): Sorry, Colts fans, but I don’t think Carson Wentz is the answer. But the Indy defense is very good, and should keep the team competitive in most games. Expect the Colts to be a middling team and finish just out of reach from the playoffs.
3 – JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (4-13): Losing first-round pick Travis Etiene before the start of the season was a big blow to the Jaguars. Trevor Lawrence should have a bright future in this league, but he needs weapons. Chalk up this season as a learning experience for Lawrence, head coach Urban Meyer and the rest of the young Jags.
4 – HOUSTON TEXANS (4-13): Their season-opening win over Jacksonville aside, the Texans are in for a long campaign. It would be best for all parties involved to resolve the Deshaun Watson situation as soon as possible.
1 – KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (14-3): Until proven otherwise, KC remains the class of the AFC. They have the best player in Patrick Mahomes, and although the defense is suspect, the Chiefs should roll toward their third straight Super Bowl appearance.
2 – LAS VEGAS RAIDERS (10-7): The Raiders potentially have a Top 10 offense, but the defense has been horrid the Khalil Mack was traded away a few years ago. Now, with new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley and several off-season acquisitions such as Yannick Ngakoue and KJ Wright, Las Vegas hopes to hit the jackpot.
3 – LOS ANGELES CHARGERS: (9-8): The improving Chargers have always had talent on both sides of the ball, but it took QB Justin Herbert, last season’s Offensive Rookie of the Year, to complete the package. L.A. could very well be the surprise team in the AFC, if not the entire league.
4 – DENVER BRONCOS (8-9): The Broncos have found a reliable QB in Teddy Bridgewater, and the team’s defense remains solid. Denver’s biggest problem is that they’re in perhaps the NFL’s most competitive division.
PLAYOFF TEAMS: Buffalo, New England, Baltimore, Cleveland, Tennessee, Kansas City, Las Vegas.
AFC CHAMPION: Kansas City.
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