There’s a good chance there won’t be much intrigue when it comes to the race for the top spot in the AFC playoff field for the upcoming NFL season.
But outside of the No. 1 seed, it’s really anyone’s guess how things will shake out.
We’re going to play it safe and predict the Kansas City Chiefs will claim the AFC’s top seed for a second consecutive season. All of Patrick Mahomes’ favorite weapons still are in-house, and while his offensive line looks different than years past, the unit hasn’t necessarily regressed. Barring stunning underperformance and/or key injuries, Kansas City should enjoy a first-round bye to start its postseason run.
Now that we’ve gotten the boring part out of the way, here’s how we see the rest of the AFC playoff field taking shape.
1. Kansas City Chiefs (AFC West champion)
2. Cleveland Browns (AFC North champion)
3. Buffalo Bills (AFC East champion)
4. Tennessee Titans (AFC South champion)
5. New England Patriots (wild card)
6. Baltimore Ravens (wild card)
7. Los Angeles Chargers (wild card)
We might be foolish for being this bullish on the Browns, as Cleveland hasn’t met high expectations the past few seasons. But the franchise took a big step forward last season when it won its first playoff game since the 2002 campaign. Confidence should be high in Cleveland, especially given the consistency. The Browns have been on a coaching carousel the past few years, but they seem to have found some stability in Kevan Stefanski. We think Stefanski will put Baker Mayfield and Co. in the best position to succeed and, in turn, vault the Browns over the Ravens for the AFC North crown. As for the Pittsburgh Steelers, we believe they’ll fall short of the tournament due in large to a regressed Ben Roethlisberger and a weak offensive line.
Narrowly edged out for the No. 2 seed is the Bills, whose 2020 season ended in the AFC Championship Game. Buffalo’s ride to the AFC East title shouldn’t be as smooth in 2021, as all three of its division foes improved over the offseason. This includes the Patriots, who are poised to have a bruising offense to go along with one of the league’s best defenses. But it’s tough to expect a true rookie quarterback to lead a team to a division title, and we have our doubts about Tua Tagovailoa and the rest of the Miami Dolphins. Another AFC East championship in Buffalo should help Josh Allen strengthen his MVP candidacy.
The least-talked about 2021 AFC playoff team probably will be the Titans. There’s really nothing flashy about Tennessee, but it plays sound football and can hang with just about anybody in the league. Derrick Henry should be his usual self, but we’re not sure if the departures of Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith will be canceled out by the arrival of Julio Jones. We like Mike Vrabel’s team to repeat as division champs, but mostly because the rest of the competition in the AFC South isn’t very stiff.
Fresh off his Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign, we have faith in Justin Herbert taking the next step and leading the Chargers to the playoffs. But the young signal-caller isn’t the only thing to be excited about in LA, as the Bolts also feature a handful of game-changing defensive players. Top to bottom, we like the look of the Chargers more than other potential wild card candidates like the Dolphins and Indianapolis Colts.