This AFC playoff race is going to be a sight to behold. Roughly a dozen teams believe they have playoff-caliber rosters, so it will be great to watch the stretch run. With only seven open spots in the playoffs, here are our predictions for who will make the cut.
- No. 1: Cincinnati Bengals
It feels like it’s the Cincinnati Bengals time. Joe Burrow is expected to be ready to go in Week 1 despite his training camp injury scare. He will again assert himself as one of the best quarterbacks this year. Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins give Burrow one of the most lethal receiving duos in football, alongside Joe Mixon and a complementary ground attack. It’s noteworthy that the offensive line looks like the best that Burrow has had, which cannot be overlooked. Defensively, they aren’t elite, but given the AFC contenders, it’s all about offense, offense, and more offense.
- No. 2: Kansas City Chiefs
Not having the Kansas City Chiefs as the No. 1 seed in the conference feels somewhat disrespectful given what they’ve accomplished in recent regular seasons, but they can’t be No. 1 every year. Heading in 2023, I’m concerned about the talent and depth in the Chiefs wide receiver room. While Patrick Mahomes can make anyone look good, no one is reliable on this year’s depth chart. To take it a step further, what if Travis Kelce gets hurt? Trust in Mahomes is understandable and warranted, but I anticipate the lack of depth causing the Chiefs a game or two, enough to cost them the first-round bye.
- No. 3: Jacksonville Jaguars
The AFC South is extremely weak, but the Jacksonville Jaguars are rising. In his first season in Jacksonville, Doug Pederson overhauled the team and made Trevor Lawrence into one of the best young quarterbacks in football. Everything came together down the stretch for the Jaguars as they won seven of their final nine games, won the AFC South, and won a playoff game. Expectations are higher heading into this season, and the Jaguars are ready to meet the moment. Calvin Ridley‘s insertion will matter much more to Lawrence’s development, as he has all the tools to take the leap into the elite tier of NFL quarterbacks. The division is so bad that the Jaguars have basically a guaranteed six wins, so don’t be surprised if the Jaguars challenge for the No. 1 seed in the conference.
- No. 4: New York Jets
The AFC East has been the talk of the NFL offseason, as the New York Jets have overhauled their team and brought in Aaron Rodgers to lead the franchise back to relevancy. He’s already made the Jets relevant again, but I anticipate him winning the division. To start, this defense can be the best in all of football. Sauce Gardner is arguably the best cornerback in football, and Robert Saleh should be able to get the most out of a solid and deep defensive line. Offensively, Garrett Wilson is poised for a breakout season with Rodgers slinging him the ball, with Breece Hall and Dalvin Cook creating a dangerous backfield. The offensive line is concerning, certainly, but not enough to stop the Jets from winning the division.
- No. 5: Los Angeles Chargers
I’m incredibly bullish on the Los Angeles Chargers heading into this season, and I wouldn’t be entirely shocked if they went on to steal the AFC West from the Chiefs. I expect huge things from Justin Herbert under the direction of new offensive coordinator and play-caller Kellen Moore. He’ll unlock Herbert. The skill positions show this is the best in football. Austin Ekeler, Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Quentin Johnston, and Joshua Palmer give the Chargers many attack options. Defensively, the Chargers were average last year but dealt with many injuries. The Chargers are for real; don’t dismiss them.
- No. 6: Buffalo Bills
I’m not high on the Buffalo Bills this year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they even missed the playoffs in this crowded playoff picture. Still, Josh Allen will do enough to will this team into the postseason. Say what you want about Allen falling on his face last postseason, but he can be exquisite in the regular season. I’m concerned about the long-term relationship between Stefon Diggs and the organization, but he and Allen will handle their business in the regular season. Defensively, the loss of Leslie Frazier as defensive coordinator can’t be overlooked. I’m worried about the lack of difference-makers on this unit without Von Miller to start this season. The margin of error is very narrow in a tough division and tough playoff chase.
- No. 7: Pittsburgh Steelers
In all likelihood, the final wild-card spot in the AFC will come down to the final hours of Week 18, with multiple teams and tiebreakers impacting this spot. It will be that close. Teams like the Miami Dolphins, Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, New England Patriots, and even the Denver Broncos will all be vying for this spot. Still, I’m trusting the Pittsburgh Steelers this season for multiple reasons. For starters, I think people forget that Kenny Pickett exists, and there were reasons to believe he could take a step forward in 2023. Next, Mike Tomlin isn’t a loser, and a squad led by him can never be ignored. Lastly, and most importantly, TJ Watt is healthy. Last season, when Watt was on the field, the Steelers were 8-2. Without him, they were 1-6. Dismiss this team at your peril.
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