2021 NFL: AFC Conference Preview

by Wayne Root

AFC Conference Preview

Buffalo Bills, Win total: 10.5
The Bills won 13 games last season and looked like contenders for the Super Bowl for much of the year. This offseason they haven’t done anything to hurt their chances as they re-signed key players and were able to find replacements for key losses. And as long as Josh Allen stays healthy, they should continue to be a force in the AFC. Their schedule isn’t a cake walk, as they face both 2020 Super Bowl participants, but they also get the bottom of the NFC South and AFC South, which includes a Drew Brees-less Saints team and possibly the Texans without Deshaun Watson, along with the Jets and a Patriots team without a strong quarterback. As long as health isn’t a major factor, the Bills are poised for another strong season.

Coach Sean McDermott 
QB Josh Allen, Mitch Trubisky
RB Devin Singletary, Zack Moss
Defense: Jerry Hughes,A.J. Epenesa, Gregory Rousseau and Carlos Basham Jr; Ed Oliver, Matt Milano 
Buffalo is the team to beat with one of the best passing offenses in the league with a stout defense that can win on its own. The Bills have the ability to be the best team in the AFC at the end of the season. Buffalo crushed last season behind more improved play from Josh Allen and the arrival of Stefon Diggs. 

Miami Dolphins, Win total: 9
The Dolphins rode their defense and a scrappy Ryan Fitzpatrick to a 10 win season last year. Fitzpatrick was relieved by rookie Tua Tagovailoa, who did very little to help bring in wins. Tagovailoa is now the no-doubt starter for 2021 and a lot hinges on his development. He looked overmatched last season, but he was a rookie and hadn’t played live football in a long time due to his hip injury. A fully healed hip, full offseason as the starter and a strong overall team around him should help a bunch.The Dolphins added a great deep threat in Will Fuller and will add a strong running back in the draft. Najee Harris or Travis Etienne would go a long way toward keeping pressure off of Tagovailoa. And they have a lot of draft capital to get their running back while also upgrading elsewhere. In the end it comes down to Tagovailoa playing better, but he won’t have to do it alone.

Coach Brian Flores
QB Tua Tagovailoa, Jacoby Brissett 
RB Myles Gaskin, Malcolm Brown, and Salvon Ahmed
Defense: Emmanuel Ogbah, 
The Dolphins are at a major crossroads. They've built a quality roster up and down the depth chart, have youth on their side, and should be a contender, but only if Tua Tagavailoa is legitimate. It is difficult to not love what Miami is building under Brian Flores and a smart front office that has accumulated massive amounts of draft capital. The mission for 2021 is clear: set up Tua Tagovailoa for success in his second season. They brought in Will Fuller V, Jaylen Waddle, Hunter Long, and offensive line help. If Tua breaks out, Miami could content for not only the division, but a Super Bowl. 

New England Patriots, Win total: 9
Cam Newton was a disaster last season, but the Patriots still managed to win seven games. That’s a losing record of course, but after watching that offense last season, seven wins seems like a lot. The Patriots went hard at the start of free agency, upgrading the offensive line in a big way while adding the two best free agency tight ends in Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry. But none of those moves netted them a new quarterback. Until they add a quarterback who can give the offense more options, I can’t consider them a winning team.
Coach Bill Bilichick
QB Can Newton, Mac Jones
RB Damien Harris, James White
Defense: Matthew Judon, Davon Godchaux
The Patriots went against typical convention and spent a ton of money in free agency. They have a championship-caliber defense, but simply need to score more points in 2021. If Cam Newton can't get it done, then perhaps first-round pick Mac Jones can. New England is a bit of a sleeper for the division. The Patriots won seven games last year with not much on offense. Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, and Nelson Agholor add viability. I am bullish on Mac Jones with Bill Belichek and if Cam Newton does not show passing improvement from last year, expect to see Mac Jones by midseason.

New York Jets, Win total: 6.5
The Jets will go into 2021 with a new head coach and likely a new quarterback. But no matter how you look at it, it would take a small miracle for them to turn things around in Robert Saleh’s first season. They had just two wins last season and they’ve done fine in free agency, especially on the defensive side, but we’ll need to see a Justin Herbert kind of rookie season for them to be competitive. 
Coach Robert Saleh
QB Zach Wilson 
RB Ty Johnson, La’Michel Perine, Tevin Coleman
Defense: Carl Lawson, Quinnen Williams, Folorunso Fatukasi, Jarrad Davis and Sheldon Rankins. 
The only team not expected to compete in 2021 is the Jets, but they should still be worlds better than 2020. The Robert Saleh era is beginning, as is that for Zach Wilson. New York did a great job of surrounding him with talent both on the offensive line and pass-catcher groups. They should be more competitive week-to-week, even if it doesn't lead to a ton of wins. The Jets are a total wild card. The coaching staff is unproven in their new roles and they have a rookie quarterback that many weren't sure deserved to go 1 or 2 in the draft. 

Indianapolis Colts, Win total: 10
NOTE: Carson Wentz is out for two months. More info to follow

 The Colts were back in the playoffs last year, but this year the most important position on the field will look a lot different. Indy got former first-round pick Carson Wentz in a deal with the Eagles after an inconsistent career. They’re primarily a running team, with Marlon Mack and Jonathan Taylor leading the charge from the backfield. But Wentz’s inconsistencies in the past have to be a concern for this team that won 11 games a season ago. Their schedule is also not easy at all. On top of Tennessee and the new-look Jags, they’ll see the Bills, Patriots, Dolphins, Seahawks, Ravens and Super Bowl champion Buccaneers. So it won’t be a fun time
Coach Frank Reich
QB Carson Wentz
RB Johnathon Taylor
Defense: DeForest Buckner, Justin Houston
Outside of Wentz, Indianapolis wasn’t too busy this free agency period. Meaning, a good amount of its season now hinges on the draft and if Wentz remind everyone of 2017. And with how good the offensive line is, it’s safe to assume he will be more productive than he was in the 2020 NFL season. Does that mean Indy wins the division? Maybe. Expect a close race between the Colts and the Titans near the end of the season.

Tennessee Titans, Win total: 9.5

 The Titans won the division pretty easily with an 11 win year last season, but it’s unlikely to be that simple again this season. There just simply won’t be as many easy division wins up for grabs and they’ll have to take on the entire AFC East division, which has three quality teams in it. They also have to play Kansas City, which isn’t easy for anybody. Still, with Derrick Henry in the backfield, it’s tough to see them not getting to at least 10 wins.
Coach Mike Vrabel
QB Ryan Tannehill 
RB Derrick Henry
Defense: Bud Dupree, Denico Autry
The jury is still out on if Tennessee can repeat as division champion. At this point, it is far from a shoo-in. It will boil down to if the offense – specifically Derrick Henry – can put together anything close to another historic season. But as it stands now, fans should like Tennessee’s chances against the grain.

Jacksonville Jaguars, Win total: 6.5
After winning just one game a season ago, the betting world is high on the Jags. Why wouldn’t they be? Nabbing Urban Meyer as head coach is huge and it will be interesting to see how he makes the transition from college to the professional game. Barring anything unforeseen, they’ll also be picking up one of the best quarterback prospects in history in Clemson’s Trevor Lawerence.
Coach Urban Meyer
QB Trevor Lawrence 
RB James Robinson, Travis Etienne and Carlos Hyde
Defense: Josh Allen, Yannick Ngakoue
The excitement for Jacksonville entering the 2021 season is real, and it’s warranted. For the first time in a long time, the franchise seems to be making moves that make sense. And adding Urban Meyer is also gives fans an intriguing storyline to follow throughout the season. However, they are far from contending for the divisional crown. The team is still young around the edges, and unless Lawrence hits the ground running, the offense is going to go through growing pains. But the reason for excitement is still there.
Houston Texans, Win total: 4.5
With Bill O’Brien out of the picture, 4.5 wins should be an easy number to hit. But with off-the-field allegations swirling about star QB Deshaun Watson, there’s no certainty that he’ll be around when the season is kicked off this fall. The roster isn’t full of elite talent littered everywhere, so without Watson, it could be a rough first season for new head coach David Culley.
Coach David Culley
QB Tyrod Taylor, Ryan Finley, Jeff Driskel and the rookie Davis Mills
RB Mark Ingram II, David Johnson, Phillip Lindsay 
Defense: ( Key Losses: DE J.J. Watt),
Shaq Lawson, and major rebuild.
Watson and his legal situation stand center stage for now. He is the organization’s best player, and without him, not many football games are going to be won in Houston. Hypothetically, if Watson can play, still Houston is looking at a lengthy rebuild. Their chances at contention in the AFC South are slim-to-none. And the two quarterbacks, Taylor and Finley, are clear insurance against a Watson suspension. There is a good chance the Texans franchise quarterback doesn’t play this season as he faces a litany of lawsuits for his alleged misconduct. These two quarterbacks give Houston at least a chance to have an average offense if Watson is unavailable come the fall.

Baltimore Ravens, Win total: 11
The Ravens made their way to the AFC Divisional Round of the playoffs last season where they fell to the Buffalo Bills’ stout defense. The Baltimore offense, which saw such success in 2019 and parts of 2020 will be under a lot of pressure this season. There were times went they became too one-dimensional and even reportedly had opposing defenses calling out specific plays before they were even run.

Coach John Harbaugh
QB Lamar Jackson 
RB J.K. Dobbins & Lamar Jackson 
Defense: Calais Campbell, Derek Wolfe, Brandon Williams
The Ravens didn’t have as successful of a 2020 campaign when compared to their 2019 year where they really burst onto the scene. I believe the addition of wide receiver Rashod Bateman and Tylan Wallace will help balance out their passing attack to complement how good they are on the ground—but it might not be right away, as those guys are rookies. On the other side, I think the defense will still be good, but their pass rushers will tell the story of just how good. The Ravens have a tough schedule
Cleveland Browns, Win total: 9.5
The Browns made the playoffs for the first time since 2002 last season under first-year head coach Kevin Stefanski. They nearly took down the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round as well but came up just short. Their biggest weakness was their secondary, which was injured and iffy at best. They added a couple of free agents in safety John Johnson and corner Troy Hill to sure up the back end of the defense.
The solid offense led by Baker Mayfield doesn't lose much and will get back Odell Beckham Jr. after dealing with injuries the latter half of the season.

Coach Kevin Stefanski 
QB Baker Mayfield 
RB Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt
Defense: Malik Jackson, Andrew Billings, Jordan Elliott, 
In free agency, they added Jadeveon Clowney and Takk McKinley on the edge. In the draft, they added Greg Newsome II at cornerback. They bring back one of the best offensive lines in football with one of the top rushing attacks to lean on, led by Nick Chubb. They’ll also get wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. back after he missed most of last season with injury.
People have believed in the Browns before and been burned, but this is a roster to bet on—especially with last year’s Coach of the Year, Kevin Stefanski. They will go as far as their quarterback Baker Mayfield can take them. The heights of that could even be to the AFC Championship Game, and maybe even a Super Bowl appearance. 
Pittsburgh Steelers, Win total: 8.5
The Steelers had an extremely shaky season in 2020. They started the season out on fire, winning their first 11 games, but losing all but one for the remainder of the season. There are question marks surrounding the offense, as it failed miserably for the last month and a half of the season before getting whacked in the playoffs by their division rival, the Browns. The defense remains solid though, with one of the better pass rushes in the NFL.
Coach Mike Tomlin 
QB Ben Roethlisberger 
RB Najee Harris
Defense: Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Tyson Alualu, 
It was a tale of two teams in 2020 for the Steelers, and they started the year off 11-0 and then lost five of their last six, including their first-round playoff game. Roethlisberger, for as impactful as he has been for nearly two decades, really looked like he lost a step last year. When the running game was not on point, Roethlisberger struggled when asked to take over games. The Steelers added running back Najee Harris in the first round of the draft, but lost veterans along their offensive line and it’s hard to believe they’ll be able to survive what is the hardest schedule in the NFL in terms of last year’s win-loss records.
Cincinnati Bengals, Win total: 6.5
The Bengals ended the 2020 season with four wins and a rookie QB with a decimated ACL. Joe Burrow was taken down more than any other QB in the league before he got injured in week 11, so the offensive line needs a ton of work to protect their prized signal-caller. There are always questions surrounding how well a player will recover from such a serious injury as well and how fast he can get back to 100%. Still, if he’s able to play the whole season, they should inch close to that 6.5 win mark.
Coach Zac Taylor 
QB Joe Burrow 
RB Joe Mixon
Defense: D.J. Reader, Larry Ogunjobi, Mike Daniels
I think the Bengals will take another step this next season, hopefully with Burrow as their quarterback for all 17 regular season games. However, this is still a roster that is building and, unfortunately for Cincinnati, they’re in one of the toughest divisions in football. This isn’t a playoff team yet, but it could be an important year for the Bengals’ current regime to tell everyone the arrow is pointing up.

Kansas City Chiefs, Win total: 12

Coach Andy Reid
QB Patrick Mahomes
RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire
Defense: Chris Jones, Derrick Nnadi. Tyrann Mathieu.

The two-time reigning AFC champions are favored by many to win the Super Bowl like they did two years ago. In 2020, KC won 14 games in the regular season, both of which came to a divisional opponent. They’re returning virtually every major contributor to the team from last season and will still be led by Patrick Mahomes. Because of that, it’s tough to see them winning any less than 12 games.

The Competition has Final Caught up to Them

The Chiefs are the perennial favorite in this division, as they represented the AFC in the last two Super Bowls. Their offense is still a high-powered one that is almost impossible to defend. But opposing teams, especially the trio in this division, have tried to build their team to compete with them. Some opted to bolster their defenses to attempt to slow them down, while others added to their offenses to be able to keep up with the Chiefs on the scoreboard and hope to come out on top. The Patrick Mahomes led offense will still put points up with efficiency.

Note** As good as the 14-2 Chiefs were last year, the last we saw of them was in Super Bowl LV against Tom Brady and the TB Buccaneers who crushed them by the lopsided score of 31-9, the worst offensive performance by QB Patrick Mahomes since he has been in the NFL.

Las Vegas Raiders, Win total: 7.5

Coach Jon Gruden
QB Derrick Carr
RB Josh Jacobs
Defense: Solomon Thomas, Johnathan Abram, Trevon Moehrig.

No matter what happens on the field in Vegas this season, Jon Gruden will still be the head coach for the foreseeable future. Last season, nothing the team did was fantastic but nothing they did was horrible either. That’s why they came out of the season with an 8-8 record. They’ve made some odd moves along the offensive front this offseason, trading away key pieces and signing young players to absurd extensions. But with the young players this team has on offense and if Derek Carr continues to play at the level he did toward the end of last season, Vegas shouldn’t take a step back in the win column. Not saying they’ll be in the playoffs, but they shouldn’t regress.

Sin City gets Wins

The Raiders in their second season in Las Vegas, the first with fans, are hoping their defense can stay healthy. Offensively, receiver Henry Ruggs will have more of an impact than in his rookie campaign last season. Derek Carr will finally quiet the naysayers who have questioned whether or not he is head coach Jon Gruden’s guy, and whether he can take his team to the next level. The answer to both will remain unanswered for another season.

Note** As great as the Raiders played last season on offense – they were top-10 in both points and yards – they lacked an effective defense, their squad allowing almost 30 points per game, which was the third-most in the league.
Los Angeles Chargers, Win total: 9

Coach Brandon Staley
QB Justin Herbert
RB Austin Ekeler
Defense: Joey Bosa

The Chargers have a promising future ahead with Justin Herbert at the helm of the team. Still, he’ll be heading into his second NFL season with a new head coach, Brandon Staley. They have solid offensive weapons and a decent defense, but having to pick up an entire second offensive system in less than 12 months is a big ask for a young QB.

Changing of the Guard

This division has belonged to Andy Reid and the Kansas City Chiefs, but that will come to an end. Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert‘s career path took an early turn thanks to the team’s medical staff. He made the most amazing opportunity. The Chargers were a must-watch every week. Although he didn’t record many wins, the Chargers were in every game. The Offensive Rookie of the Year will put up even more impressive numbers than last season.

Note** It was quite a surprise to watch rookie quarterback Justin Herbert adjust so quickly to the NFL last season, the kid completing almost 67 percent of his passes for 31 touchdowns with just 10 interceptions on the year, fantastic numbers for a veteran let alone a freshman player.

Denver Broncos, Win total: 7.5

Coach Vic Fangio
QB Drew Lock
RB Melvin Gordon
Defense: Von Miller, Bradley Chubb, and Justin Simmons.

The Broncos were by far the worst team in the division last season, just earning five wins. Looking at the schedule this season, it probably won’t get much easier having to face off with KC and Oakland twice. They don’t face a ton of other playoff teams from last season, but they do see teams that are still vastly better than they are in the Cowboys, Steelers, Washington as well as the Browns and Ravens who were in the playoffs.

The Quarterback Turmoil Continues

Another season and another controversy at the quarterback position in Denver. Injuries plagued this team last season, especially at the receiver position. But the organization’s confidence in Drew Lock has wavered just a bit. The Broncos acquired Teddy Bridgewater, who was one and done in Carolina after the Panthers traded for Sam Darnold. The decision of who will start Week 1 will likely be decided after the preseason. Even then the decision may not be set in stone, but rather week by week. With the young receivers healthy, whoever the quarterback is, will have viable options in the passing game.

Note** Denver Broncos – there are a number of problems with the Denver Broncos right now, with a big one being the question of who will be starting under center, though second-year player Drew Lock has been trying, so far with an 8-10 record as the starting QB in Denver. Lock’s main problem was with accuracy – he tied for the league lead in interceptions with 15 

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