Early Look at 2023-24 AFC Surprise Threats

by Nelly's Sports

Kansas City has hosted the AFC Championship in five straight seasons and every AFC Championship game since 2011-12 head featured either the Chiefs or Patriots (or both). In that span 10 of 16 AFC teams have made at least one AFC Championship game appearance however and while a third straight pairing of Bengals/Chiefs is possible, here are three candidates that could make a surprise climb in 2023-24 as we wait for Super Bowl 57. 

Baltimore Ravens (10-7, 2nd Place AFC North): 

At full strength with Lamar Jackson the Ravens have looked like one of the best teams in the AFC and in his career, Jackson is 49-21 as a starter. The Ravens nearly won a playoff game this last season with Tyler Huntley at quarterback however and the off-season could provide a messy split for the Ravens and Jackson. If they keep Jackson the Ravens are immediately a top tier AFC contender but without him Baltimore will have significant cap space to bring in a quality option at quarterback and this franchise has proven it can still compete with average quarterback play. 

The AFC North will remain a difficult division with Cincinnati coming off back-to-back AFC Championship appearances, Cleveland poised to be a threat with Deshaun Watson for a full season, and Pittsburgh seemingly always competitive even with low expectations. John Harbaugh’s track record is excellent however and Baltimore could be a team to buy-low in the off-season if Jackson talks are not going particularly well. 

Baltimore and the rest of the AFC North will play all four AFC South teams, generally a favorable draw in recent years, and in 2023-24 that quartet features two teams in coaching transitions. The NFC division draw is the West which looks much less formidable heading into 2023-24 than it did in most of the past few seasons. The second place path for Baltimore is a difficult one and will put the Ravens at a slight disadvantage with its division peers, facing the Lions, Chargers, and Dolphins. 

Baltimore has major decisions to make this offseason but has cap space to do so and will likely enter 2023-24 with less momentum in the marketplace than the other teams in the division. This franchise has been to the playoff four of the past five seasons however and Harbaugh is 147-95 in his career in the regular season and owns a Super Bowl title, as this is a team that should remain a threat no matter how an interesting off-season sorts out. 

New England Patriots (8-9, 3rd Place AFC East): 

The Patriots had a positive scoring differential that was sixth best in the AFC last season. New England had an uneven season that included several close and a few puzzling losses but it is not a significant leap to think this group can climb back into the postseason in 2023-24. New England will get a third place schedule which means games with Saints, Colts, and Steelers for a decent path though drawing the AFC West and NFC East will make the schedules for all the teams in the AFC East grade difficultly next season. 

The key for New England will be Mac Jones, who had a significantly worse second season in the NFL compared to his solid rookie season. Jones missed three games and battled health issues as a rebound season is reasonable to expect. His backup Bailey Zappe did show some promise if things would suddenly turn poorly for Jones or if he would suffer a major injury setback as New England should remain competitive again after just missing the playoffs last season. 

New England is in a good salary cap situation for next season and has decent draft capital picking 14th in the first round while having an extra fourth round pick. The AFC East will remain a difficult division as the Bills don’t expect to go anywhere as one of the AFC favorites while Miami and New York showed plenty of promise last season. New England won only four home games for a rare outcome as there is good reason to expect the Patriots will have slightly better results in 2023-24 and get back on the playoff map. 

Jacksonville Jaguars (9-8, 1st Place AFC South): 

The Jaguars went from 3-14 in 2021-22 to 9-8 and a division title in 2022-23. A coaching change from a disastrous season with Urban Meyer improved the team dramatically under Doug Pederson and a stunning comeback playoff win should provide this team with some momentum into next season in a favorable AFC South division. 

Many thought the Colts would be AFC contenders last season, but Indianapolis had a terrible season and is now in a coaching transition with quarterback questions. Tennessee also failed to back up its recent success and will have quarterback questions as well. Houston is in another coaching change season as well and will start from the bottom as few teams will be bigger favorites in their own divisions next season than the Jaguars. 

Jacksonville has extra fourth and sixth round draft picks this spring to add depth and while the Jaguars are stretched for cap space, they have a potentially elite quarterback on a rookie contract which has been the key to making a Super Bowl run in recent years. Trevor Lawrence made a dramatic leap of improvement from his rookie season and should be considered a candidate in the MVP race for next season. 

Jacksonville’s schedule is going to be incredibly favorable simply due to the six AFC South games even if the 1st place draw means facing Bills, Chiefs, and 49ers teams that the rest of the division avoids. The AFC South plays the NFC South teams with all four of those teams being losing teams in 2022-23 as overall the schedule for the Jaguars will still rate favorably. Jacksonville won six of seven games late in the season to finish strong in a major transition season and rising to being a serious AFC and Super Bowl threat is in the realm of possibility in 2023-24. 


All photographic images used for editorial content have been licensed from the Associated Press.

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