Contenders or Pretenders: AFC Edition

Bills Chiefs Divisional Round
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

As we roll into week 13, the AFC is still chock-full of competitive teams fighting for a playoff spot. The AFC East has all four teams in the hunt, the Bengals and Ravens are both 7-4, and the Titans and Chiefs seem to have control over their divisions. It may not be very clear which teams are for real and which aren’t based on records alone. Today I will analyze each AFC team over .500 and figure out which are real contenders and which are the pretenders.

AFC West

Chiefs: Contenders

  • Record: 9-2

This one is pretty self-explanatory. Patrick Mahomes hasn’t missed a beat losing Tyreek Hill and is my pick to win the MVP right now. Before the season began, we looked at this division as possibly one of the most loaded we’ve ever seen. But the end result seems to be the same as always, with the Chiefs being head and shoulders above everyone else.

Chargers: Pretenders

  • Record: 6-5

The only other team in this division that can realistically get a playoff spot. The Chargers invested heavily in their defense in the offseason but it has not paid off. J.C. Jackson was lost for the year after playing only five games and Khalil Mack has put together a good, not great season. They currently rank worse than they did last year defensively which has put more pressure on Justin Herbert to win them games. Herbert has been dealing with his rib injury and has had a revolving door of receivers all year long. Even if the Chargers do limp their way into a Wild Card spot, I don’t see them going anywhere.

AFC East

Dolphins: Contenders

  • Record: 8-3

Miami’s offseason additions have been the perfect recipe for success all year. Don’t let the three losses fool you, the Dolphins are 8-0 this season when Tua Tagovailoa plays full games. They lost him for about 2 ½ games to his concussion suffered against the Bengals. It was funny seeing people say Tua shouldn’t play again this season after that injury, or Tua doesn’t have the durability to survive in this league. I bet they feel a bit different now.

Miami has won five straight since his return, granted, it was all against inferior opponents. They have a gauntlet of a schedule to get through now and it will be a good litmus test for how dangerous they are. I think the Dolphins are for real this year but they more than any team need a first-round bye and home-field advantage in the playoffs.

Bills: Contenders

  • Record: 8-3

The Bills have hit a rough patch in their season after Josh Allen‘s untimely elbow injury, but this shouldn’t make them any less dangerous when playoff time comes. In addition to Allen, Von Miller has been banged up along with several other key players on the defense. Luckily, most of these injuries are short-term and the Bills can get close to full strength once the playoffs arrive. I still believe the Bills are the second-best AFC team behind the Chiefs.

Jets: Pretenders

  • Record: 7-4

The Jets are impressive, I’ll give them that. Their 7-4 record will always puzzle me when you consider the trainwreck of a situation they have at quarterback. I thought this team would die off when Breece Hall went down with his knee injury but they have hung around thanks to Robert Saleh’s job with his defense. Now I just think the Jets will die a slower, more painful death as their playoff hopes slowly dwindle away.

Patriots: Pretenders

  • Record: 6-5

Like the Jets, I frankly can’t believe the Pats are still fighting for a Wild Card spot. Both teams are quite similar, really. Led by elite defenses and held back by inconsistent QB play. I could see the Patriots sneaking into the playoffs more than I do the Jets, but the end result would be the same for both: first-round exit.

AFC North

Bengals: Contenders

  • Record: 7-4

The Bengals are getting hot and have undeniably been improving over the past three games. We’re beginning to see the same Bengals offense from last year thanks to much better play from the offensive line. They have allowed both Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine to score nine combined touchdowns over the last three games. Fortunately, the Bengals should be getting back Ja’Marr Chase and Joe Mixon for their upcoming game. The Bengals are not a team you want to face right now and could be one of the hottest teams heading into the playoffs.

Ravens: Pretenders

  • Record: 7-4

The Ravens are an interesting team. If it weren’t for two massive choke jobs against Miami and Jacksonville, the Ravens would be 9-2 right now. The thing is, I don’t think those were the Ravens just getting unlucky, their defense threw both of those games away in shocking fashion. When you add the fact that they have no true WR1 with Rashod Bateman gone, things begin to look bleak for Baltimore. Lamar Jackson could lead this team into the playoffs but he will not carry them far.

AFC South

Titans: Pretenders

Record: 7-4

When a conversation comes up about the NFL’s top coaches, Mike Vrabel better be in it. The Titans were more of an afterthought coming into the season after trading A.J. Brown but look like their usual selves again. With a healthy Derrick Henry, the Titans are pretty good but they are also benefiting immensely from being in the worst division in football. Their only AFC losses were against the Bills, Chiefs, and Bengals, which tells me this team isn’t ready to contend just yet.

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