AFC Contenders who could challenge the KC Chiefs in the playoffs

KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI - JANUARY 19: Patrick Mahomes #15 of the Kansas City Chiefs holds up the Lamar Hunt trophy after defeating the Tennessee Titans in the AFC Championship Game at Arrowhead Stadium on January 19, 2020 in Kansas City, Missouri. The Chiefs defeated the Titans 35-24. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI - JANUARY 19: Patrick Mahomes #15 of the Kansas City Chiefs holds up the Lamar Hunt trophy after defeating the Tennessee Titans in the AFC Championship Game at Arrowhead Stadium on January 19, 2020 in Kansas City, Missouri. The Chiefs defeated the Titans 35-24. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images) /
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Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill
NASHVILLE, TN – DECEMBER 15: Ryan Tannehill #17 of the Tennessee Titans throws a pass in the first half of a game against the Houston Texans at Nissan Stadium on December 15, 2019 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images) /

Tier Three

Tennessee Titans

If someone had told you a year ago that the Tennessee Titans would make it to the AFC Championship leaning on Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry, you would have laughed in their face—especially when they told you that to get there, they would have to beat the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens on the road. That’s how quickly things can change in the NFL.

The hard part will be maintaining that kind of success for more than one season. Tennessee extended Tannehill and franchise-tagged Henry this offseason, but they lost significant pieces on both sides of the ball. Right tackle Jack Conklin left to sign with the Cleveland Browns, and cornerback Logan Ryan remains a free agent. However, the Titans are hoping to have found replacements in the draft with Isaiah Wilson and Kristian Fulton.

Whether or not the Titans can build upon their impressive 2019 season is the question. Without the salary cap space to make moves in free agency due to money going to Tannehill and Henry, it’s hard to see Tennessee having the same success in 2020. How will the defense look following the retirement of defensive coordinator Dean Pees?

Winning the AFC South will likely be the only path to the playoffs, but if Rivers can’t bounce back in Indy, that could be an easier task considering the Jacksonville Jaguars tore everything down and Bill O’Brien is making sure the Texans have the hardest path to success possible.

Pittsburgh Steelers

After losing Ben Roethlisberger for the season in Week 2, it’s incredible that the Pittsburgh Steelers were able to remain in contention for a wild-card spot for most of the season. That was possible because the defense was one of the best units in 2019. Trading their first-round pick in 2020 for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, the Steelers dominated opposing offenses. Fitzpatrick and T.J. Watt led the defense to rank first in takeaways and sacks in 2019.

The 2020 Steelers will look very similar to the roster from 2019, aside from disastrous quarterback play from Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges. Expecting Big Ben to pick up where things left off looking as good or better in 2020 than he did previously would be malpractice. Coming back from elbow surgery to his throwing arm and turning 38 this offseason, that just doesn’t seem like a reasonable expectation.

Thankfully, if the defense can continue to play at an elite level or close in 2020, Roethlisberger just needs to be average to take this team to the playoffs. If the playoff structure had been in effect last year, the Steelers would have made it as the seventh seed. Pittsburgh has plenty of opportunities to make a postseason run in 2020, but how far will depend on Big Ben.