With the NFL season set to kick off on Thursday Night Football, and the K.C. Chiefs nearly ready to host the Cleveland Browns on Sunday afternoon, let’s take a look at what the AFC could potentially look like by the end of the regular season.
The AFC conference should be very competitive this year with a handful of teams that could represent the conference in the Super Bowl, despite the Chiefs’ recent dominance.
Winning the division is usually the first goal that many teams set for themselves during the offseason, since it gives those teams at least one home playoff game and can be monumental in a toss-up game by having that home-field advantage.
Here are my predictions for the AFC in 2021.
1. Buffalo Bills
The Bills are coming off an AFC championship appearance, their first since 1993. Buffalo came up short to the Chiefs 38-24, but this was not a fluke or a lightning in a bottle situation. With Josh Allen at the helm, the Bills will have the edge at signal caller in almost every game they play in this year. After 20 years of suffering to New England, the Bills have taken over as the AFC East favorites, as long as they have Allen under center. That will not be a problem after Allen agreed to a six-year, $258 million extension with $150 million guaranteed.
The AFC East is overall a weak division with the Jets in a full rebuild, and the Patriots are nowhere near the team they used to be with Tom Brady. Buffalo easily has the best quarterback in the division in Allen, and after acquiring Stefon Diggs from the Vikings last season, we saw Allen take a major jump up in his performance. Last season, the 25-year-old quarterback took the expected third-year leap, throwing for 37 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. The young gunslinger threw for 4,544 yards, while completing a career high 69.2% of his passes.
With another season with Diggs and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, there is no reason to expect a different outcome this season. There is no other team in the division that can keep up offensively with the Bills’ explosive attack.
The two main problems that may not be exposed while playing against division opponents, but could prove to be an Achilles heel, is their lack of a rushing attack and an underwhelming defense that struggles to get to the quarterback. Devin Singletary was the team’s leading rusher with 687 yards, only about 250 yards more than Josh Allen. There is a lot on Allen’s shoulders when it comes to this offense. The team goes as far as he takes them.
On the defensive side of the ball, it was apparent in the draft that the Bills were focused on buffing up their defensive personnel. With their first two selections, the Bills went with defensive ends Gregory Rousseau and Boogie Basham. Those are two pass rushers who should give them a major boost up front and could be helpful in stopping the run—something that the team struggled mightily with last season.
Nonetheless, barring serious injuries, this should be a cakewalk division for the Buffalo Bills. Expect them to make another deep postseason run in 2021.
Record Prediction: 13-4
2. Miami Dolphins
Tua Tagovailoa is entering his second year in the league, and there are a lot of expectations for the former Alabama quarterback. Last season, Tagovailoa went 6-3 as a starter, but he was quite underwhelming in a majority of his starts. The team relied on defense and controlling the pace of play when the 23-year-old quarterback was starting.
This season, Tagovailoa is expected to make a major jump in his development with the additions in the passing attack. The Dolphins signed Will Fuller to a one-year, $10 million deal and drafted wide receiver Jaylen Waddle with the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft. If Tagovailoa struggles this season, it could be his last in Miami.
Fortunately for the young quarterback, he will be supported by a defense that can take some pressure off of him. Last season, Miami’s defense amassed 18 interceptions, the most in the NFL, and produced 41 sacks, 10th best in the league. After selecting Waddle, the Dolphins used their next two picks on defensive players in defensive end Jaelan Phillips and safety Jevon Holland. The secondary for Miami will be stout with the likes of Xavien Howard and Byron Jones, who may be one of the best cornerback tandems in the league.
However, quarterback play is what wins games in this league and the defense will not come to the rescue every week. Tagovailoa threw 11 touchdowns and five interceptions through nine games, and averaged a measly 6.3 yards per attempt. Tagovailoa was simply not that good last season, but I do expect him to take a step forward this season with a full offseason to learn the offense.
Record Prediction: 10-7
3. New England Patriots
New England was undermanned last season, but the team has improved drastically on both sides of the ball. In addition to bringing back a number of players who opted out last season, New England brought in Matt Judon, Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, and Kyle Van Noy.
Last week, the Patriots released Cam Newton and Mac Jones will be the starting quarterback. Jones was superb during the preseason, and showed his precision and accuracy, and the ability to diagnose defenses at the line of scrimmage This team will most likely lean on the defense, and let Jones manage the game.
Last season, New England was a sluggish, boring team to watch, due to the fact that there were no elite weapons on the outside. The Patriots averaged 20.4 points per game last season, ranking 27th in the league. In addition, Newton’s arm looked shot and he lacked the accuracy and velocity on his throws. In 15 games, Newton threw for a pitiful 8 touchdowns and 2,657 yards. Jones will be a clear upgrade for this offense.
With all that being said, I do think this year the Patriots are a better overall team, but I am not sure if they make a significant improvement in the win-loss column. In today’s NFL, the game caters to the offensive side of the ball, and New England is still not highly impressive on that side of the ball. They do not have enough offensive firepower to keep up with Buffalo, and the Dolphins should beat New England at least once this season. New England could push for the playoffs, but this year the AFC is loaded with young talent and the Patriots may just be on the outside looking in by the end of the season.
Record Prediction: 9-8
4. New York Jets
The Jets are entering a full rebuild with Robert Saleh as the head coach for this team.
New York has been in cultural turmoil, especially while Adam Gase was the head coach. Saleh was brought in to change the culture and the Jets paired the former 49ers’ defensive coordinator with highly-talented quarterback Zach Wilson. It seems that the Jets finally learned how to surround their quarterback with offensive line help and adequate weaponry to help guide the young signal caller. After selecting Wilson, the Jets drafted OL Alijah Vera-Tucker (13th overall from MIN), WR Elijah Moore (34th overall) and RB Michael Carter (107th overall). These were the Jets’ first four picks in the draft, signifying their priority to surround Wilson with as many offensive pieces as possible. New York also brought in wide receiver Corey Davis through free agency.
The offense will be a rollercoaster ride this season. The Jets are an incredibly young and inexperienced team with their first year head coach, a rookie quarterback, a new system, and an entirely new coaching staff. There will be times when the offense will click, and there will be other times when you will want to turn off the TV as a Jets’ fan.
Every quarterback will go through growing pains, especially when that quarterback is entering an organization that will have a head coach learning how to lead a team. New York will have a rough 2021 season, but there is a ton of optimism for this team’s future with all the young pieces assembled.
Record Prediction: 4-13