The New England Patriots are no longer the juggernauts of the AFC. After winning the AFC nine times and making it to the AFC Championship Game 13 times in an 18-year stretch from 2001 to 2018, the Patriots have retreated from their lofty pedestal. Now, it’s the Kansas City Chiefs that reign supreme in this conference, and they are once again the team to beat after winning the last two AFC Championships.
As long as Patrick Mahomes is healthy, the Chiefs will be among the favorites to win the AFC. He has set the league ablaze in his first three seasons as the starter, leading Kansas City to a 37-8 record in the regular season over the last three years. Mahomes is in a league of his own with his gaudy stats at this stage of his career, and this offense figures to be the best in the conference once more in 2021. All of his favorite targets (Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, and Mecole Hardman) are back, and Clyde Edwards-Helaire should progress in his second season.
Kansas City has a solid defensive line with Chris Jones, Frank Clark, and Derrick Nnadi up front. However, there are concerns in the back seven aside from star safety Tyrann Mathieu. Linebacker Willie Gay is an X-Factor that could make this defense better than expected, but the cornerbacks could be a big issue.
Buffalo was the most surprising team of the 2020 season. Josh Allen stunned everyone with a fantastic year that saw him complete 69.2% of his passes for 4,544 yards with 37 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. The acquisition of Stefon Diggs helped this offense reach new heights, and they made it all the way to the AFC Championship Game last year after beating Indianapolis and Baltimore in the playoffs. If Allen plays at that same level in 2021, Buffalo should cruise to the playoffs.
Is this the year that the Cleveland Browns make their first Super Bowl appearance? Cleveland’s historic woes have been well-documented, but the Browns won their first playoff game in 26 years this January. They only lost by five points to the Chiefs in the AFC Divisional Round, and they have reason to believe they will be even better in 2021. Odell Beckham Jr. is healthy once more, and this defense has continually improved over the past two years.
The Miami Dolphins could be ready to contend after completely bottoming out two years ago. Miami made the most of its downturn in 2019, and the Dolphins surged back with a 10-6 record last season. Brian Flores is clearly a top tier NFL head coach, and this defense is solid with Xavien Howard coming to terms with the team. Everything depends on Tua Tagovailoa. This is his team now that Ryan Fitzpatrick is in Washington, and even above average play should lead to a double-digit win season given the talent on the roster.
One of the biggest examples of addition by subtraction might be the Los Angeles Chargers replacing Anthony Lynn with another coach. Lynn was consistently harangued as one of the league’s worst coaches in his last two seasons at the helm of the Chargers. Brandon Staley is a first-time head coach, but he can’t do any worse than Lynn. There is a lot to like too after a promising rookie season from Justin Herbert, and this offense should be very good. The defense should be much better too if Derwin James stays healthy.