Who are the Contenders and Pretenders in the AFC?


As is the case in every new year of NFL drama, the leading actors have once again changed for the 2020 NFL season.

The Chiefs are among the league's Super Bowl contenders yet again after winning it all last year, but there are some new faces in the race to the title this year that the Chiefs will have to go through in order to #RunItBack.

The NFL is now seven weeks into the 2020 season and teams are starting to separate themselves as contenders or pretenders. While teams can still fall off a cliff, rise through the ranks, or maintain their current levels of play, the picture is immensely more clear now than it was at the start of the season.

What this means is that we can start to look at the presumptive AFC contenders and how the Chiefs stack up to them right now. Many of the following overviews of the AFC contenders will be leaning on FootballOutsiders' DVOA model, so if you aren’t familiar with it, read up on it here.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are the first team in the group of perspective AFC contenders, and for good reason. The Steelers defense picked up right where they left off in 2019 and are sporting the second-best defense in the league by DVOA. The Steelers and their defense were dragged down in 2019 by terrible backup quarterbacks when Ben Roethlisberger tore tendons in his elbow. With Big Ben back and playing much better than the bottom-of-the-barrel quarterbacks the Steelers trotted out on the field last year, the Steelers have raced out to a 6-0 record. Questions still remain on how Big Ben looks this year, as it seems like his arm isn’t quite all the way back, but if Big Ben can distribute the ball to his deep wide receiving corps efficiently, the Steelers are real contenders when a proficient offense is paired with their intimidating defense.

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson is following up on his 2019 MVP campaign with a noticeable drop in efficiency so far in 2020. In no other game was this more noticeable than the Ravens' loss to the Chiefs on Monday Night Football where Jackson threw for only 97 yards. While the Ravens' offense hasn’t been the juggernaut they were last year, as they are the 19th rated offense by DVOA so far, Baltimore's defense has been great. Other than one shellacking by Patrick Mahomes, the Ravens' defense, with the addition of rookie linebacker Patrick Queen, has been stout and is the third-rated defense by DVOA so far this year. With the addition of Yannick Ngakoue, the Ravens actually might be carried by defense rather than offense down the stretch. Whether the Ravens can beat the Chiefs is probably the main question looming over the team as of now, and until they answer that question with a resounding "yes," their path to the Super Bowl won’t be an optimistic one.

Kevin Stefanski and the Cleveland Browns as a whole have been a nice storyline to start the 2020 season boasting an impressive 5-2 record so far on the year. Even with the impressive record, questions do remain about the Browns' staying power and validity as a true contender. The two best teams the Browns have played are their division rivals Ravens and Steelers, and the Browns got absolutely eviscerated by them. With their wins being against middling teams and the Indianapolis Colts, it is hard to gauge how strong the Browns truly are. The main reason for this uncertainty is the up and down play of quarterback Baker Mayfield, who has produced great games and ugly games so far this year. Even without Odell Beckham Jr., who is now lost for the remainder of the season, the Browns boast enough talent to make noise this year and are led defensively by Myles Garrett, who is making a case for defensive player of the year consideration. Time will tell if the Browns are true contenders as the season goes on, but the team's history and a tough division imply that they are pretenders for now.

Quarterback Josh Allen has cooled off after a red hot start this year, and the Buffalo Bills seem to be floundering a bit. The good news for the Bills is that the AFC East is looking as weak as ever right now with the Patriots finally toppling from their throne without Tom Brady. The bad news is that their defense has been porous so far this year, boasting a 21st-ranked defensive DVOA. The Chiefs saw this first-hand when they played the Bills' defense and ran for more rushing yards than they had as a team in eight years. If Josh Allen does not return to MVP form — and he has the talent and weapons to do so — then it’s hard to see the Bills doing much more this year than winning the AFC East.

Last year's other AFC finalist, the Tennessee Titans, are back and look good again this year. While the Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry combo is a frightening one, there are reasons to think the Titans might be a paper tiger. For one, their defense is ranked only 17th in defensive DVOA so far this year and has not put up much resistance in many games so far. The Titans' special teams are the second-worst in the league per DVOA, in large part due to Stephen Gostowski’s failures at kicker so far this year where the longtime excellent kicker has only made 63% of his field goals. Finally, the Titans have played a pretty easy schedule so far this year, ranking 24th per DVOA. Their upcoming schedule? 11th hardest. With Taylor Lewan out for the year with a torn ACL, time will tell how good this Titans team really is.

The final AFC team that has separated themselves from the pack somewhat, the Indianapolis Colts, have ridden their fourth-rated defense by defensive DVOA to a 4-2 start. At times, the Colts' defense has been suffocating for their opponents, this might’ve been due to the quality of their opponents rather than the Colts' defense performing well. In the last two games, the Colts have given up 32 and 27 points to the Browns and Bengals, respectively. In addition to this, the Colts have played the easiest schedule so far in the entire league. With their remaining schedule ranking seventh-hardest, can the defense carry an obviously declining Phillip Rivers? Rivers has looked his age so far this year and has been a negative asset to the team on numerous occasions through only six weeks. Unless Rivers can turn it around, it’s hard to imagine the Colts as a serious Super Bowl threat, even with the strong start to their year.

So, how is the Chiefs’ path back to the Super Bowl shaking out in the AFC? Well so far, if the Chiefs play at their best, there is no one in the AFC that should stop them. The Chiefs have already proven they are better than two other serious contenders in the conference, and the only question that remains would come with a potential meeting between the Steelers and Chiefs.

Due to the Steelers losing their great, young linebacker Devin Bush for the year, along with Roethlisberger looking a bit like his age, it’s hard to imagine the Chiefs couldn’t beat the Steelers if they played a good game. The only other team in the NFL that could, seemingly, match the Chiefs is actually in the NFC, and that team is led by a certain 43-year-old quarterback. What happens in that matchup will be determined later this year when the Chiefs take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and that 43-year-old quarterback, Tom Brady. With how the AFC is looking right now, that matchup looks to be a good bet as an early Super Bowl preview. 

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