The Kansas City Chiefs are back-to-back AFC champions, and they're in a good position to repeat that feat again this year. The rest of the conference is still worth taking a look at, though.
While some usual suspects remain at the top, others near the bottom have overturned their rosters enough to potentially make a difference in 2021. With seven playoff teams and just one top seed to fight for, battling for home field advantage will mean that much more for the second consecutive season.
Arrowhead Report's Mark Van Sickle joined me on Monday's Roughing the Kicker podcast to rank the field. (The Chiefs are excluded.) Rather than listing a definitive set of rankings, I'll provide my conference tiers list with a brief synopsis of each level. For additional perspective, listen below.
Challengers: Cleveland Browns, Buffalo Bills
Both of these teams faced the Chiefs in the playoffs last season, and neither got worse this offseason. While Buffalo stood pat for the most part, it returns one of the league's best rosters. Cleveland, on the other hand, underwent a defensive overhaul that could result in one of the best units in the league in 2021.
Securing home field advantage will be paramount if either of these squads wants to legitimately challenge the Chiefs. That may take upwards of 12 wins in the new 17-game format, which is a tall task. With that said, both Cleveland and Buffalo figure to be near the top of the AFC standings this season. The Browns get the slight edge here due to their immense upside if everything clicks.
Wait-and-see: Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans
Despite the fact that Baltimore and Tennessee find themselves in the second tier, they could both prove to be premier AFC foes for the Chiefs. The Patrick Mahomes-Lamar Jackson rivalry hasn't gone the Ravens' way thus far, but with an offense chock full of weapons, they'll look to establish themselves as a serious threat. How the pieces fit together will be worth watching as the season unfolds.
Speaking of pieces, Tennessee added a fantastic one this offseason in Julio Jones. They also responded to some roster turnover on defense with a flurry of additions. It will take some time before the new-look team jells together, but if it does, it boasts quite the ceiling. The Titans will go as far as quarterback Ryan Tannehill takes them.
Best of the rest: Miami Dolphins, Los Angeles Chargers, Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots
Miami gave the Chiefs a run for their money in a regular-season game last year, and with additional weapons around quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, things may be starting to look up. The Chargers also gave Kansas City trouble in 2020 and are finally healthy and heading in a new direction under first-year head coach Brandon Staley. Both teams should compete for the AFC's wild-card berths this season.
The Colts find themselves attempting to retool on the fly, adding quarterback Carson Wentz via trade earlier in the year. They're not quite as well-built in the trenches as they used to be, but if the play under center is solid, Indianapolis very well could return to the playoffs. The health and recovery of former Chiefs left tackle Eric Fisher (rehabbing from a torn Achilles tendon) will be critical.
It's possible that no team had as hectic of an offseason as the Patriots. Cam Newton is being given a second chance in New England, but not without some competition from rookie Mac Jones. With improved receiving options and Newton's health returning to near-100% levels, don't be surprised if Bill Belichick's squad flies under the radar and sneaks into the playoffs.
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