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Breaking Down the AFC After the Cam Newton Signing

How does the conference stack up now that the Patriots have a new signal-caller?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The New England Patriots have won the AFC in nine of the past 20 seasons. That is an unparalleled stretch of dominance in modern football, but it looked like the torch had been passed when Patrick Mahomes led the Chiefs to a Super Bowl victory and Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson was named unanimous MVP following a 14-2 season. When Tom Brady bolted for the Buccaneers, leaving Jarrett Stidham as the Patriots’ presumptive starter, it seemed the Patriots were all but assured to fall back to the rest of the pack. But then came Sunday’s revelation. The Patriots signed former MVP Cam Newton, who will likely be under center for the team this season, if he’s healthy. Now we (once again) have to reassess what the AFC landscape looks like entering the 2020 season—assuming there is a season.

This season is slated to be the first with 14 playoff teams, rather than the 12-team playoff field the NFL has used since 1990. The change comes from the new collective bargaining agreement ratified by owners and the players union in March. Each conference will send seven teams instead of six, and only the no. 1 seed in each conference will get a bye, instead of the no. 1 and no. 2 seed that got byes in past years. The only difference in the playoff schedule will be that wild-card weekend will feature six games instead of four.

Keeping in mind the changes to the playoff format and a new signal-caller leading the most consistent playoff contender, let’s look at the AFC teams based on how serious their chances are to win the American Football Conference. We’ll go by tiers from least likely to most likely, beginning with ...

Not a Chance in Hell

16. The Jacksonville Jaguars

The best thing to say about the Jaguars is that Gardner Minshew II is fun, and maybe even good. This team traded away their best players like cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye and defensive end Calais Campbell. Their best remaining defender, Yannick Ngakoue, wants to leave so badly he is feuding with the Jaguars’ owner’s son on Twitter (it’s an amazing thread). The team also traded Nick Foles and tried to move star running back Leonard Fournette, but couldn’t find any takers. The chemistry on this team has been poisoned for at least two years, and head coach Doug Marrone is in a dead heat with Detroit’s Matt Patricia to be the first coach fired during the season.

A Small Chance in Hell

15. Cincinnati Bengals
14. New York Jets
13. Miami Dolphins

These are not the Bengals that went 2-14 last year. Cincinnati could have six new starters on offense this year, including LSU phenom Joe Burrow. The team also spent in free agency for the first time in years to improve their defense, highlighted by Houston defensive tackle D.J. Reader. Cincinnati went 0-8 in one-possession games last year, one of the three worst marks in the last 50 years, which suggests their luck would improve in 2020 even without the talent upgrades. Cincinnati will be better—but likely not that much better.

This is the first time the Jets have retained all three coordinators (offense, defense, and special teams) with the same head coach since 2011. That’s either good or bad, depending on what you think of head coach Adam Gase. New York’s 6-2 finish included wins over the Daniel Jones–led Giants, the Dwayne Haskins–led Washingtons, and the Mason Rudolph–led Steelers. Make of that stretch what you will. New York replaced four of their five linemen this offseason, and getting continuity with limited practice time could be hard.

The Dolphins were one of the worst teams in NFL history in September, posting a point differential worse than some expansion franchises. That made sense considering Miami’s front office tore the roster down to the studs for a rebuild, and the Dolphins eventually set the record for players used in a single season. But in one of the most remarkable coaching performances in recent memory, head coach Brian Flores led Miami to a 5-4 finish down the stretch. This offseason Miami made a number of high draft picks, including Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, and signed a bunch of former first-rounders in free agency, including Cowboys cornerback Byron Jones. The Dolphins may have difficulty at the beginning of the season with two new coordinators getting a late start to install their offense and defense, but this is a much more talented—if more raw—team than last year.

Their Fans Expect a Playoff Appearance

12. Los Angeles Chargers
11. Cleveland Browns
10. Las Vegas Raiders
9. Denver Broncos

The Chargers missed the playoffs last year with Philip Rivers, and now they hand the keys over to Tyrod Taylor and rookie Justin Herbert. Taylor is the opposite of Rivers. He won’t make deep throws but also won’t recklessly turn the ball over. Herbert will be a project. Whoever is at quarterback, this team is likely taking a step back in 2020, even with an improved defense after signing cornerback Chris Harris Jr.

The Browns face-planted after announcing their arrival prematurely last year. This season it’s all business. Baker Mayfield is on his fourth head coach in three seasons, including interim Gregg Williams, which isn’t great. Cleveland and the star-studded offense must learn a new system in a shortened offseason, but Cleveland upgraded both tackle spots. Mayfield might finally have time to find a now-healthy Odell Beckham Jr., who dealt with a sports hernia all last season.

Take all the problems every team has to deal with preparing for a season during a pandemic, and then consider that every Raiders player had to move to Las Vegas this year. Beyond the tough offseason, there are plenty of football questions for this team. This is a make-or-break season for quarterback Derek Carr, who may not be the team’s quarterback next year if this offense doesn’t get rolling in 2020. Carr hasn’t thrown downfield often, but he now has a speedy offense led by rookie Henry Ruggs III. We’ll see whether Carr can create big plays now that he has a faster offense.

Denver has amassed a young offensive core around 2019 second-round passer Drew Lock, who is John Elway’s latest dart throw at quarterback. Lock certainly has the high draft picks around him to succeed. At receiver, Courtland Sutton was a 2018 second-rounder, Iowa tight end Noah Fant was a 2019 first-rounder, Alabama rookie Jerry Jeudy is a 2020 first-rounder, and Penn State rookie KJ Hamler is a 2020 second-rounder. While the talent is not a problem, youth and limited practice time might be. Head coach Vic Fangio’s defense needs to take a step up after the unit dropped from top five in context-adjusted efficiency in 2018 to barely above league average last year, according to Football Outsiders.

The AFC South

8. Indianapolis Colts
7. Houston Texans
6. Tennessee Titans

The Colts were beset by injuries to key contributors and had to deal with Andrew Luck’s shocking retirement shortly before the season. This year, Indianapolis is switching quarterbacks again, going from Jacoby Brissett to Philip Rivers. A change under center might be difficult for most teams when facing a shortened offseason, but Rivers’s familiarity with the Colts staff will make his transition smoother than most. The Colts return 20 starters, including their entire offensive line, which was the healthiest in the NFL in 2019 and might be the league’s best entering 2020.

The Houston Texans have had the most ludicrous offseason in recent memory. Head coach/general manager Bill O’Brien traded superstar receiver DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona for a second-rounder and running back David Johnson, who had 18 carries in his final seven games. But the Hopkins deal aside—and it’s hard to put it aside—Houston’s worst moves have been ones that will rob them in future seasons, not 2020. The Texans have won the division four times in the last five years, and they could do so again in 2020.

The Titans made the AFC championship game last year after a stunning upset over the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round, and that upset came after the Titans miraculously transformed into the league’s most efficient offense with Ryan Tannehill. Once Tannehill took over, just about every important efficiency stat was led by the Ravens, Chiefs, or Titans. Whether Tennessee can keep that up is anyone’s guess, but offensive coordinator Arthur Smith has been a revelation thus far.

Super Bowl Contenders

5. Buffalo Bills
4. Pittsburgh Steelers
3. New England Patriots

Let’s go out of order and address the Steelers first. Pittsburgh’s defense quietly leads the league in sacks each of the last three years. In that time they have 20 more sacks than the second-best team (New Orleans), led by budding superstar T.J. Watt, who has the fifth-most sacks (34.5) in the NFL in that time. In the secondary, Minkah Fitzpatrick might be Pittsburgh’s best defensive back since Troy Polamalu in his prime. This defense was so good they nearly dragged the team to the playoffs despite starting someone named Duck at quarterback for most of the season. For all the hoopla about New England and San Francisco’s defenses, Mike Tomlin’s squad might be just as good this year. If Ben Roethlisberger stays healthy, the Steelers could be the contender hiding in plain sight.

For the first time in a decade, the AFC East title is up for grabs. New England has won the division 17 of the past 19 years (89.5 percent), a higher rate than Michael Jordan sank free throws or condoms prevent pregnancies. But this year looks like the first Buffalo could win the division in the 21st century. Surprisingly, the betting odds have not changed all that much after the Pats signed Cam Newton. The Patriots’ odds to win the AFC remained at 12-to-1 after the signing, according to Bet Online, and New England’s division title odds meagerly improved from 37 percent probability to 43.5 percent, tied with Buffalo. That speaks to the questions about Newton’s health. While nobody doubts that Newton is one of the best quarterbacks in football when healthy, the Panthers probably wouldn’t have cut him (and 30 teams probably would not have passed on him) if he were his normal self. It is possible that the Patriots stumbled onto an almost completely recovered MVP candidate, but it seems unlikely.

The most likely scenario seems to be that Newton will be the most overqualified game manager since Peyton Manning in 2015 (who, ironically, beat Newton in the Super Bowl). Newton’s job will be to shepherd a team with a good defense and make plays when necessary, but he won’t be required to wear a cape like he had to at [checks notes] literally every other team he has ever played on. Newton may not be his old self, but if he’s playing for Bill Belichick he doesn’t need to be. When the Panthers went 15-1 and Newton won MVP, his starting receivers were Devin Funchess, Ted Ginn Jr., Philly Brown, and Jerricho Cotchery. Compared to that bunch, New England’s much-derided group of Julian Edelman, Mohamed Sanu, and N’Keal Harry looks regal, and New England’s offensive line is far better than what Cam had in Carolina. Toss in the coaching advantages Belichick brings in a season in which coaching will be more important than ever, and 12-to-1 Super Bowl odds might be enticing.

Super Bowl Favorites

1b. Kansas City Chiefs
1a. Baltimore Ravens

Picking between these teams requires splitting hairs, and the Ravens win the tiebreaker because (cliché alert) they are hungrier. That is not a knock on the Chiefs. Kansas City is the defending Super Bowl champion with the rare distinction of returning all three coordinators, 20 of 22 starters, and 22 of 23 assistant coaches from their championship squad. That’s rad. Also, Patrick Mahomes still exists.

But the Ravens get the nod after also returning all of their coordinators, all 17 assistant coaches, and every starter except future Hall of Fame guard Marshal Yanda, who retired after the season. They improved their defense significantly by adding Calais Campbell, and they have an entire offseason to tinker with the offense that set the record for rushing yards and rushing yards per attempt in the Super Bowl era. Also, the Ravens had one of the best four defenses in football, and that combination is why they went 14-2 and earned the 1-seed last year. In 2020, Baltimore has one of the four easiest schedules, according to Warren Sharp. Only one AFC team is getting a bye in 2020, and the Ravens look like the most likely candidate.