A little look at how I see the AFC playing out in the 2022 season. The predicted records are based on each team’s individual schedule.
Buffalo Bills: 12-5
The Bills are the oddsmaker’s favorite to win not just the East division but the entire conference. It’s easy to see why, too. Buffalo has a legit MVP candidate in QB Josh Allen and several solid weapons for him to work with. The lines are both solid and the young secondary has promise. The Bills are not without their flaws and it’s going to be very interesting to see how Allen performs without sensei Brain Daboll, who is now coaching the Giants. But the top-end talent is in place to win multiple postseason games this year.
Miami Dolphins: 9-8
New head coach Mike McDaniel is part of the shift to a more dynamic and consistently effective offense. Much depends upon Tua Tagovailoa’s progress at QB, but adding Tyreek Hill at WR to go with Jaylen Waddle and beefing up the RB room sure makes life easier for Tua. The line will need to perform better. If the youngsters on defense (EDGE Jaelan Phillips, S Jevon Holland, CB Noah Igbinoghene) can all take a step forward, the Miami defense should have some real teeth. I like the overall move to get faster on both sides of the ball.
New York Jets: 6-11
The second year for head coach Robert Saleh will be keyed by a better-than-advertised defense. There’s a lot riding on first-round rookies Sauce Gardner and Jermaine Johnson. They’ll both need to be ready right away to cover some holes in the secondary. Overall depth improved on both sides of the ball. QB Zack Wilson losing valuable development time this offseason hurts, as does losing 2020 first-rounder Mekhi Becton. The New York arrow is pointing up for sure, but these Jets are probably a year away from seriously flying up the conference standings.
New England Patriots 6-11
If you simply look at this roster from 1-53, it’s no better than 29th in the league. The defense is slow, the WR corps is a glorified practice squad, the experiment of Matt Patricia coaching the offense looks disastrous and the all-around depth looks more like an expansion team than a contender. But the Patriots have some very good pieces in place in key spots–QB Mac Jones, LT Trent Brown, EDGE Matt Judon, but none more than head coach Bill Belichick. On paper this is–at most–a 5-12 roster, but I suspect I’m probably lowballing New England at 6-11.
Indianapolis Colts: 11-6
Dumping enigmatic Carson Wentz at QB and replacing him with a motivated, rejuvenated Matt Ryan seems like a master stroke. Ryan’s reliability makes the receivers better, and it’s not like RB Jonathan Taylor needs any help in being great. The defensive front has impact players in DT DeForest Buckner and LB Shaquille Leonard, plus several promising youngsters. They’re vulnerable to teams that can block them and attack down the field, and keeping the starting 11 on offense healthy is more imperative for this Colts team than any other AFC contender. Frank Reich has a strong team that should be more resilient than in past years.
Tennessee Titans: 8-9
There is still some nice talent on this roster, but losing WR A.J. Brown (trade) and EDGE Harold Landry (injury) really lowers the floor for Mike Vrabel’s team. Getting a full season of RB Derrick Henry behind a capable line always keeps Tennessee dangerous, and Ryan Tannehill is a solid, proven QB. A young secondary can step up and the defensive front looks tough even without Landry, but the margin for error has gone away in Nashville. They even have big questions on special teams. Too good to be bad but not good enough to replicate last year’s 12-5.
Jacksonville Jaguars: 6-11
Simply removing Urban Meyer is worthy of two more wins in Duval, but the Jaguars are also cobbling together a stronger roster. Trevor Lawrence should be better in Year 2, and he’s got weapons in Marvin Jones, Christian Kirk, Evan Engram and RBs Travis Etienne and James Robinson. Swiping OG Brandon Scherff was a brilliant move. The two first-rounders on defense, Travon Walker and Devin Lloyd, can only help shore up the middle-of-field defense, which also added NFL tackling champ Foyesade Oluokun at LB. The DL and secondary remain troublesome and there is no impactful veteran difference-maker on either side of the ball.
Houston Texans: 5-12
Lovie Smith is building his Texans team around a speed-based defensive philosophy. There’s a plethora of “oh, so that’s where that guy is now” players on the defense, but Houston does have some promise. The rookies in the secondary, CB Derek Stingley Jr. and S Jalen Pitre, look like stars in the making. Davis Mills flashed some talent at QB last year and should grow more. There are still a lot of questions and decided lack of difference-makers outside of ageless WR Brandin Cooks, but these Texans are capable of ruining the day for teams that overlook them. Bonus win for introducing the Battle Red helmet, instantly the best in the league.
This is the most difficult division in the league to predict. I can present strong arguments for all four teams to both win the division and also come in last.
Baltimore Ravens: 10-7
So many injuries a year ago kept John Harbaugh’s squad from maximizing potential. The worry isn’t as much that it will happen again, but will all the walking wounded be what we expected of them before last year? TE Mark Andrews as the lead weapon for QB Lamar Jackson presents unique challenges. This team sorely needs WR Rashod Bateman and RB J.K. Dobbins to emerge as players who scare defenses and relieve pressure on Jackson and Andrews to do everything. Adding first-rounder Kyle Hamilton and top free agent Marcus Williams at safety could be brilliant. Justin Tucker remains the NFL’s greatest-ever kicker, and the Ravens special teams are a nice insurance policy.
Cincinnati Bengals: 10-7
The reigning AFC champs are not going to sneak up on anyone now, but they have the stars in place to wear the bullseye well. QB Joe Burrow, RB Joe Mixon and WR JaMarr Chase are as good of a set of offensive triplets as there are, and there is diverse skills around them too. The OL cannot be any worse than it was in 2021. I worry about their ability defensively to handle WRs with size and RBs behind OLs that can move. The expectations are a big variable for such a young team. Trey Hendrickson and Jesse Bates must be the top-shelf players they were a year ago.
Cleveland Browns: 9-8
The focus is on the truly wild QB situation, and the Browns handling of Baker Mayfield, Deshaun Watson and Jacoby Brissett–the new primary starter in 2022–definitely raises eyebrows. It obscures what might be the NFL’s best defense, led by MVP candidate Myles Garrett and featuring the deepest set of CBs in the league as well as speedy standout LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. The offense can run on anyone with Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt and D’Ernest Johnson. The OL has the best guard tandem in Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller. Amari Cooper gives the Browns the WR1 they’ve lacked while squabbling with OBJ. But the QB situation and drama are a potential anchor that can scuttle it all–or produce another thrilling playoff run like 2020.
Pittsburgh Steelers: 7-10
The Steelers have a fantastic defensive front keyed by T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward. It’s a great place to have a primary identity. The secondary can make some plays behind them too. Right now the LBs are better in theory than practice but have potential as well. It’s the offense that has the biggest questions. Mitch Trubisky or Kenny Pickett at QB? Can the OL block better than last year, when they were somewhere between inept and terrifying? Who steps up as a top receiver? Is there even one offensive reserve player who makes another NFL roster? Too many questions to trust. However, if even one of them turns out affirmatively, you can bet Mike Tomlin’s Steelers are going to be players in the playoff race.
Could a division finish with every team having a winning record? This year’s AFC West could be our best chance to find out.
Los Angeles Chargers: 11-6
I’ve picked the Chargers to win this division a lot over the years, usually to my utter dismay come December. But I cannot resist biting the apple once again. Justin Herbert is an MVP candidate emerging into his QB prime. He’s got considerable receiving talent in Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and RB Austin Ekeler, and is protected by the best young OT in the game in RaShawn Slater. And yet the Chargers defense is probably their better unit. Between reinforcing the line and getting the secondary healthy and revamped, this aggressive defense can dominate. These Chargers look like a team that can represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. That’s of course been true a few other times and the Bolts didn’t come close, so trepidation is deserved.
Kansas City Chiefs: 11-6
Any team with Patrick Mahomes running Andy Reid’s offense is going to be fun to watch. The Chiefs had a net loss in receiving talent this offseason, but newcomers Skyy Moore, Juju Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling are still a dangerous group. Creed Humphrey is a budding star at center, anchoring a strong (albeit paper-thin) line. The defensive front can impact both the run and the pass. Two newcomers in the secondary are key: first-round CB Trent McDuffie and free agent S Justin Reid. If they’re up to the challenge, this could be a real strong defense. Special teams look fine. Don’t write them off simply because you’re bored of them winning the division every year.
Las Vegas Raiders: 9-8
Reuniting WR Davante Adams with QB Derek Carr could be the boost the Raiders need to advance beyond the Wild Card round for the first time in 20 years. Adams is arguably the NFL’s best receiver and gives Carr a legit gamebreaker. Paired with a solid ground game and dangerous TE Darren Waller, these Raiders should be able to overcome a shaky OL and post some points. The defense will need to have its disparate parts come together quickly. There is young talent in players like CB Nate Hobbs and S Trevon Moehrig. Maxx Crosby gets help up front with Chandler Jones. It’s always a concern when there’s a new coach taking over a playoff team, especially one that has set the last three years of top draft picks on fire. Las Vegas is precariously dangerous to everyone it plays but also to itself. Ultimately, the Raiders have too much high-end talent to be as bad as the haters want them to be.
Denver Broncos: 8-9
Sometimes there are teams I just cannot get a feel for. These Broncos are one of those teams. I think the move to acquire Russell Wilson was a worthy gamble, but I don’t yet have a read on rookie head coach Nathaniel Hackett or a cast of largely unknown assistants. The receivers could be great, or they could all be hurt again. The line has talent but too much of it makes too many boneheaded mistakes. There are still useful pieces on defense but serious questions at all three levels. Russ can still cook but he’s got to feed a strangely compiled unit facing a brutal schedule with very few players who are in their NFL primes. Weird team. Could be pretty dang good, but the bottom is the lowest of any in the division too.
Playoff pick: Ravens over Bills to advance to the Super Bowl