Race for the AFC: how the top competitors will fare (on paper)

It’s no secret the AFC has become rather top-heavy in the past couple of seasons. Historically in the NFL, a double-digit win season secures you a playoff spot.

Not in today’s American Football Conference.

Ten wins weren’t enough to punch your ticket to the postseason in 2020, a year that saw the seven playoff teams all with 11 victories or more:

  1. Kansas City (14-2)
  2. Buffalo Bills (13-3)
  3. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
  4. Tennessee Titans (11-5)
  5. Baltimore Ravens (11-5)
  6. Cleveland Browns (11-5)
  7. Indianapolis Colts (11-5)

The race to the top has shown no signs of stopping, either. All of these squads appear poised to compete again (well, almost all of them…). We’re going to be evaluating each team in three categories: offseason changes to the offense, offseason changes to the defense, and their schedule outlook.

beginning with their win total from 2020, we’ll analyze the different aspects of their offseason and this season’s schedule and decide whether the changes add or subtract from their projected win total. And because this year will see an additional game played by every team, everybody gets a half-game added to their total to begin.

with that in mind, let’s take a look at each of their offseasons, their schedule outlooks, and see how these squads should do on paper this season.

Kansas City Chiefs

Since Patrick Mahomes took over, the entire AFC has been chasing Kansas City. There’s no indication that will be changing in 2021. going 14-2 last year and coming up just short of a second consecutive Superbowl victory, these Chiefs provide hardly any reasons to expect less of them in this campaign.

Offense

Andy Reid’s explosive offense ranked high in the league once again last year, placing 6th in points per game (PPG), 1st in yards per game (YPG), and 3rd on third down.

QB Patrick Mahomes, WR Tyreek Hill, TE Travis Kelce, WR Mecole Hardman, and WR Demarcus Robinson all return. Their sole lost weapon was WR Sammy Watkins, who left for the Ravens.

Their offensive line saw massive changes this summer. OT Orlando Brown from the Ravens and OG Joe Thuney from the Patriots were signed to this roster. OG Kyle Long came out of retirement to join them, and OT Laurent Duvernay-Tardif is back after opting out of the 2020 season. This line should be an improvement over last year’s model, gaining some fresher legs.

An improved line often means an improvement in the run game. RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire is poised for a big year after an 800 yard rookie season that was cut short due to injury. between the line and the run game, we’ll add a half game to their projected win total, improving from 14.5 to 15.

Defense

Kansas City’s offense gets all the praise, but their 2020 defense was nothing to sniff at either. Finishing the year T-10th in PPG allowed and 16th in YPG allowed, they were more than serviceable for a team that is carried by their high-powered offense.

CB L’Jarius Sneed, S Daniel Sorensen, S Tyrann Mathieu, and CB Charvarius Ward all return this season. Their biggest loss was CB Bashaud Breeland, who had 9 passes defended (PD) and 2 interceptions (INT) last year. That loss will cost them half a game, knocking them back down to 14.5.

The Chiefs did bolster their below-average pass rush, though. DT Jarran Reed from Seattle (6.5 sacks, 5 tackles for loss (TFL), 1 forced fumble (FF), 38 tackles) was signed to help DE Frank Clark and DE Chris Jones with the pressure this season. They gain that half-game back, bumping Kansas City back to 15 wins.

Schedule

Now let’s take a look at strength of schedule (SOS). The Chiefs had a slightly easier than average SOS in 2020, the 18th hardest. They have a tougher road this year, with the T-11th hardest slate. That’s likely to cost them a game, so we’ll bump them down.

2021 Record

On paper, the 2021 Kansas City Chiefs will go 14-3, likely winning the conference once again.

Buffalo Bills

Josh Allen arrived in 2020, and the Bills spent the back half of the season looking like the team poised to challenge the Chiefs for the conference. Finishing with a 13-3 record and making it all the way to the AFC championship game, how has this team prepared themselves over the summer to continue their rise in 2021?

Offense

Buffalo’s offense became a juggernaut in 2020, finishing 2nd in PPG, 2nd in YPG, and 1st on third down.

QB Josh Allen, WR Stephon Diggs, WR Cole Beasley, WR Gabriel Davis, and RB Devin Singletary will all be returning, as well as offseason addition WR Emmanuel Sanders from the Saints (61 rec, 726 yds, 5 TD).

Four of five starters on the line return as well. Between the addition of Sanders and continuity on the line, we’ll bump their win total up a half-game to 14

Defense

The Bills’ defense took a step back last season, finishing 16th in PPG allowed, 14th in YPG allowed, and 28th in the red zone.

CB Tre’Davious White, CB Levi Wallace, S Micah Hyde, and S Jordan Poyer will all be returning. In fact, the entire starting 11 will be back, though they may not all retain their starting jobs.

Buffalo spend their first two picks of the draft on edge rushers, adding rookie DE Greg Rousseau and rookie DE Boogie Basham to help get after the quarterback. They may take a bit to develop, and though they may contribute more towards the end of the year, we’ll leave this a wash.

Schedule

Buffalo succeeded last year despite having the 5th hardest SOS in the league. They get a minor break in 2021 with the 11th most difficult SOS, but not an easy enough road to impact their record.

2021 Record

On paper, the 2021 Buffalo Bills will go 14-3, winning the AFC East in consecutive years for the first time since the early ’90s.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The 2020 Steelers began as a triumph and finished as a tragedy. The last undefeated team in the league ended up falling apart at the end of the regular season to finish 12-4. Their unceremonial exit from the playoffs in the Wildcard round to the division-rival Browns was the twist of the knife for a team that looked unstoppable for so long. Will that decline continue into this season, or will they manage to get back on the right path?

Offense

Though this offense fell apart at the end, they still finished the season 12th in PPG and 3rd in YPG.

QB Ben Roethlisberger, WR Juju Smith-Schuster, WR Chase Claypool, WR James Washington, TE Eric Ebron, WR Dionte Johnson will all be back in black and gold.

The offensive line is only returning one starter, and he’s changing positions. With essentially five new starters protecting Big Ben, that will cost them a win dropping them to 11.5.

They added first-round rookie RB Najee Harris and lost RB James Conner to the Cardinals. At least in Harris’s rookie year while he’s behind this suspect line, I’m going to call this a wash.

Defense

Pittsburgh’s defense tried to carry this team once the offense fell off, but they weren’t able to keep them afloat for long. They had a stellar season, finishing 3rd in PPG, 3rd in YPG, and 1st in sacks and pressure rate. In the end, it just wasn’t enough to carry their limp offense.

OLB T.J. Watt, DE Stephon Tuitt, CB Joe Haden, S Minkah Fitzpatrick, and S Terrell Edmunds will all be returning, as is ILB Devin Bush after an injury took him out early last year.

The Steelers lost OLB Bud Dupree to the Titans (8 sacks, 8 TFL, 2 FF), but added OLB Melvin Ingram from the Chargers. Ingram is capable, but a definite downgrade. That will cost them half a game, bringing them to 11 wins.

They also lost CB Steven Nelson to the Eagles (2 INT, 9 PD), but that’s because they liked what they saw in CB Cameron Sutton last year (8 PD, INT, 30 tackles). That change should prove a wash.

Schedule

Pittsburgh is tied for the least advantageous change in SOS this season. They faced the 2nd easiest path in 2020, but now have the most difficult SOS in the league ahead of them. This should cost them three games in 2021.

2021 Record

On paper, the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers will go 8-9, missing the playoffs and producing head coach Mike Tomlin’s first losing season in his 15-year career.

Tennessee Titans

The 2020 Titans were a true tale of two phases of the game. A juggernaut offense that got them to an 11-5 record was held back all season long by an abysmal, stumbling defense. In the end, Tennessee bowed out earlier than they’d hoped, losing in the wildcard round. There is plenty of reason for hope this year, though, with an even further bolstered offense and a remodeled defense. This Titans team appears to have no intentions of slowing down.

Offense

Tennessee’s offense was often unstoppable in their 2020 campaign, finishing 4th in PPG, T-2nd in YPG, and 2nd in the red zone.

QB Ryan Tannehill, RB Derrick Henry, and WR A.J. Brown will all be in two-tone blue again this fall.

The team adds OT Taylor Lewan back into the lineup after an early injury took him out of last season. They also drafted rookie second-round OT Dillon Radunz, and signed OT Kendall Lamm from the Browns. An already stout offensive line should be even better with these additions, so we’ll give them half a game. this brings the win total up to 12.

They lost WR Corey Davis to the Jets (65 rec, 984 yds, 5 TD) and TE Jonnu Smith to the Patriots (41 rec, 448 yards, 8 TD) in the offseason, two big parts of this offense. but the Titans added WR Josh Reynolds from the Rams (52 rec, 618 yds, 2 TD) and WR Julio Jones from the Falcons (9 games, 51 rec, 771 yds), which should prove worth another half-game to bring them to 12.5.

Defense

The downfall of the 2020 Titans team was undoubtedly their defense, finishing the year 24th in PPG allowed and a dead-last 32nd on third down.

A massive overhaul of the defensive roster took place this summer, with only four of the eleven starters returning. S Kevin Byard, ILB Jayon Brown, DT Jeffrey Simmons, and ILB Rashaan Evans are the only starters back for 2021.

Tennessee lost CB Malcolm Butler to the Cardinals (4 INT, 100 tackles) but added rookie first-round CB Caleb Farley, rookie CB Elijah Molden, and CB Janoris “Jackrabbit” Jenkins from the Saints (3 INT, 12 PD). The renovation of their cornerback room is worth another half-game, improving their win total to 13.

They also lost OLB Jadeveon Clowney to the Browns but added OLB Bud Dupree from the Steelers (8 sacks, 8 TFL, 31 tackles) and Denico Autry from the Colts (7.5 sacks, 9 TFL, 33 tackles). Adding two sack machines to a sack-starved defense will prove the jumpstart needed for an additional half-game, bringing them to 13.5 wins.

Schedule

Tennessee had an easier-than-average schedule in 2020, the 20th hardest SOS in the league. This season things will prove a bit more challenging, facing the T-13th most difficult slate. We’ll dock them half a game for the change in difficulty.

2021 Record

On paper, the 2021 Tennessee Titans will go 13-4, winning the AFC South in consecutive seasons for the first time.

Baltimore Ravens

Lamar Jackson’s team had a very respectable 2020 campaign going 11-5, but the high expectations of the Baltimore faithful weren’t entirely met. Missing out on the division crown, Jackson did manage to get over the narrative speedbump of winning his first playoff game, bowing out after traveling to Buffalo in the divisional round of the playoffs. Reset and reloaded, this Ravens team still has their eyes set on competing at the top of the conference.

Offense

The Ravens’ run-heavy offensive scheme performed pretty well in 2020, finishing 9th in PPG, 19th in YPG, and 1st in rushing YPG. Coach Harbaugh seems to be looking to balance out their run/pass dynamic this season.

QB Lamar Jackson, RB J.K. Dobbins, RB Gus Edwards, WR Marquise Brown, and TE Mark Andrews will all be in purple again. Adding first-round rookie WR Rashod Bateman and signing WR Sammy Watkins from the Chiefs should result in a passing game improvement, so we’ll bump them up a half-game to 12.

The summer saw lots of shakeup on the line: OT Ronnie Stanley returns from injury, they added OT Alejandro Villanueva from the Steelers and lost OT Orlando Brown to the Chiefs. Overall, I think this should be a slight improvement upfront, so we’ll give them another win to get to 13.

Defense

A stout performance in 2020 landed the Ravens at 2nd in PPG allowed and 7th in YPG allowed.

CB Marcus Peters and CB Marlon Humphrey both return, so Baltimore will retain one of the league’s best coverage duo’s.

They lost OLB Matt Judon (6 sacks, 9 TFL, 50 tackles), but added first-round rookie OLB Odafe Oweh as well as OLB Justin Houston from the Colts (8 sacks, 25 tackles, 8 TFL) to help fill that void in the pass rush. I expect this will end up being a wash, so we’ll leave their win total at 13 for now.

Schedule

The Ravens have a whiplash-inducing change of pace ahead of them this season. Coming off of the easiest SOS in the league last year, their 2021 path is the 2nd hardest. We’ll have to take three whole games off of their win total because of that massive swing.

2021 Record

On paper, the 2021 Baltimore Ravens will go 10-7 and will battle for a wildcard birth.

Cleveland Browns

Head Coach Kevin Stefanski took over a Browns team in 2020 that failed to meet the lofty expectations set for them in 2019. He won Coach of the Year, and for good reason. This squad rounded into form at the right time last season, making the playoffs for the first time since 2002 with an 11-5 record. They ultimately exited the postseason in the divisional round, but not before mashing the Steelers in the wildcard and giving the Chiefs all they could handle in Arrowhead. With one of the deepest and most complete rosters in the league, this Cleveland team is eager to try to have the season many expected them to have two years ago.

Offense

The Cleveland offense finished 2020 14th in PPG and 16th in YPG, though they performed better than that in the back third of the season.

QB Baker Mayfield, WR Jarvis Landry, RB Nick Chubb, RB Kareem Hunt will all be in brown and orange once again. In fact, the Browns return all 11 starters on offense. in year two under a new HC and still learning a new system, there’s good reason to expect this offense thrives with all the continuity. we’ll give them a win for it, improving to 12.5 wins.

WR Odell Beckham Jr. will be added back after an injury took him out of last season early. I’m not going to actually call that an improvement, though. Mayfield’s performance without Odell the past two years has actually been noticeably better than with him. Many believe Mayfield has tried to force the ball Beckham’s way when he’s in the starting lineup, so we’ll call his addition a wash.

Defense

Their defense is what held them back most in 2020, finishing 21st in PPG allowed and 17th in YPG allowed. This offseason saw a number of moves to try to change that going forward. only 4 starters will retain their spots, making this a total roster makeover.

DT Malik Jackson from the Eagles, DT Andrew Billings from the Bengals, and OLB Jadeveon Clowney from the Titans were added to the defensive front to help DE Myles Garrett, who’s returning. That front four should account for an additional half-game, bringing their win total up to 13.

CB Denzel Ward is returning, joined by rookie first-round CB Greg Newsome and CB Troy Hill from the Rams (3 INT, 10 PD). They also added S John Johnson from the Rams (INT, 105 tackles, 8 PD). These secondary changes should be improvements, so we’ll add another half-game to their win total, now at 13.5.

Schedule

Cleveland had a very favorable slate of games last season, the 4th easiest. They’re afforded no such luxuries this year, with the 9th most difficult SOS ahead of them. This dramatic change of pace is going to cost them two and a half games.

2021 Record

On paper, the 2021 Cleveland Browns will go 11-6, taking the AFC North crown for the first time since the league realignment in 2002.

Indianapolis Colts

Head coach Frank Reich has spent three years manning a ship with a revolving door at quarterback. Picking up veteran gunslinger Phillip Rivers for the 2020 voyage, the Colts managed to win 11 games last year. Losing in a tightly contested Wildcard match against Buffalo and losing Rivers to retirement, the Colts entered this offseason once again a very solid and deep roster without a passer to man the wheel.

Offense

The 2020 Colts offense took a moment to find its rhythm, but they finished the year 9th in PPG, 10th in YPG, and 3rd in turnovers.

WR Zach Pascal, WR T.Y. Hilton, WR Michael Pittman Jr., and RB Jonathan Taylor are all returning. Pittman Jr. and Taylor both had promising rookie seasons and I expect them to take the next step this year, so we’ll bump the Colts up a half-game to 12 wins.

The biggest blow to the continuity of this offense is obviously Phillip Rivers (24 TD, 11 INT, 97.0 QBR). Indianapolis added QB Carson Wentz from the Eagles (16 TD, 15 INT, 72.8 QBR), who injured his foot early in training camp and had to get minor surgery. Although Wentz had the worst season of his career in 2020, it’s expected he’ll bounce back with this much better roster and his old coach Frank Reich. But because of Wentz’s rocky season last year and it being questionable when he’ll be able to play on that foot, we’re going to have to knock the Colts back down a game to 11.

Their top five line also underwent some changes. OT Anthony Castonzo was lost to retirement, though they added OT Eric Fisher from the Chiefs to fill the gap. Fisher will be hurt to start the year, however, as will G Quenton Nelson. This line uncertainty is a big deal, especially for a team reliant on the run game and pass protection for a recovering quarterback. It’s going to knock them down another game to 10 wins.

Defense

The Colts defense is the heart and soul of their team, finishing last year in 10th for PPG allowed and 8th in YPG allowed.

DE Deforest Buckner, LB Darius Leonard, and CB Xavier Rhodes all return. The offseason saw the loss of LB Anthony Walker to the Browns (92 tackles, 2 TFL, 5 PD, INT), Justin Houston to the Ravens (8 sacks, 8 TFL, 25 tackles, FF, 2 FR), and DT Denico Autry to the Titans (7.5 sacks, 9 TFL, 33 tackles).

Indy added rookie first-round OLB Kwity Paye to help the loss of pass rush, but he won’t be able to make up for all those losses, at least not right away. We’ll drop them down one last game to nine wins.

Schedule

The Colts had the average SOS in 2020, the 16th most difficult. This season they face an easier road with the T-23rd hardest SOS, so we’ll give them a game back for it.

2021 Record

On paper, the 2021 Indianapolis Colts will go 10-7 and will battle for a wildcard birth.

What do you think about these projected win totals? Who had the best and worst offseason?

Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

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