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Contenders and pretenders in the AFC’s race to the top

AFC Contenders
(USA Today)

We knew at the start of the season that the race to the top of the AFC would be close.

I don’t think we expected it to be this close.

Ten weeks into the NFL season, every major player in the conference has some kind of stain on their resume. But with twelve different teams sitting at .500 or better, the hunt for the single first-round bye is heating up.

So which teams at the top of the AFC have real shots at winning in January and February, and which are just smoke and mirrors?


Yes, they just lost to Jacksonville in a game that saw 15 combined points. But calling the Buffalo Bills a contender is the easiest choice of the five.

Loss to the Jaguars aside, Buffalo has been clicking on all cylinders since Week 2. For the most part, Josh Allen has looked like the MVP contender he was tabbed to be at the start of the season. Devin Singletary and Zach Moss have formed a quality running back duo, and Emmanuel Sanders has been a nice compliment to Stefon Diggs in his first season in Buffalo. But what makes this Bills team so scary is the defense.

Buffalo has allowed the fewest points and yards out of any defense in the entire National Football League. It isn’t exactly a close race, either – the second-best defense has allowed 42 more points and 340 more yards than Buffalo’s. If they plan on winning their first ever Super Bowl, expect the defense to be the one taking centerstage.

Verdict: Contender


Baltimore hit a peak in Week 2 – a thrilling, back-and-forth win over Kansas City in primetime that had everyone talking.

Recently, they’ve found themselves stuck in a trough.

The Ravens have been far from inspiring over the last month or so. A waxing at the hands of the Bengals and an embarrassing loss to Miami on Thursday Night Football bookended a win over Minnesota that required overtime, but the red flags were present even before their most recent stretch. A two-point win over Detroit and a six-point win over Indianapolis looked good at the time, but in hindsight, they may be more evidence that Baltimore is a step behind the best in the conference.

Baltimore’s upcoming schedule is not friendly, either. They still have to play the Browns twice and they get a rematch with the Bengals, who tossed them aside in Week 7. They also have dates with the Packers and Rams, meaning they may well have the hardest road in a thrilling race to the title in the AFC North.

Did the Ravens simply peak too soon?

Verdict: Pretender


The Titans were one of the most entertaining teams to watch at the start of the season. Ryan Tannehill was playing well, they were sharing the ball among a number of different receivers, and Derrick Henry was at the front of the MVP chase. But when Henry went down with a season-ending injury, I thought that would be the end of Tennessee’s title charge.

I’m glad I was wrong.

The Titans have hardly skipped a beat since losing their franchise running back in Week 8. They knocked off the Rams in primetime one week later and then took town the Saints in a thriller. In fact, the Titans still haven’t lost a game since they fell to the Jets in overtime all the way back in Week 4. Their six-game winning streak is the longest in the NFL and they’re still unbeaten in the division. They also just topped our Week 10 power rankings.

It’s a relatively simple remaining schedule for Tennessee. Games against the Jaguars, Dolphins, 49ers, and Texans (twice) should have Titans fans optimistic for where this team can finish. If they can continue to swim without Henry, Tennessee is fully in the race for the AFC’s bye.

Verdict: Contender

Kansas City

Relax, everyone. The Kansas City Chiefs are back.

There was plenty of concern at the start of the season regarding the Chiefs’ status as a Super Bowl contender. Rightfully so, might I add. Kansas City looked brutal – Patrick Mahomes was turning the ball over more than usual and the defense was as effective as a wet paper towel. In fact, the Chiefs allowed 30 points in four of their first five games of the season. How is a team supposed to win that way? (hint: they didn’t.)

But in the last three weeks, that’s been flipped on its head. Most impressively, the Chiefs have shown they can win in a number of different ways – something players and coaches have been echoing in press conferences since their 13-7 win over Green Bay. The Chiefs won a close one in primetime against the Giants before the defense showed out in that nail biter over the Packers. Most recently, the offense stole the show, hanging 41 on the Raiders and giving the Chiefs sole possession of first place in the AFC West for the first time all season.

It took a while, but we can finally stop worrying about Kansas City.

Verdict: Contender

New England

Like the Chiefs, the Patriots seem to have turned a corner as well. After beginning 2-4, Mac Jones and the Pats have ripped off four straight wins, three of which have come in convincing fashion – 54-13 against the Jets, 24-6 against Carolina, and an eye-catching 45-7 win against the Browns.

That said, I’m still not fully convinced by New England. Maybe it’s because of Jones’ decent-at-best touchdown to interception ratio or maybe it’s just the very nature of his rookie status – against other teams that the Patriots can expect to run into in the postseason, they’ve consistently looked second-best.

New England has played against two consensus Super Bowl contenders in Dallas and Tampa Bay. The games were close, but they lost both. They also lost to a decent Saints team that is forcing itself into the playoff picture. While a 6-4 record looks nice on paper, look at who the wins have come against. Among them are the Texans, the Panthers, and the Jets twice. The Chargers win is nice, but they have problems of their own after starting hot.

I’m not writing the Patriots off, but the toughest part of their schedule is still ahead. A date with Tennessee and two Buffalo meetings are still upcoming. Let’s talk then.

Verdict: Pretender (for now)

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