With the NFL 2023 season right around the corner, we are in full-blown rankings season. My colleague, Cody Benjamin, into tiers as we gear up for the 2023 regular season and now it's my turn to tackle the AFC. Of course, this conference not only boasts the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs, but it also houses three of the top five Super Bowl betting favorites entering this season at Caesars Sportsbook.
Here, we'll try to slot each team into its proper tier, ranging from those that have a Lombardi Trophy in the crosshairs, all the way down to the clubs that will be searching for moral victories over actual wins in 2023.
Tier 1: Bona fide Super Bowl contenders (3)
The Kansas City Chiefs might deserve a tier of their own as the defending champions. After all, they do boast the best coach-quarterback duo in the league with Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid, which should continue to have them hunting for a championship in 2023 (and are currently the betting favorite to win it all again). Losing Orlando Brown Jr. is a notable loss along the offensive line, but they have since brought in Donovan Smith and Jawaan Taylor to man the tackle positions and protect Mahomes. They are also betting that Mahomes will be able to elevate the wide receiver room that's headlined by Kadarius Toney, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Skyy Moore. Of course, Travis Kelce continues to be one of the greatest mismatches in the NFL today and will be the go-to outlet in the passing attack.
One thing that I like that the Chiefs have done over the last couple of years is their under-the-radar youth movement on defense, particularly off the edge. The team drafted pass rushers George Karlaftis and Felix Anudike-Uzomah in the first round in each of the previous two drafts, and it seems like it will be getting some added opportunity as the club let Frank Clark and Carlos Dunlap go this offseason.
Meanwhile, the Cincinnati Bengals are primed for another deep postseason run. Remember that guy Orlando Brown Jr. we were just talking about? Well, Cincy was able to poach him in free agency, giving Joe Burrow some much-needed protection along the offensive line. Having Brown slot in at left tackle and kicking Jonah Williams to right tackle while La'el Collins (ACL) continues to rehab may be the best tackle duo Burrow has had in his career to this point. Of course, then there's the three-headed monster at receiver with Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd who should continue to help the Bengals dominate through the air. What will be interesting to see with the Bengals is what their secondary will look like after losing Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell in free agency.
The Buffalo Bills have the second-best odds to win the AFC at the moment and still have a wildly talented roster, headlined by MVP candidate (and Madden NFL cover athlete) Josh Allen. The addition of running back Damien Harris in free agency is an underrated move as it should allow Allen to limit his rushing attempts and keep him fresh throughout the year. Meanwhile, first-round rookie Dalton Kincaid is going to be a fascinating addition to the passing attack as the young tight end could end up lining up more in the slot than at his traditional position. Buffalo had a top-five defense last year and that was with Von Miller missing time due to a season-ending ACL injury. With him back and the team retaining safety Jordan Poyer in free agency, this defense should continue to rank highly throughout the league.
Tier 2: Wouldn't be surprised if they made a run (4)
It wouldn't shock me in the least to see one of two of these clubs in the AFC Championship, duking it out for a chance to play for a Super Bowl. That said, they aren't as much of a lock as the three other teams are, so this was a natural place to start Tier 2.
Of course, the New York Jets have been taking over headlines throughout the offseason after they were able to acquire Aaron Rodgers in a blockbuster trade with the Packers. This move immediately thrusts New York into the Super Bowl conversation, but there is a question as to how quickly Rodgers will be able to acclimate himself with his new team and whether or not a deep playoff run is realistic right out of the gate. Could this be the latest addition of a quarterback leaving his old team for a new destination and immediately hoisting a Lombardi Trophy? As Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford can attest, it's not impossible. On top of Rodgers, the Jets have some really good pieces on both sides of the ball, especially corner Sauce Gardner and wideout Garrett Wilson, who are the defending rookies of the year. Defensively, New York could have a top-five unit as it did a year ago, making the Jets plenty dangerous in the AFC.
The Baltimore Ravens are a team that I don't feel is getting enough respect when we talk about possible contenders. They were able to straighten out Lamar Jackson's contract situation and it wouldn't be surprising at all to see him get back to his MVP form, especially with a new offensive coordinator and a refreshed staple of receivers, including Odell Beckham Jr. and first-round rookie Zay Flowers. For all their issues last season and Jackson limited to 12 games, they still went 10-7 (a testament to how good a coach John Harbaugh is) and had a defense that ranked seventh in the league in DVOA. So long as Jackson stays healthy, they'll be a threat.
Speaking of quarterbacks staying healthy, that brings us perfectly to the Miami Dolphins. Yes, they play in an increasingly competitive AFC East, but Miami could be the surprise team of 2023 and be one of the last clubs standing in the conference. That largely revolves, however, around the status of Tua Tagovailoa and his ability to stay on the field. He has reportedly spent the offseason bulking up and teaching himself how to fall more safely in hopes of avoiding another head injury. If that happens, Miami's offense should be elite. After all, the Dolphins averaged 26.4 points in the games Tagovailoa played last year. I also love the addition of corner Jalen Ramsey into this secondary.
The Jacksonville Jaguars round out this tier because I'm expecting a nice leap from Trevor Lawrence in Year 3. This will be his second season under Doug Pederson and they'll be looking to build off of a 2022 season where they were able to reach the divisional round. They'll be injecting wideout Calvin Ridley into this offense which does have the potential of elevating the unit to a more explosive level and the team did invest along the right side of the offensive line by signing guard Brandon Scherff in free agency and drafting tackle Anton Harrison in the first round. Defensively, 2022 first-overall pick Travon Walker will need to step up as a pass rusher to make this unit more feared on a weekly basis.
Tier 3: If things break right (2)
I have the Cleveland Browns and Los Angeles Chargers in the same category because I feel like they are in a nearly identical situation. Both have solid rosters from top to bottom and are arguably the No. 2 teams in their respective (and competitive) divisions, but I do sense that they may be missing that "it" factor.
With the Browns, I've reserved judgment on Deshaun Watson returning to his Houston form until I see it. He missed a ton of football over the past two years and it showed once he returned from his suspension. While he showed some flashes of his prior self, he completed just 58.2% of his throws last season and had a 79.1 passer rating. If he's the Watson of old and is a threat through the air and with his legs, the Browns will be in contention. If he's not, they'll have a $230 million problem on their hands.
As for the Chargers, they have all the talent in the world -- especially at quarterback with Justin Herbert -- to make a run. However, I do question whether or not head coach Brandon Staley is the one to take them to the promised land. The Chargers brought in new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore to help stabilize that unit, but it's the defense (Staley's specialty) that has some questions. That comes after a 2022 season where they were abysmal against the run, allowing a league-worst 5.4 yards per carry. They also had a demoralizing loss to the Jaguars during Super Wild Card Weekend where they blew a 27-point lead and featured on the part of Staley, including horrendous clock management.
Tier 4: In the Hunt group (5)
These are the teams that you'll see on the right side of your television screen as Jim Nantz and Tony Romo go over the playoff picture on a Sunday in early November. They might not be atop their divisions, nor looked at as a Super Bowl contender, but they could be in the mix for a wild card playoff spot.
For the Pittsburgh Steelers, all eyes will be on Kenny Pickett in hopes that the 2022 first-round pick can make a Year 2 jump. He has a solid collection of talent around him, headlined by Diontae Johnson, George Pickens, Pat Freiermuth, and Najee Harris. The team also solidified the left side of its O-line by drafting tackle Broderick Jones and signing guard Isaac Seumalo in free agency. Naturally, the strength of this team should be its defense as T.J. Watt looks to remain one of the top pass rushers in the NFL and the team did select corner Joey Porter Jr. in the second round of this year's draft.
The New England Patriots are another team hoping that they'll see a bump from their quarterback, especially after righting some of the wrongs from last season. Mac Jones was dealt a bad hand with Matt Patricia and Joe Judge leading the offense, but the team has since brought in Bill O'Brien to be its offensive coordinator and added some high-upside weapons in free agency like JuJu Smith-Schuster and Mike Gesicki. The biggest question on offense will be whether or not New England's offensive line will give Jones the proper amount of time to throw the ball. Defensively, this unit should be among the best in the league.
In Denver, it's all about head coach Sean Payton and the hope that he'll be able to resurrect the franchise after being acquired by the Broncos this offseason. Mainly, it's going to come down to how much of Russell Wilson's struggles last year were on Nathaniel Hackett and how much of it was simply on the quarterback. If it's on the latter, Payton may be on the hunt for a new quarterback over the next calendar year. Speaking of AFC West teams, the Las Vegas Raiders have themselves a new quarterback after signing Jimmy Garoppolo. As you'd imagine, however, Garoppolo is recouping from yet another injury as he underwent foot surgery this offseason. While the Raiders do have interesting pieces on both sides of the ball, if Garoppolo isn't able to remain healthy, they won't stand much of a chance in one of the more loaded divisions in the league.
Finally, the Tennessee Titans round out this group. It does seem like the franchise may be on the last leg with this current core under Ryan Tannehill. The quarterback is entering the final year of his contract and the club did draft Will Levis in the NFL Draft this spring. Given how talented of a coach Mike Vrabel is, it wouldn't be surprising if he pulled a rabbit out of his hat and had Tennessee vying for the AFC South, but there are questions of whether or not they have enough juice on offense even if Derrick Henry remains dominant out of the backfield.
Tier 5: Rebuilding with rookie QB (2)
We head to the AFC South as we get to the bottom of these tiers. Neither the Houston Texans nor the Indianapolis Colts are expected to be competitive in 2023. Most important for these franchises is making sure that both of their top-five quarterbacks -- C.J. Stroud and Anthony Richardson -- get through their rookie seasons without any damage to their development and set up a foundation for the rest of their careers.
Stroud nor Richardson has officially been named their team's Week 1 starter to this point, but it's fair to expect both of these players getting starts relatively early this coming season. That may not result in winning football on Day 1, but so long as they show that they have the potential to be franchise quarterbacks, that'll be a win for both of these teams heading into 2024.