NFL Friday Madness: Breaking down the AFC’s early-season contenders

Week 5 of the 2021 NFL season featured a slew of missed kicks, exciting finishes, and an overarching changing-of-the-guard storyline in the AFC, as the conference dominated by the likes of the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers for most of the 21st century, and the Kansas City Chiefs recently, will seemingly be lead by some of the league’s most talented teams in the Buffalo Bills, Los Angeles Chargers and Cleveland Browns (huh?!) in 2021.

Buffalo looks like the NFL’s best and most complete team after bolstering their pass rush this offseason, with rookie first-round pick Gregory Rosseau (6-foot-6, 267 pounds) leading the charge for that unit.

In Kansas City last Sunday night, Buffalo forced four Patrick Mahomes turnovers and Josh Allen amassed 374 total yards and four touchdowns and a 91.6 Total QBR with no turnovers and no sacks.

Buffalo manhandled Kansas City.

With the Chiefs driving, down 31-13 to the Bills with just under three minutes to play in the third quarter, Rosseau tipped a pass to himself at the line of scrimmage for a Bills interception, prompting the thought of the night by NBC‘s Chris Collinsworth.

“When we get to the end of the season, we’re going to look back on this night and say ‘this is the night a lot of things changed in the AFC,” Collinsworth said.

After losing twice to the Chiefs last year, including in the AFC title game, Buffalo has already leapfrogged the conference powerhouse in October as the conference’s lead dog.

Behind them, there’s the Ravens, where Lamar Jackson is carrying the Ravens to last-second, comeback wins, and throwing the ball with authority, pitting him with the likes of Josh Allen at the top of any too-early MVP award discussions.

Justin Herbert is having a similar, red-hot start to the season for the Chargers, who outlasted the Browns, 47-42 last Sunday, and defeated the Chiefs in Kansas City in a tight contest in Week 2.

The Browns, who also blew a Week 1 game in Kansas City in addition to their similar, late-game letdown to the Chargers, may be the most talented team in the conference.

Myles Garrett is the early-season leader for Defensive Player of the Year, and the Browns as a team lead the NFL in rushing (187.6 yards per game) with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt leading the way behind a monstrous, guiding-light offensive line that was put together in the 2020 offseason, and now on Year 2 of their dominance.

Really, the Chiefs, despite their 2-3 mark, lack of a running game, and porous defense from all angles, should still be considered a contender as long as Patrick Mahomes is leading the offense with Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill as his top targets.

But Kansas City is missing additional pass catchers, or a running game, to help take the pressure off Mahomes, who is seeing a litany of two-high coverages, whether it’s 2-man or Cover-2, that have taken away the Chiefs’ usual downfield chunk plays, forcing them to run the ball or produce long drives, while pressuring Mahomes and forcing him out of the pocket.

To put the Chiefs offense in perspective, they are still the No. 1-ranked offense by Football Outsiders‘ DVOA metric, but Mahomes has less 20-yard completions than the likes of Mac Jones and Jared Goff.

The Chiefs are virtually three games behind the Chargers considering their Week 2 loss, but there is more than enough time to make up ground.

But really, they look like a wild card bunch at best this year, with a new basket of quarterbacks leading more complete teams to victory.

The Chargers do look primed to win the AFC West.

Herbert’s deep-ball has led to a Mike Williams renaissance as a perimeter receiver and deep threat. Running back Austin Ekeler and route-running genius Keenan Allen are mismatches for defenses in the shallow and intermediate levels of the field. And under new head coach Brandon Staley’s Cover-3 style defense brought over from the Rams, the Chargers have looked much better on defense, save for their game versus Cleveland. Joey Bosa is one of the best pass rushers in football, and Derwin James is the perfect roaming athlete for such a scheme in the secondary.

Still, while putting the Chargers and Chiefs aside, and with no mention of the still-tough Tennessee Titans, who look locked into the AFC South title, it still appears both the Ravens and Browns appear like the best long-term threats to Buffalo this season.

Each has a bludgeoning running game.

We mentioned Cleveland above, but Baltimore, with a sturdy offensive line and a litany of additional blockers (Mark Andrews, Nick Boyle, Patrick Ricard) at tight end, H-back and fullback, has the perfect mix of old-school blocking with and new-age finesse with Lamar Jackson shredding defenses on designed runs behind a traditional and yesteryear blocking front.

Despite the great coaching from the likes of Staley and Kevin Stefanski in Cleveland, John Harbaugh and the Ravens are more experienced. They’ve been one of the league’s most consistent franchises this century, and that seems to carry them to a Super Bowl run at least once per decade. That could be this year.

All this is said to lead to this — the AFC has regained power over the NFC as the league’s top conference overall. And this deep group includes talented teams of all types, with different schemes, concepts and strengths.

The Bills are in charge now, but there are several teams right there, and even with their struggles, it’s too early to fully give up on the Chiefs.

Let’s check back on this group after Thanksgiving.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Buffalo Bills (4-1) (Last week: 1). They’re the best team in football right now. No question. The only things missing last year were their running game, pass rush and ability to defend Mahomes and Kansas City. They’ve figured out all three things, it seems.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-1) (Last week: 2). Despite all the fuss regarding Allen, Jackson, Herbert, Kyler Murray and Matthew Stafford, it’s 44-year-old Tom Brady, who through six games has looked on a mission (2,064 yards, 17 touchdowns, three interceptions, two game-winning drives), that is the MVP leader at this point. It’s early, though.

3. Arizona Cardinals (5-0) (Last week: 3). Arizona faces a tall task in Cleveland this week. How well can this reimagined defense defend the Browns’ top-ranked rushing attack?

4. Los Angeles Rams (4-1) (Last week: 4). They should take care of the Giants this weekend. They were the talk of the league two weeks ago. Things change quickly. They’re a season-long contender in the NFC.

5. Los Angeles Chargers (4-1) (Last week: 9). They’re winning the close contests that used to bring them heartbreak. This is a different team.

6. Baltimore Ravens (4-1) (Last week: 6). They’ve escaped with wins over the Lions and Colts that they certainly should have lost. They’ll get it together. Lamar Jackson has been awesome as a passer so far this season.

7. Green Bay Packers (4-1) (Last week: 7). They’re kind of on autopilot at this point, but we know they can compete with anyone in the conference as long as Aaron Rodgers is under center.

8. Cleveland Browns (3-2) (Last week: 5). They easily could be 5-0. They certainly should be at least 4-1. They have the recipe to be a Super Bowl winner, but they need to figure out how to win those close games versus good teams. Baker Mayfield needs to do better in the clutch. They’ll be without Nick Chubb this weekend, but with Kareem Hunt, they have enough to beat Arizona. This is a big game for them.

9. Dallas Cowboys (4-1) (Last week: 10). The NFC East is clearly theirs, but the Cowboys haven’t beaten the Patriots since 1996, and they are 0-5 versus Bill Belichick. The TV-ratings game of the week will be a fun pitting of a successful pass offense versus a well-coached, usually-sound defense.

10. Tennessee Titans (3-2) (Last week: 14). Like the Packers, they feel very auto-pilot-y, but they, too, have the strengths (Derrick Henry, running game) to be a force come playoff time. They need to figure things out on defense, though.

11. Kansas City Chiefs (2-3) (Last week: 8). The offensive line and running game will improve as the season goes along, which will open things up for Mahomes and company for their deep passing game. It’s not time to panic, yet. They definitely don’t look like a Super Bowl team this season, though.

12. New Orleans Saints (3-2) (Last week: NR). They’re a solid football team that would be even better with a more consistent quarterback. They’ll mostly live and die with Jameis Winston.

13. Chicago Bears (3-2) (Last week: NR). The Bears have won three of four, and Justin Fields is now getting his reps. Things are going well, for now.

14. Las Vegas Raiders (3-2) (Last week: 11). With Jon Gruden out of the picture, what happens next? Will they fall apart? Or will they rally around their team?

15. San Francisco 49ers (2-3) (Last week: 13). Bad injury luck is mounting again. This is a good football team, but it’s tough competing in the NFC West. Trey Lance was my favorite quarterback in this past draft, and he still is, but he clearly needs time to develop.

16. Carolina Panthers (3-2) (Last week: 15). That was a rough home loss to the Eagles. That was maybe a sign that they aren’t quite ready to compete in the playoffs like we thought they were. Sam Darnold is still much better than we thought he was, but cracks are starting to reappear. They have a huge game at home this week versus the Vikings. This one could decide a wild card spot come January.

Next Up: Pittsburgh, Seattle, Cincinnati, Denver, Minnesota/Philadelphia

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