This is one of the toughest seasons to forecast, but it’s time to rain down with the predictions for the AFC.
I went through each and every game from Weeks 1-17 and tallied the win/loss results. I then repeated the exercise with both my best-case and worst-case scenarios for each team. The results here are the closest whole number to the average of the outcomes. As a result, the sum of the win totals might not be mathematically possible.
Buffalo Bills (9-7): It’s time for the changing of the guard. The Bills are poised to run away with the AFC East thanks to a deep overall roster, a smart coach in Sean McDermott and a promising young leader in QB Josh Allen. A couple of prominent new additions, WR Stefon Diggs and rookie RB Zack Moss, upgrade the weaponry for Allen. I like the way the pieces fit together in the offense, including the powerful OL. Allen has to improve his decision-making and accuracy, but his unpredictability and running ability are the centerpiece of the attack that can be very tough to defend.
The defense is good enough to carry the Bills to some wins even on weeks where Allen is off-target. The Bills have a good secondary built around standout CB TreDavious White and two young stars in LB Tremaine Edmunds and DT Ed Oliver in front of it. A rookie kicker is a concern, but Andre Roberts is the most consistent return man in the business. This team’s time is now.
New England Patriots (6-10): So many changes. My goodness. Between Tom Brady leaving, several defenders (Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy, Danny Shelton) defecting elsewhere, and eight players opting out, it’s very difficult to know what exactly to expect from New England this year. There is still some impressive young talent on defense and Bill Belichick will maximize their potential. The secondary looks very good and if guys like Chase Winovich and Deatrich Wise can generate pressure up front, expect takeaways galore. That should keep the Patriots in most games.
Cam Newton at QB is a wild variable. If he’s healthy and if he blends with the Patriot mentality, it’s not out of the question that this team rises up and still makes the postseason. The stable of RBs lacks star power but should be effective. I worry a lot about the receiving corps and about Newton’s ability to perform over the course of a full season. So many unknowns at so many positions here. If Belichick wasn’t the coach I’d argue this might be the AFC’s worst team, although that would be selling my confidence in the secondary short.
Miami Dolphins (6-10): Year 2 of the Brian Flores era sees an improved overall team. Adding CB Byron Jones, LB Kyle Van Noy and DE Shaq Lawson, plus a couple of rookies I like in CB Noah Igbinoghene and DT Raekwon Davis, should help Flores field a fairly formidable defense. They’re still very thin across the board, but I can see the young core starting to emerge. They’re going to need to be stout, because I still don’t think this offense is very good. The OL could start three rookies, including both tackles. That’s a tough task in this abbreviated offseason, and first-round pick Austin Jackson is very much a developmental prospect at left tackle. WR DeVante Parker is a good one, but he needs help. I’m hopeful for a breakout season from former first-round TE Mike Gesicki, and that would boost the unit. Ryan Fitzpatrick is good for 2-3 games of otherworldly play, and 2-3 games of reminding everyone why Miami drafted Tua Tagovailoa. Behind that line, and with the anemic-looking supporting cast, playing a recovering Tua with no real offseason competition could be disastrous. Give them another year.
New York Jets (4-12): A collection of try-hard misfits and discards from other teams--the defense will start three guys the Colts dumped recently--it’s hard to see the Jets taking off. It’s even harder with the peculiar Adam Gase as their coach. There is some talent here, and I do think the defense has some nice pieces to build with and around. But who on this roster really makes an impact on the other team? Jamal Adams did, but Gase couldn’t handle him so he’s gone. A healthy and dialed-in Sam Darnold giving the ball to Frank Gore and (maybe) Le'Veon Bell is still good enough to steal some wins, especially if the defense is getting pressure and creating takeaways. I’d feel better if I trusted their special teams but they’re not good on paper either. Unless several guys, notably Breshad Perriman, Tarell Basham and Marcus Maye, all have career years at the same time, this is a last-place team...even in what might be the weakest top-to-bottom division in the league.
Baltimore Ravens (13-3): Here’s how good I believe the Ravens are: I think Lamar Jackson will statistically regress after his MVP season. They lost their best OL in Marshal Yanda. Their WR corps scares no one. Their biggest name on defense, Earl Thomas, just got exiled by popular demand from teammates. And they’re still the prohibitive favorite to run away and hide with the AFC North division title. The team, emphasizing that keyword, that coach John Harbaugh has crafted with a stable, smart front office is fully capable of weathering some storms. I expect Jackson to remain prominent in the MVP discussion and for both sides of the ball to rank near the top in efficiency. Pair that with the best kicker in the business in Justin Tucker and it’s hard to not see this team winning at least 11 games given their oddly favorable schedule for a first-place team.
Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6): This is a death-gasp year for the Ben Roethlisberger offense, but that could be a heck of a ride for the Yinzers. The stars are aligned nicely for Roethlisberger to have the one great late-career resurgence season. The OL is good, better than commonly credited. They’ve got three legit talents at WR, while James Conner and a deep RB group can ease some pressure and keep chains moving. Diontae Johnson could be a breakout star at WR. It’s a nice complement to a defense built to play with a lead. Seven former first-round picks start on D, led by Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt up front and emerging studs Terrell Edmunds and Minkah Fitzpatrick behind them. I appreciate the Mike Tomlin identity they wear proudly. They’re fairly thin across most of the roster but if the key components stay healthy, this is a team that can win multiple playoff games. High floor, well-coached team with too much talent to be worse than last year’s 8-8 if Roethlisberger is even 85 percent of his old self.
Cleveland Browns (7-9): The more things change, the more Cleveland stays the same. The Browns have a new coach in Kevin Stefanski, new GM in Andrew Berry, two new starting offensive tackles in Jedrick Wills and Jack Conklin. All should (should!) be significant upgrades over their predecessors. I do like Baker Mayfield and Odell Beckham Jr. to bounce back from subpar 2019s, too. Myles Garrett should be a leading contender for Defensive Player of the Year.
So why a 7-9 projection?
It goes beyond the simple “it’s the Browns”. Overhauling the offensive scheme with a rookie coach in this offseason is asking a lot. The middle-of-field defense looks shaky, especially with three new safeties taking over behind what might be the weakest LB corps in the league. The defensive front four could be dominant and I expect another Pro Bowl campaign from CB Denzel Ward, but the holes are legit. Trusting in a retooled offense, even one with a spectacular RB duo in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, is hard. Especially when it’s Cleveland, where my beloved hometown has seen its share of crashing and burning. Having said that, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if this team gels quickly and wins 11 this year. The potential is there.
Cincinnati Bengals (6-10): Things are looking up with No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow quickly assuming the role as face of the franchise. I’m a Burrow believer and think he can be very good right away. If A.J. Green can stay on the field, he’s got a legit No. 1 receiver and some nice pieces (Tee Higgins, Auden Tate) around Green too. Joe Mixon is an effective top RB and they do have some depth across the skill positions. All that excitement is tempered by what might be the worst OL in football, especially if Jonah Williams at LT isn’t up to snuff after missing his rookie season.
I love D.J. Reader joining the middle of the defensive line. Their front four is underappreciated and the starting secondary should be good with William Jackson and Trae Waynes, though with that group they’re certain to lead the NFL in holding penalties. They need another year and another solid draft before they rise to a possible playoff contender, but I like where this team is headed. They’re building something in Cincinnati that could blossom quickly.
Tennessee Titans (11-5): The Titans have an underappreciated set of offensive triplets in QB Ryan Tannehill, RB Derrick Henry and WR A.J. Brown. That’s a strong core to build around, and there are some nice complementary pieces too. Henry should at least come close to defending his rushing title, and I don’t think Tannehill’s impressive spike last year will fade. The defense is built from the back to the front, and the secondary looks very good around S Kevin Byard. It’s a cohesive, well-coached unit and adding veteran Johnathan Joseph and rookie Kristian Fulton gives the Titans great depth. This is a team that has embraced playing for coach Mike Vrabel and it’s well-crafted to play in the way the coach wants. Very high-floor team that will not beat itself.
Houston Texans (8-8): Just when the Texans finally get the long-problematic OL right in front of QB Deshaun Watson, Bill O’Brien deals away the best WR in the league in DeAndre Hopkins. O’Brien the head coach should be furious with O’Brien the GM, but even with the schizophrenic majordomo in charge this is still a talent-laden roster. Watson is special and that means a lot. The WR-by-committee still has speed and talent. Even after dumping Hopkins and leading rusher Carlos Hyde, I still have more questions about what Houston’s defense will do in 2020.
J.J. Watt is now 31 and has played more than eight games in a season just once since 2015. Losing D.J. Reader up front hurts. The LB corps with Zach Cunningham, Benardrick McKinney and Whitney Mercilus remains potent. If the hastily cobbled secondary can come together, and it does have talented pieces, the Texans offense should be able to outscore what the defense gives up more often than not. This is one of the widest variance teams in the league for me. I can see them going 12-4 and winning multiple games in January. I can also see them crashing to 5-11 and firing both faces of O’Brien after the season.
Indianapolis Colts (6-10): I love the offensive line and their first three draft picks (WR Michael Pittman, RB Jonathan Taylor, S Julian Blackmon). I appreciate the gamble on Philip Rivers in a new environment, hoping to coax one last run out of the longtime star-crossed Chargers QB. The LB corps is great, and adding DeForest Buckner to the DL plugs a big hole.
Yet I’m just not buying into the hype on the Colts. Based on everything I wrote here, I should be. They even have a decent schedule setup. But I don’t trust Rivers, who has been on the decline, to acclimate quickly in this abbreviated offseason. Outside of Buckner and the LBs, I don’t really trust anyone on the defense to consistently be more than Just A Guy, and it’s hard to win when you’re not good on the pass rush and also not good (70 percent completions allowed in 2019) in coverage. I could be very wrong here, but I just don’t see it coming together for these Colts.
Jacksonville Jaguars (2-14): I have no idea how they’ll even get to two wins as Jacksonville continues to sell off good young assets for nickels on the dollar. It’s a shame for the remaining talent, notably second-year EDGE Josh Allen, who looks like a superstar in the making. Bad ownership, bad GM, bad overall roster.
Kansas City Chiefs (12-4): The 12-4 forecast here is actually the lowest win total I can envision, and it’s based on how difficult it is to play as the defending champ with the target on the back and taking every foe’s best shot all year. Patrick Mahomes is a transcendent star, for my money (and for KC’s half a billion dollars) the NFL’s best player. What should scare the rest of the league is that Mahomes is still on the upswing. The blazing speed at his weaponry disposal is perfectly crafted to help him thrive. Rookie RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire is another smart fit.
The Chiefs do have some vulnerability on defense. The front around Chris Jones is very good, but the LB corps and CBs are best labeled as functional even on their best days. Tyrann Mathieu is hugely important in the secondary. If he goes down it’s a massive blow. This is another team incredibly well-tailored to its coach, Andy Reid, and the confidence they have from winning it all will keep them as viable contenders to repeat.
Las Vegas Raiders (8-8): New location and a new and improved roster, particularly on offense. Adding rookie WRs Henry Ruggs--my pick for Offensive Rookie of the Year--and Bryan Edwards is a great shot in the arm in Jon Gruden’s offense. Darren Waller is no fluke at TE, and Josh Jacobs is a great fit for the running game and the good OL in front of him. If Derek Carr is up to the task, and I’m still not convinced he will be, this should be one of the NFL’s top offenses.
The defense still seems somewhat mismashed. I love the addition of LB Nick Kwiatkowski. There are several guys who were overdrafted, including first-round rookie CB Damon Arnette, but there is a difference between being overdrafted and not being able to play. Arnette, Clelin Ferrell, Jonathan Abram, Trayvon Mullen, they can all play capably enough. Keep an eye on rookie CB Amik Robertson to make a big splash. I’d be more bullish on the Raiders if they had a proven pass rush and a QB I trust to take the proverbial next step. They lack both, but they still should expect to be in the Wild Card mix in a middle-heavy conference.
Los Angeles Chargers (6-10): Life after Philip Rivers begins with the best player on the roster, DB Derwin James, also being lost for the year with a knee injury. They still have Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram but there’s only so much that the outstanding EDGE duo can do. L.A. will need guys like Casey Hayward and Chris Harris to be at their best in the secondary. Even with that, the offense is underwhelming. Tyrod Taylor is a nice bridge QB to first-rounder and eventual starter Justin Herbert in that he won’t lose games with bad play, but he’s also not capable of winning games on his own. The OL is still not trustworthy even after adding Bryan Bulaga at RT. The WR/TE package looks great when everyone’s healthy but that’s a recurring theme for the Chargers. They could bubble up to 8-9 wins if all the key parts stay healthy. Based on this team’s history, don’t bet on that...
Denver Broncos (5-11): The young skill position talent on offense is a very nice core. Building around WR Courtland Sutton, RB Philip Lindsay and rookie WRs Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler is a great way to help young QB Drew Lock develop. They’ve got the bookend pass rushers in Von Miller and Bradley Chubb and good LBs in between them too. The problem for Denver is the lines on both sides of the ball. The DL is ahead of the OL in that regard, but both need to play significantly better for the Broncos to rise up. They’re a nice sleeper pick to outperform expectations and crash the playoff party, but they’re also one of the thinnest teams in the league at depth. I still need to see more from Lock before I’m sold, but he’s got a chance to make me a buyer...in 2021.