The Kansas City Chiefs have run the AFC in recent years but they appear to have some serious competition from a number of upstarts. The Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns look like contenders, while the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers might have some say too. Let’s examine the AFC Championship futures and see where there’s some value on the board.
It’s no surprise that the Chiefs (+250) lead the early betting odds to win the AFC Championship. That is to be expected as they have arguably the most explosive offense in the league, combined with a very capable defense. Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and Clyde Edwards-Helaire are just a few of the dangerous weapons they have offensively.
This squad has also made the AFC Championship the last three seasons now, losing only once. The Bucs stopped Mahomes and company in the Super Bowl with a fierce pass rush, but that was with both tackles gone for the year. They added start right tackle Orlando Brown — still only 25 years old — in the offseason. The massive Lucas Niang and veteran Mike Remmers fight it out ofr the job on the right side, with depth a priority with the Chiefs front office in the offseason.
With improvements to the defense and the offensive line this offseason, it is hard to imagine anybody knocking the Chiefs off early on in the postseason.
The Buffalo Bills (+575) are second in line as they played in the AFC Championship Game last season. They ended up losing to the Chiefs in a close game but Buffalo saw their young quarterback Josh Allen develop into a potential All-Pro player last year. This team’s arrow is pointing up – especially given how Stefon Diggs played following his acquisition last offseason.
With some more weapons thrown into this offense and an improved running game, they might be ready to rival the Chiefs. In hopes of closing the gap with the Chiefs, the Bills bolstered their pass rush in the draft with Greg Rousseau in the 1st round and Boogie Basham in the 2nd. They own arguably the fastest secondary in the entire league with players like Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer and Tre’Davious White roaming the field, so maybe they can slow the Chiefs down.
The Cleveland Browns (+750) are a team to keep an eye on this season. They were able to finally post a winning record and make it into the postseason last year after so many failures. The team stomped the Pittsburgh Steelers before barely losing to the Chiefs in the Divisional Round.
In 2020, Cleveland has a fantastic offense with Baker Mayfield leading the charge and a dynamic running back tandem of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. This isn’t even mentioning the duo of Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. at wide receiver. The Browns have all of the pieces necessary to win the AFC but can they make it happen?
The Baltimore Ravens (+900) occupy the tweener position between favorite and longshot. It’s understandable. Lamar Jackson is a dynamic player, while the team continues to add weapons to improve the passing game. They added veteran Sammy Watkins and 1st round pick Rashod Batemen to the attack. Meanwhile, JK Dobbins is expected to make a big leap in production in year two.
On defense, the Ravens added Jayson (Odafe) Oweh in the 2nd round to improve the pass rush. Patrick Queen is said to be faster and better in training camp, while the team expects Malik Harrison to step up as a major contributor in year two. Queen and Harrison should solidify the linebacker corps for years to come.
A Longshot To Consider
The Tennessee Titans (+1400) are surprisingly in the longshot category. They have the most productive running back in the entire league in Derrick Henry, a man who rushed for over 2,000 yards last season. They also have Ryan Tannehill throwing the football to A.J. Brown and newly-acquired Julio Jones (from the Atlanta Falcons).
The only serious issue on the Titans roster is their defense. The team made some improvements to the secondary, such as signing Janoris Jenkins from the New Orleans Saints. Still, that may not be enough to make them a strong unit overall.
The Titans pass rush was also pitiful last year, finishing third-worst in the league with just 19 sacks. The addition of Bud Dupree could help but he is also coming off a serious ACL tear back in December and nobody knows how he will return. The Titans could end up being carried through the playoffs behind the excellence of their offense alone.
The Pittsburgh Steelers (+1600) are another longshot to consider. The Steelers have been downgraded because Ben Roethlisberger looked finished last year. Despite that, the team started 2020 with an 11-0 record and won the AFC North due to a superior defense and big play receivers. If anything, the Steelers defense should improve in 2021. Devin Bush returns from an ACL, while the team traded for tackle machine Joe Schobert (who’s solid in pass coverage) in preseason. If Melvin Ingram has anything left, he gives the team another pass rusher in an already-elite unit.
Strange as it may sounds, the main concern is Roethlisberger. Coming back from elbow surgery, Big Ben didn’t look good last year. He’s in his late thirties and a year older, so many see Roethlisberger as a player in decline. Baseball pitchers who have arm surgery often snap back to their prior form in the second season after that surgery. If Roethlisberger takes a similar path, then Big Ben might have a surprisingly good year in 2021.
The weapons around Roethlisberger are better than they have been in years. The team drafted Najee Harris in the 1st round to overhaul the running game. Juju Schuster is back on a one-year deal, while Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool continue to improve (while already providing big plays). Eric Ebron is a solid tight end, while the team drafted Pat Freiermuth in the 2nd round to improve the position.
New offensive coordinator Matt Canada hopes to take the team away from the dink-and-dunk game plans of 2020. Harris’ emergence as a running threat could open up play-action opportunities for the team’s trio of big play receivers. So if the Steelers offense improves in 2021, they could be a dark horse candidate to make a long playoff run.