AFC Playoff Outlook
This is a continuation of my 2018 NFL season outlook. You read my article on the NFC playoffs here.
Tier 1: Locked In
New England Patriots
The New England Patriots land at the top but there always seems to be the same wide range of outcomes with them. We saw them get crushed in the opener by Kansas City last year then still managed to find their way back in the Super Bowl. We're all still waiting for the Tom Brady drop-off. It's going to need to be pretty steep because we haven't seen any signs of it yet and Brady gets all his favorite weapons back this year.
The rest of the AFC East seems to have taken a step backwards so that's already six potential wins. I think the biggest question mark will be the defense. They'll be without Matt Patricia as the defensive coordinator for the first time in six seasons. If they can overcome that then another playoff run is likely in their future.
If you play fantasy football then you've probably reached for the Jacksonville Jaguars defense early or seen someone else do it. I'm pretty envious of those people because I don't normally grab a defense early but I was captivated by what I saw last year. It's like they're the Monstars and they stole all the Seahawks' powers.
Their offensive line added Andrew Norwell who's one of the best graded guards in football. Now Leonard Fournette has even bigger holes to run through. The obvious concern is Blake Bortles. He's good enough to win games and made stars out of Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns back in 2015. He now he has a wealth of receivers at his disposal and the league's best defense. If Jacksonville doesn't make it back to the AFC Championship game, they may look elsewhere for a quarterback next season.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are a sleeper Super Bowl contender every season - they just can't put it all together. Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown are the best players at their position in the NFL. They have a young and talented defense that continues to make strides every season. I've never been big on Ben Roethlisberger but his auxiliary pieces may finally take him back to the top this year.
Juju Smith-Schuster could have his sophomore season breakout. Rookie James Washington was last year's Biletnikoff Award winner (best WR in the country) in college football and he could be an upgrade over Martavis Bryant. Now that Vance McDonald has a full season with Pittsburgh under his belt, he should push Jesse James for the starting tight end job.
Tier 2: Not Far Behind
Los Angeles Chargers
Kansas City Chiefs
The Los Angeles Chargers haven't made the playoffs since 2013 but they're one of my favorites to make it to the Super Bowl this year. Philip Rivers has thrown for at least 4000 yards and 27 TDs in nine of his last ten seasons. Receiver Mike Williams returns after an injury-plagued rookie season; he's the extra redzone threat Rivers needs to alleviate some of the pressure from Antonio Gates. It's a shame they lost Hunter Henry but Keenan Allen and Melvin Gordon are still two of the best at their position in the league. Tyrell Williams and Travis Benjamin round out the weapons as every quarterback needs a few deep threats.
This might be the best defense Philip Rivers has gotten to play with as well. The main ingredients of a great defense are two edge rushers (Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram) and a shut-down cornerback (Casey Hayward). They were third in passing touchdowns allowed, third in passing yards allowed, and sixth in total turnovers. However, they were the worst in the league against the run. If they could get even a little better in that department, the Chargers could be a serious threat to their conference.
Deshaun Watson returns to the Houston Texans and I can't remember the last time I saw so much hype for a quarterback in their second season. Watson set the world on fire in his six starts last year before an ACL tear ended his season. The potential peak of Watson is all we've seen; that's equally exciting and worrisome, although I'm not too concerned. DeAndre Hopkins can bail any QB out of a play, Will Fuller is one of the best deep threats in the league, and Bruce Ellington is back to cover the intermediate routes. They also added receiver Keke Coutee in the draft who reminds me of Tyreek Hill.
Running back D'Onta Foreman will start the season on the PUP list but he should overtake Lamar Miller's starting job when he returns. Not only did they add Tyrann Mathieu in free agency, but JJ Watt is returning from his injury and you guys know what they can do.
The Kansas City Chiefs' playoff hopes come down to Patrick Mahomes. Alex Smith looked like the league MVP at times last season but they still felt comfortable enough to let him go so Mahomes could take over. If you're unfamiliar, go look at his college game logs; you would think he was playing Madden on rookie level.
My main concern is that he's definitely going to turn the ball over more than Alex Smith. Mahomes is still learning and Smith has always been one of the best in the league at maintaining possession. However, we could be seeing the types of games Deshaun Watson was putting together last year. With all the offensive talent surrounding him, he's one of the players I'm most looking forward to watching this season.
Tier 3: Don't Be Surprised
Denver Broncos quarterback Case Keenum went from being a backup QB to leading the Minnesota Vikings into the playoffs. Some people still aren't sold on him but I think he's an incredible improvement over the quarterbacks they've had the last few seasons.
Rookie running back Royce Freeman is also a refreshing upgrade over CJ Anderson. CJ still managed to have a 1000 yard season in a mediocre offense so Freeman has plenty of room for opportunity. Their defense hasn't been as scary recently but now you get the best pass-rusher in the draft in Bradley Chubb opposite of Von Miller. If both the Chiefs and Broncos hover around eight or nine wins then Denver could sneak past Kansas City for a Wild Card spot.
The Tennessee Titans made the playoffs last year though I didn't think they belonged. They didn't make the playoffs in 2016 even though I thought they could have been poised to upset a few people. I was sour on them all offseason after Marcus Mariota took a giant step back last year. However, I'm starting to come around.
I'm not as high on Derrick Henry as other people but Dion Lewis could bring out the best in him. Lewis gives the offense the jolt and change-of-pace that DeMarco Murray couldn't. When Murray hit his slump last year, the whole offense went with him. The offensive coordinator for last year's Rams is now on board with Tennessee. That's the same Rams team that led the league in points scored in 2017. Similar to the Broncos, if the Texans don't live up to the hype then an improved Titans team could find their way back into the playoffs.
The Cincinnati Bengals were pretty hard to watch last year. They were at the bottom of the league in offensive plays ran and couldn't string anything together. Last in total offensive yards, 31st in 1st downs, and 31st in rushing yards is what the Bengals were last season. It's easy to say things are looking up because that's the only direction they can go.
Tyler Eifert is back and healthy (for now at least). When he scored 13 times back in 2015, Andy Dalton was in the discussion for MVP. He could be what keeps drives alive. I wasn't a big fan of Joe Mixon coming out of college, but he has a chance to tap into his true skillset now that Jeremy Hill is gone. The offensive line suffered after LT Andrew Whitworth joined the Rams, but they've addressed some of the problems. They added Cordy Glenn to fill the left tackle position. He's no Andrew Whitworth but it's much better than what they had last year. Their 1st round pick was also spent on center, Billy Price. All they need to do is stay on the field a little longer then they can let AJ Green and Geno Atkins can do the rest.