While last week we saw how top heavy the National Football Conference (NFC) side of affairs was, we now get a glimpse at a starkly contrasting competitive American Football Conference (AFC). In only one division in this conference do we see a potential runaway leader in terms of how the records have played out thus far. Even in that division, however, things are more competitive than they seem, as injuries to major contributors have opened the door for a changing of the guard. Like last week, I will be going over each team, offering a brief look at how they’ve performed and how their short-term outlook is unfolding as the season trucks forward.
We start with the aforementioned “less competitive” AFC South division, which sees Tennessee atop the standings at 7–2. The Titans, however, may be wary of losing that spot thanks to a foot injury to the behemoth running back Derrick Henry, which will knock him out for the rest of the regular season. Henry was once more on pace for a record breaking rushing season and, predictably, was the machine that was chugging the Titans offense to dominance. However, in their first game without Henry, the Titans were able to dominate the Superbowl hopeful Rams, defeating them 28–16 in a primetime showdown.
The Carson-Wentz-led Colts have gotten off to a rocky start but are becoming a more cohesive unit as the season wears on. They will hope to catch Tennessee, but with their 4–5 record, it may be too late. Jacksonville and Houston are pitiful units whose best years were only a few seasons ago. Not too long ago did we see “Sacksonville” dominate opposing offenses en route to an AFC Championship game and Houston riding the starpower of young quarterback Deshaun Watson and uber-talented receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Alas, the NFL is an ever-shifting league. Now Hopkins is in Arizona, Watson is in legal trouble and may never play another snap, at least in Houston, and the Jaguars team has fallen off so far that they were able to draft Trevor Lawrence with the first overall pick last year. Lawrence is still suffering from the rookie growing pains, but is projected to be a transcendent talent. Time will tell.
In the North division it’s shaping up to be a close race to the finish, as each team has either three or four losses in the year. Baltimore led the division and still holds the top slot for the moment but is reeling following a classic “trap game” loss to the struggling Miami Dolphins. Pittsburgh, hot on a four game winning streak, will assuredly be hoping to use this opportunity to usurp the division leader. Unlike the rest of these AFC North teams, it is the Steelers’ defense that is keeping the team afloat as veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger desperately tries to keep the offense from sinking. Age, however, has not been too kind to the gunslinger. Cleveland just recently lost receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who had been fighting to get to another team, as his share of receptions had been falling at the hands of quarterback Baker Mayfield. The Browns figure to stay competitive however, as they have seen more victories and consistency when the former all-pro has been sidelined with injury. Perhaps the most shocking success of the North is in Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals. The Jamarr Chase draft pick has netted excellent results as the rookie receiver is on pace for a record-shattering season.
In the AFC East, things are a bit less competitive save for the top slot, which has suddenly become very close with a familiar championship team closing in for the kill. That’s right folks, with the recent struggles and inconsistency of Josh Allen and the Bills, the door has been opened for Bill Belichik and the New England Patriots to reclaim the division title, which they have owned almost annually over the past decade. Can Allen and the Bills assert their claim at dominating the division, or will Belichik put the young squad in their place? It will be very interesting to see how things play out as so many had expected a drastic drop off for the Tom Brady-less Patriot team. However, through free agency, trades and Belichik magic, the Patriots have found themselves only having had one year of difficulty attaining the postseason. Yes, it’s very early, but the defense is coming together much more cohesively and Mac Jones is playing well in the system provided by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Be on alert, Bills fans, the Patriots’ shadow is proving to be a very tricky one to fully escape.
As for the Dolphins and Jets, they have been very disappointing. Now, the Jets were expected to have their struggles but figured to be on an upward trend with first-round quarterback Zach Wilson at the helm and new, defense-minded head coach Robert Saleh coming off a dominant string of seasons as defensive coordinator in San Francisco. Nonetheless, aside from a couple impressive wins, it’s been nothing but the same Jets football as it has for the last decade. Miami has once more been given lofty expectations and has thus far completely underperformed. It may be the last season for former first-round pick Tua Tagovailoa, who is only in his second pro season! Not only that, but their 2022 first-round pick, which figures to be a premium one given how bad they’ve played, belongs to Philadelphia after a trade to move up and select receiver Jaylen Waddle this past offseason (yay for us!). All the signs are pointing to a day of reckoning for the coaching staff of this organization, as the type of consistent failure cannot be something to make the owner and fans happy.
Finally, we go to the AFC West, which has seen perhaps the biggest shake ups in the standings from last year to this one. Kansas City, last year’s AFC representative to the Superbowl, has fallen to third in the standings and looks like a shell of their former selves. Patrick Mahomes has been shoddy and the defense is bottom three. Meanwhile, the Chargers have come on strong with second year quarterback Justin Herbert starting off hot and even gaining whispers of an MVP campaign. He has cooled off of late, but just finished lighting up the Eagles defense to the tune of 356 yards and an 84 % completion percentage (!). Just terrible defensive ineptitude on Philly’s part? Perhaps. Nevertheless, Herbert and the offense has been very efficient and hopes to keep the first seed of the division. Las Vegas sits at the number two slot after hitting a string of rough luck which cost them their head coach, star wide receiver and up and coming cornerback. Despite this, they’ve built a formidable record and hope to keep themselves aloat behind a strong season under quarterback Derek Carr. Denver looks to ride a strong defensive unit and running game to field their hopes of a wildcard run. It is a tight division still and anyone’s to claim.
The AFC is a tight conference and many teams have a shot at taking up the number slot in their respective division. Time will tell on how everything plays out, but it has been quite the fun season so far.
Joseph Gill is a third-year English major with a minor in Journalism. JG923276@wcupa.edu