AFC power rankings: Chiefs rule, Jets present a huge challenge to Bills


Staff member

Hundreds of millions in free-agent money has been spent and rosters have been fortified with draft picks, yet the view in the AFC remains the same.
The conference is staring up at the Kansas City Chiefs, who will bring a better roster to training camp this summer than they had when they won a second straight Super Bowl title in February.

The Chiefs are gunning for an unprecedented third straight Super Bowl. They have won eight straight division titles, the second-longest streak ever (behind only New England’s 11 straight from 2009 to 2019).

Meanwhile, the Buffalo Bills will seek their fifth straight AFC East crown, which would set a franchise record. Only five other teams have managed to win their division five straight times since 2000. Besides the Chiefs and Patriots’ runs, New England won five straight from 2003 to 2007, Indianapolis won five straight from 2003 to 2007 and Denver won five straight from 2011 to 2015.

The NFL is designed to transfer power. With that in mind, here is a subjective, post-draft power ranking in the AFC, which shakes things up from the end of last season.

Rank, Team (2023 record)

1. Kansas City (11-6)

The Chiefs won last year despite a subpar receiving corps. So they signed free-agent Hollywood Brown, who has 4.27 speed in the 40-yard dash, and rookie Xavier Worthy, who set the NFL scouting combine record with a 4.21 time.

“It doesn’t hurt to have down-the-field speed,” said coach Andy Reid after drafting Worthy. “We’ve functioned without the great speed down the field and done well. But if you have an opportunity to get somebody that you think is a good player – just not a speed guy, but a good football player – I think you probably need to take advantage of that.”

The Chiefs’ outstanding defense returns almost intact, minus cornerback L’Jarius Sneed.

2. Cincinnati (9-8)
Joe Burrow is back after missing seven games to a wrist injury, which ruined the Bengals’ season. The dynamic passing trio of Burrow, JaMarr Chase and Tee Higgins (making $21.8 million on a one-year deal) is intact for one more year. Higgins isn’t happy that the Bengals have failed to give him an extension. Star defensive end Trey Hendrickson wants a new deal, too. But if there’s one owner who won’t cave and will make them play, happy or not, it’s Mike Brown. Zach Moss was signed to replace Joe Mixon. The Bengals also were fortunate to retain great defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, who has yet to land a head coaching gig. The defense is outstanding. Star run-plugger D.J. Reader left for Detroit, so the Bengals signed Sheldon Rankins (a downgrade) and drafted Kris Jenkins. The combination of Burrow, Chase and Anarumo push the Bengals all the way up to No. 2.

3. Baltimore (13-4)
The Ravens’ formula for success is proven. The defense ranked No. 1 in the NFL in points allowed and returns virtually intact. Lamar Jackson is 58-19 as a starting quarterback and is the reigning NFL MVP. The front office keeps the talent flowing via the draft. The Ravens doubled-down on their physical style by signing the great Derrick Henry, who had 1,167 yards for a bad Titans team last year.

The question is: Are the Ravens better built for the regular season than the playoffs? When the Ravens get into a scoring game against a great offense, can Jackson get it done with a wideout corps of Zay Flowers, Rashod Bateman, Nelson Agholor and rookie Tez Walker?

If quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who turns 41 in December, can play a full season instead of just walk along the sideline, how many wins can the Jets get out of him? Associated Press

4. New York Jets (7-10)
It’s mighty impressive that the Jets’ defense ranked No. 3 in DVOA (advanced analytics) despite the fact the offense was last in the league. How good can the Jets be if Aaron Rodgers plays a full season? That’s the obvious wild card. Rodgers turns 41 in December. How many games can the Jets get out of him? If it’s 15 or more, they are a giant threat to the Bills. The offense has elite weapons in Garrett Wilson and Breece Hall. New receivers Mike Williams (Chargers) and Malachi Corley represent an upgrade. The Jets are rolling the dice with 33-year-old left tackle Tyron Smith, who has missed big chunks of three of the last four seasons. But they drafted Olu Fashanu 11th overall as insurance. The Jets lost speedy edge rusher Bryce Huff in free agency but replaced him with Haason Reddick, who is 29 and has 50.5 sacks the past four years. The defense is championship caliber.

5. Buffalo (11-6)

The Bills bid adieu to seven veteran starters. The roster is retooled. How quickly can Sean McDermott and his coaching staff get all the new pieces to fit seamlessly together and start producing at a high level? The Bills have enough speed on offense to suggest they can compensate for the loss of Stefon Diggs by spreading the ball around even more than they did last season. A lot is riding on new wideouts Keon Coleman and Curtis Samuel. The defense is solid. But the Bills will need step-up performances from Von Miller, Greg Rousseau and the new safety tandem if they want to win the AFC East again.

6. Houston (10-7)
Buoyed by the emergence of Rookie of the Year QB C.J. Stroud, the Texans decided to seize the opportunity to speed up their development. Obviously, the big move was acquiring Diggs on a one-year deal. They spent big money on DE Danielle Hunter, TE Dalton Schultz, LB Azeez Al-Shaair and DT Denico Autry. They swapped Devin Singletary for Mixon at running back. With Stroud on a rookie deal, it all makes sense. A caution flag: The Texans played one of the easiest schedules in the NFL last season. It gets tougher this year, with games vs. the AFC East, NFC East, Kansas City and Buffalo.

7. Cleveland (11-6)
The Browns’ defense ranked No. 1 in yards allowed, No. 1 vs. the pass and No. 1 on third downs. It returns virtually intact. The wild card is QB Deshaun Watson, who went 5-1 before getting hurt but was mostly unimpressive. With a defense this good and one of the best offensive lines in the league, the floor is high for Cleveland. How high is the ceiling?

8. Miami (11-6)
You wonder if the Dolphins have hit their ceiling after losing four of their final six games last season. QB Tua Tagovailoa led the league in passing yards last season and still needs to get paid. The offensive skill position talent is the fastest in the NFL with Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle and De’Von Achane. But the defense lost respected coordinator Vic Fangio to the Eagles, and both talented defensive tackles (Christian Wilkins and Raekwon Davis) left in free agency. Jordan Poyer helps solidify the back end, at least for this year.

9. Jacksonville (9-8)
The Jaguars spent cash in free agency on Gabe Davis, DT Arik Armstead and C Mitch Morse. The key loss in free agency was WR Calvin Ridley, but he was replaced with the first-round draft pick, WR Brian Thomas Jr. of LSU. The defense (22nd in yards and 17th in points) wasn’t good enough last year. Have the Jaguars done enough on that side of the ball?

10. Pittsburgh (10-7)
The big change is at quarterback where Russell Wilson and Justin Fields are in, and Kenny Pickett and Mason Rudolph are out. Never underestimate Mike Tomlin’s ability to squeeze out wins. The Steelers had another strong draft, bolstering the offensive line and getting a plug-and-play slot man in Roman Wilson. Yet the Steelers still have only the third-best quarterbacking in the division, and they have a tough schedule.

11. Indianapolis (9-8)
The Colts are committed to a homegrown program under GM Chris Ballard. They didn’t do a lot in free agency, but they kept some of their key pieces by extending DT Grover Stewart, CB Kenny Moore and WR Michael Pittman. The Colts are banking on their uber-talented second-year QB Anthony Richardson, who went just 2-2 last year before getting hurt.

12. Las Vegas (8-9)
The Raiders picked too late in the draft to land a QB so they will let Gardner Minshew and Aidan O’Connell battle for the starting job. Whoopie! The offense, however, has talent and added solid picks in tight end Brock Bowers and center Jackson Powers-Johnson. It was a good first draft for new GM Tom Telesco, the St. Francis High School product. New coach Antonio Pierce added stud defensive tackle Wilkins to a defense that overachieved last year (ranking ninth in points allowed).
13. L.A. Chargers (5-12)

The addition of proven coach Jim Harbaugh points the arrow upward for the Chargers in the long run. The team didn’t do a lot in free agency. The draft was solid, with high-floor players at receiver (Ladd McConkey) and tackle (Joe Alt). Still, the skill position talent and the defense need to get better. It will be fascinating to see how new coordinator Greg Roman fits with Justin Herbert.

14. Tennessee (6-11)
The Titans are rebuilding with athletic, young QB Will Levis, who went 3-6 last season. Gone is the run-first offense. Ridley was signed for big money to team with DeAndre Hopkins and Treylon Burks.

15. Denver (8-9)
It’s a start-over season in Year 2 for coach Sean Payton. The Broncos made the huge decision to dump Wilson and eat $53 million in cap space this year. He produced 29 TDs with only eight interceptions last year. Why not keep him one more year, then throw him overboard? An impulsive decision by Payton. Bo Nix was overdrafted 12th overall.

16. New England (4-13)
There is hope in New England with the selection of talented quarterback Drake Maye No. 3 overall. But Maye is a project, and the Patriots still rank near the bottom of the NFL in skill-position talent.