An early look at the AFC chase for the dance
There’s plenty of blame to go around after the Broncos embarrassing 23-7 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Already we’re seeing some fans and analysts heading for the exits and throwing up the “fire everyone” signs after Denver got exposed by a legitimate Super Bowl contender. I’m here to tell you all hope is not lost. The loss definitely stings, but those among us who try to take an objective look at the roster, coaching staff, and team thought 3-1 was the optimistic start to the year.
With four games down and 13 to go, there’s still a ton of games to be played. Things can and will change over the coming months, but four games also represent the quarter mark of a 17-game season. It’s a good time to zoom out and look at where things stand in the AFC playoff picture. The following teams are presented in my best guess at the final seeding.
1. Buffalo Bills (3-1)
The skinny: Barring a significant injury to Josh Allen, the Bills look as if they’re going to roll to the AFC East crown and the number one seed in the conference.
What do the numbers say: Football Outsiders’ playoff odds report runs a simulation of the NFL season 50,000 times. Currently, the 3-1 Bills make the dance in 94.7% of them. By DVOA, Buffalo’s had the easiest schedule in football thus far. By DVOA, they also have the easiest remaining schedule.
Joe’s thoughts: The Chiefs game looks like it will be the last real test for the Bills until December. I’m glad Denver won’t play them unless they make the playoffs because there’s a slew of bad matchups in Buffalo’s favor. Unfortunately, any such matchup will surely take place in the windy confines of Highmark Stadium.
Rest-of-Season NFL Strength of Schedule based on my current evaluation of each team
Red = Easy
Blue = Hard pic.twitter.com/impj5eo6WQ
— Mike Clay (@MikeClayNFL) October 5, 2021
2. Baltimore Ravens (3-1)
The skinny: While the Ravens currently lead the league in players on Injured Reserve, they’re getting healthier, and that Sunday night win over the Kansas City Chiefs looks like it could come in handy down the stretch.
What do the numbers say: Baltimore made the dance in 85.6% of Football Outsiders 50,000 simulations this week. With divisional matchups and the Chargers remaining on the schedule, they could still fall behind the Browns and Bengals. Worth noting that they were a wildcard team in 32.6% of FO’s projections.
Joe’s thoughts: Rashod Bateman is set to make his NFL debut against the Colts this weekend. The rookie was a perfect pick to compliment Lamar Jackson’s strengths as a passer, and if Wink Martindale can find a way to shore up the pass defense they’ll be a tough out in January.
Where are all the Lamar Jackson haters this year? He ranks third in Total Points/pass and fourth in Total Points/rush through four games this year. Guess the dude you’ve been calling a running back can throw the ball a bit, too. Who knew?
— Bryce Rossler (@btrossler) October 7, 2021
3. Kansas City Chiefs (2-2)
The skinny: They’ll go as far as Patrick Mahomes take them.
What do the numbers say: Sports Info Solutions’ Bryce Rossler shared that Mahomes has thrown or run for a first down on 46.3% of his dropbacks/carries so far, which is easily the highest rate in the NFL since Matt Ryan’s MVP season in 2016. The Chiefs have both the best offense and worst defense in football by DVOA, and it isn’t particularly close.
Joe’s thoughts: The Chiefs putrid defense and overdependence on Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce makes them vulnerable across a 17-game slate, but let’s be real: the offense looks unstoppable. I don’t have to like it to recognize greatness. That Kansas City plays both Baltimore and Buffalo so early this year could be huge as it’s hard to imagine any team beats Mahomes twice in one season.
Patrick Mahomes threw a touchdown on a league leading 8.6% of his pass attempts in 2018.
He’s at 9.9% this year.
— Bird Law Expert (@RealBirdLawyer) October 6, 2021
4. Indianapolis Colts (1-3)
The skinny: Someone has to win the AFC South
What do the numbers say: The Titans made the playoffs in 50.5% of FO’s playoff projections, almost entirely because they won their division: they only made the wildcard 2.2% of the time. This probably isn’t a huge surprise, but the Indianapolis Colts won the South in just about every other scenario.
Joe’s thoughts: I may be crazy for picking the Colts here. Quenton Nelson’s on Injured Reserve, the defense is badly underperforming, and Carson Wentz is playing through two bum ankles. In the end, I lean towards Indy because of the coaching advantage and the fact that a bunch of their injured players are expected to return in short order. Tennessee isn’t particularly hurt, they’ve just been bad.
5. Cleveland Browns (3-1)
The skinny: Top to bottom one of the best rosters in the NFL and the coaching staff is legit, but the injury to Baker Mayfield looms over their remaining schedule.
What do the numbers say: The Browns made the playoffs in 70.3% of FO’s projections and it’s easy to see why. They’re currently have an offense, defense, and special teams that rank among the 10 best by DVOA.
Joe’s thoughts: Mayfield’s injury doesn’t look like it will knock him out of games as of now. What remains to be seen is how a partially torn labrum to a non-throwing shoulder impacts his mechanics. It’d also leave me holding my breath every time he takes a hit if I had a rooting interest in the Browns. Dog help me if Cleveland’s Super Bowl aspirations wind up resting on Case Keenum.
#Browns QB Baker Mayfield, who has been wearing a shoulder harness to play, suffered a partially torn labrum in his left shoulder on Sept 19 vs the #Texans, sources say. No surgery needed as of now. He was listed on the report after the injury and hasn’t missed a practice snap.
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) October 7, 2021
6. Los Angeles Charger (3-1)
The skinny: The national media darlings make their way into the dance.
What do the numbers say: No team did more to improve their odds at the postseason more than the Chargers this past weekend, who made the postseason in 48.2% of all FO simulations.
Joe’s thoughts: One thing that gives LA a huge boost to their chances in my mind is that they’ve already beaten two divisional rivals, including the Chiefs. They did so with a new coaching staff and a second year quarterback learning a new system. I hate to say it, but Justin Herbert and Brandon Staley look like the real deal.
Within 5 minutes of talking to him over a year ago, could tell he was destined to be a HC. Quickly. Super bright individual. Great philosophical outlook on how the game should be played. #BrandonStaley pic.twitter.com/YNhhvfjSWy
— Louis Riddick (@LRiddickESPN) October 6, 2021
7. Denver Broncos (3-1)
The skinny: Good news: if Denver makes the dance they’ll certainly be battle tested.
What do the numbers say: The Broncos currently have the fifth best playoff odds of any team in the AFC and made the postseason in 60.4% of FO’s 50,000 simulations. It is notable that they have the toughest remaining schedule of the teams I did not project to win their respective divisions.
Joe’s thoughts: Following the disappointing loss to Baltimore, Denver’s spent all week with uncertainty over the starting quarterback. The hope is we receive some clarity today as to Teddy Bridgewater’s status for the Pittsburgh game. If he can’t suit up, Drew Lock will receive his first start of his third NFL season.
Looking beyond the signal caller, the Broncos injury situation has become alarming. The touted cornerback room could be down to Kyle Fuller, Bryce Callahan, and Nate Hairston. The third receiver and the backup linebacker were on other team’s practice squads a little more than a week ago. Simply put, the current rate Denver’s sustaining significant injuries is unsustainable if they’re going to compete against playoff teams.
There’s no doubt this weekend looks like a must-win game because of the short week between Denver’s next two opponents. Following the first battle with the Raiders the Broncos will have three days to prepare for the Browns. By the end of October we’ll have a better idea as to where things are headed.
If Albert Okwuegbunam can’t play against the Steelers the Broncos pass catcher situation is quite dire.
Somewhat proven contributors:
That’s the list.
— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 7, 2021
Woulda Coulda Shoulda
I could see any of these teams finding a way to make my next playoff prediction. In the end they got squeezed out because of some combination of shaky injury luck, a brutal schedule, coaching malpractice, or some other roster deficiency.
Las Vegas Raiders (3-1)
Adding another game to the schedule gives Chucky more time to witness yet another full blown meltdown by the silver and black.
Cincinnati Bengals (3-1)
An iffy offensive line gets exposed against a schedule that includes the AFC West and two games against every other team in the AFC North.
New England Patriots (1-3)
Bill Belichick’s game management and Mac Jones’ conservativism is going to leave the Pats out in the cold come January.