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Who will contend for the AFC playoffs in 2020?

What teams stand out as competition for the Broncos?

Denver Broncos Training Camp
Can Von Miller get back in the dance?
Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

With the NFL expanding the playoff format this year, it’s never been easier to make the postseason. At the same time, the Denver Broncos play in the same division as the best quarterback in football. There’s no doubt Patrick Mahomes stands as a road block to any division titles for the foreseeable future.

Accepting this reality means any realistic look at the Broncos chances at the postseason requires a look at the whole AFC. Who are the Broncos’ main competition for a wildcard spot this year?

The Heavyweights

Kansas City Chiefs

See above.

No, but really. I get the hope that Patrick Mahomes new mega-deal will wreck the Chiefs’ cap over the long haul. Really, I do. In the meantime, Andy Reid has managed to retain every key piece of last year’s Super Bowl team. Mecole Hardman should improve, Clyde Edwards-Helaire was added. Tyreke Hill and Travis Kelce are healthy, while Mitchell Schwartz and Eric Fisher are good enough to slow down the Broncos’ edge rushers.

Any real hope for beating the Chiefs starts and ends with outscoring them.

Only they have Patrick Mahomes.

Baltimore Ravens

In 2019 the Ravens’ coordinator Greg Roman helped Lamar Jackson take over the league in part by weaponizing his mobility. Lost amid the MVP season was how little Hollywood Brown and Mile Boykin contributed as rookies. The pair combined for 10 touchdowns, but only combined for 59 catches and 782 yards receiving. In fact, Jackson’s leading receiver was his tight end Mark Andrews. Health willing, I’d expect both sophomore receivers to see a substantial uptick in their workloads. Jackson’s legs should make their jobs easier by forcing defenses into a constant no-win situation.

Losing Earl Thomas hurts on defense, especially since Wink Martindale leaned on Dime personnel more than 40% of the time last season. That won’t stop the Ravens from being aggressive, however. Consider this nugget from Football Outsider’s Almanac.

On both sides of the ball, Baltimore was roughly league average in pressure on first and second downs. But on third downs, the Ravens offense allowed the least amount of pressure and the Ravens defense caused the most.

Adding Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe to the line as well as Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison to the second level is huge. While both the defensive lineman are aging, they’re both disruptive from a variety of alignments. The rookie linebackers add athleticism in spades.

Houses of Cards

These teams stand out as overly dependent on old arms being enough to cover issues.

New England Patriots

Every year I pick against Bill Belichick and every year he makes me look foolish. Yes I am concerned about an offensive supporting cast overly reliant on rookie tight ends and a defensive front undergoing a rebuild reload. I’ve also seen this story before.

While the Pats are losing a bunch of core pieces such as Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower, they retain the core parts of the best secondary in football. This is a team that firmly subscribes to coverage > pass rush as an organizational philosophy, and that unit is mostly unscathed by opt outs, free agency, and injury. Adding Adrian Phillips will also allow Belichick to be flexible with personnel packages and help to hide the green linebacker unit.

If you’ve read anything I’ve written related to Noah Fant or Albert Okwuegbunam, you already know how foolish it is to count on rookie tight ends. What could help the Patriots deal with it is how they already asked so little of their tight ends a year ago. With Julian Edelman, James White, and Damien Harris, they have other ways to attack the middle of the field. If N’Keal Harry and Mohomed Sanu can do more on the perimeter, Josh McDaniels has enough to create a functional passing offense.

In case it didn’t go without saying: All bets are off if Cam Newton misses time. Unlike the devout Bill-eievers, my faith ends at Jarrett Stidham.

Indianapolis Colts

On the surface, Rivers swapped a better supporting cast for a better offensive line. T.Y Hilton and Jack Doyle aren’t Keenan Allen and Hunter Henry, but there isn’t a Quenton Nelson on the Chargers. Or anywhere else in the NFL, for that matter. I expect Frank Reich to manufacture a competent passing game and hide Rivers’ worst deficiencies, which should be enough to keep the rushing game humming more often than not.

DeForest Bunkner’s individual numbers may take a dip because less talent around him will allow opposing blocking schemes to focus on him. That said, his ability to impact both the run and pass should only help Darius Leonard. While I think Xavier Rhodes was a sham Pro Bowl nod last year, he lands in the perfect situation to hide his decline.

If Rivers falls apart of can’t suit up for the first time since 2006, Indy has one of the better backup situations in the league. Jacoby Brissett isn’t a good starting quarterback, but adding a healthy Parris Campbell to go with Michael Pittman would make his life easier. In a declining AFC South, that could be enough.

Pittsburgh Steelers

I don’t know how you can watch Mason Rudolph play football and maintain faith that he’ll be anything other than an albatross. The fact Pittsburgh elected to bring him back as the only real insurance against Ben Roethlisberger’s injury history blows my mind.

It looks like the defense is Super Bowl caliber, even if their turnover luck is down this year. Pittsburgh has elite talent at every level of the unit. In Devin Bush and Minkah Fitzpatrick, they have two elite athletes to help patrol and control the middle of the field. Both should improve on their 2019 seasons.

Keep in mind Duck Hodges would have faced off against the Chiefs had the expanded playoffs existed a year ago. Perhaps Mike Tomlin is confident his duck or reindeer can save the day with a little extra wiggle room this time around.

Heck, maybe the Steelers really do believe Big Ben can get back to form. I give them a lot of credit, because I can’t get on board. The man hasn’t played 16 games in a season since 2014 and NFL players don’t become more durable as they age. According to Football Outsiders, there are 14 35-year old quarterbacks since 2000 who had 100 or fewer pass attempts in a season. Only one ever became a starter ever again. Vinny Testaverde, who lead the league in interceptions for the 2004 Cowboys.

If 38-year old Ben Roethlisberger bounces back to even 75% of his 2018 form, he should win the runner up for Comeback Player of the Year to Alex Smith. If he does so, the Steelers are steamrolling into the playoffs.

The upstarts

Vying to perpetually relevant

Buffalo Bills

I got called the biggest Allen hater in the world yesterday, and need to admit something. The way Brian Daboll combined a power running game with Allen’s mobility was brilliant. It also helped to keep the offense on track with a mediocre passer who’s accuracy is scattershot on the best days. On track was enough for the defense to suffocate opposing offenses.

Give credit where credit is due. Sean McDermott’s built what looks like the league’s next elite defense. Ed Oliver is set to wreck and has the kind of help around him to find one on ones. Tre’Davious White smothers his assignments, which allows Leslie Frazier to bait and trap opposing quarterbacks who have to find their next read.

If Josh Allen looks even halfway decent they’re a legitimate Super Bowl contender. If he looks like last year’s Allen with Stefon Diggs in the lineup, Brandon Beane’s going to have a tough go of it when time comes to draw up an extension. There’s no more excuses.

Cleveland Browns

Perhaps I’m not qualified to ramble about the Browns. I did buy in on Freddie Kitchens a year ago, after all. If you can forgive me that error in judgement, here’s where the post-hype belief in the Browns comes from:

  • Kevin Stefanski’s offense should help to protect Baker Mayfield by managing his ability to read the field better. Heavier sets, more play action, and an infusion of talent at the tackle spots should also keep him from drifting in the pocket too often.
  • Odell Beckham Jr. was hurt for what amounts to dang near the entirety of the 2019 season.
  • Everyone remembers how Myles Garett’s season ended, but he was among the best pass rushers in football when he saw the field last year.

At the same time, the injuries to both Greedy Williams and Grant Delpit cast a shadow over any optimism. The secondary could be a glaring weakness, especially if Big Ben is back to his old self. The Browns play the Steelers along with three other likely playoff contenders in the first six games of the season, so we’ll have a decent idea as to who they are early.

Tennessee Titans

When Arthur Smith and the Titans’ offense can dictate the game to opponents, they were all but impossible to stop last year. When they were forced to alter their approach, things went sideways. It’s hard to forget how Derrick Henry was taken off the field with the Super Bowl on the line against the Chiefs.

Put another way: Tennessee was a top five offense by DVOA on first and second down. They were a top two unit on short yardage third downs, but cratered if they had farther than 3 yards to go to the sticks. This is an offense who needs to stay on schedule.

In 2020 that’s going to be harder to accomplish, even if what looks like the core pieces of the roster remain. Losing Dean Peas is going to hurt the defense, as his creative approach to defense helped to mask the Titans’ issues rushing the passer. There’s a reason they’ve been connected to Jadeveon Clowney all offseason.

Unless Harold Landry and Jeffrey Simmons take a big step forward, they’re going to look mortal. That will put more pressure on Ryan Tannehill to be Superman.

Las Vegas Raiders

Chucky jokes aside, Jon Gruden is an underrated play caller. In fact the Raiders had one of the better offenses in football last year led in large part by a dominant offensive line that’s intact. For how bad Tom Cable’s been the majority of his career, he worked wonders with Kolton Miller a year ago.

Henry Ruggs looks like a strange fit with Derek Carr’s conservative nature until you remember how dangerous the rookies been after the catch. The Raiders will find ways to get him the ball with room to work.

The defense was abysmal a year ago and probably isn’t headed for an elite year, but they should be better. The linebacking corps saw big upgrades with Nick Kwiatkoski and Corey Littleton added to the mix, and the return of Johnathan Abram gives them an enforcer they missed in 2019. Maxx Crosby gives them a good edge rusher to pair with Maurice Hurst, even if he isn’t as good as he looked against Jake Rodgers in week 17.

All told, I think the schedule is going to squeeze Vegas. They open with the Panthers before facing the Saints, Patriots, Bills, Chiefs, and Bucs across their next five games. If they can come out of that stretch at .500 or better, they’ll be in the mix.

Houston Texans

Deshaun Watson is the only reason I added them to this list. It isn’t just the DeAndre Hopkins trade, though the move does highlight how many questions surround the receiving corps. Brandin Cooks and Will Fuller could both impress if healthy, but it’s a fools’ bet to count on either for a full campaign. David Johnson is a shell of his former self and the Texans’ line isn’t about to make his job easier.

The defense was a dumpster fire for the better part of last season and once again looks overly reliant on J.J. Watt playing every game for just the second time since 2015. Losing D.J. Reader hurts, and outside of Whitney Mercilus they lack edge rushers. That’s going to put pressure on a bunch of former busts to hold up in coverage. Call me crazy, but it seems like a bad idea to rely on Gareon Conley, Vernon Hargreaves, and Bradley Roby for long.

They also start their season with the Steelers, Ravens, and Steelers. An early hole could be a death knell for Bill O’Brien.