Tom E. Curran's preseason AFC Power Rankings
This is our third AFC power rankings of the offseason. There’s been some shuffling in the top six now that the Chiefs seem to be close to intact offensively from the team that lost to the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game and Andrew Luck can’t get right in Indy. But the Patriots have solidified their hold on the top spot since the last time we did this in early May right after the draft.
16. CINCINNATI BENGALS
Andy Dalton will always be Andy Dalton. He is to quarterbacking what Corollas are to driving. And he won’t be the biggest problem the Bengals face this year since first-year coach Zac Taylor is guiding a team with a poor offensive line and not very good linebackers or secondary. Add to that the preseason ankle injury that will cost A.J. Green several preseason games and you can see why Cincy is looking up at the rest of the conference.
15. MIAMI DOLPHINS
The best the Dolphins can hope for is that they can have some of those “sneak-up-on-you” Sundays where teams come to steamy South Florida, take Miami a little lightly and find themselves in a battle with a hungry team. But culture change for a franchise is a tough thing to orchestrate — it took Bill Belichick most of 2000 and into 2001 to pull it off in New England and the Dolphins have been worse longer than those Patriots were. It’s going to be a process and it’s going to be a painful first year.
14. DENVER BRONCOS
The Broncos have a nasty-ass pass rush with Von Miller and Bradley Chubb on the edges and are always talented in the secondary but how can anyone look at what Joe Flacco’s done for the last half-decade in Baltimore and think he’s going to fix anything. I’m not quite sure he’s an upgrade over Case Keenum. Their defense will be fun to watch. The offense? Painful.
13. OAKLAND RAIDERS
How well do they weather the dueling sideshows of Antonio Brown’s helmet drama and the presence of Hard Knocks? When the most talented player on the team is on wildcat strike for a couple of weeks, it’s a power-drain on the head coach and GM who just have to button their lips and put up with it. It all threatens to negate the really shrewd moves the team made in free agency, getting Trent Brown on offense and Lamarcus Joyner and Johnathan Hankins on defense. They also added three first-rounders in RB Josh Jacobs, DT Clelin Ferrell and safety Johnathan Abraham at safety. It’s a much, much more talented team than the one that finished last season.
12. BUFFALO BILLS
The Bills — like seemingly half of the league — are holding their breath to see how their quarterback develops. Buffalo made some smart moves at receiver to help the strong but scattershot arm of Josh Allen, adding slot Cole Beasley and speedy John Brown. They also did well in the draft, taking Oklahoma’s Cody Ford to play on the offensive line. Frank Gore brings a measure of professionalism that LeSean McCoy never did and tight end could be a strength as well. Still, Allen isn’t an accurate thrower and that’s scary in 2019. The defense is going to present some problems though. That’s the true strength of their team. Really, the Bills and the Ravens are two sides of the same coin.
11. PITTSBURGH STEELERS
There’s a lot of “addition by subtraction” talk right now with the Steelers and it’s true that the agitations Antonio Brown pretty much offset his contributions by the time he left. But the Steelers array of offensive talent aside from the brilliant Juju Smith-Schuster is unimposing. If you’re playing Pittsburgh, you send two at Juju and take your chances. Ben Roethlisberger still has a big enough arm to beat defenses but even though he led the league in attempts, completions and yards, he also led the league with 16 picks. He’s 37. His dip approacheth.
10. BALTIMORE RAVENS
If Lamar Jackson makes the leap as a passer that the Ravens are hoping he will, then OK, fine. They fit here. If he doesn’t and the Ravens become as easy to defend as they were in their brief playoff appearance last season, it’s going to be a very long year in Baltimore and they could be well under .500. Baltimore is going through a reboot on both sides of the ball and doing that with a talented but inefficient quarterback is going to be a white-knuckle ride.
9. JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS
This league is all about quarterbacks. The Jaguars were held hostage by a below-average one last year because they believed what Blake Bortles did against meager defenses in the playoffs was an indication of improvement. It wasn’t. Now, they’ve added Nick Foles — possibly the most impactful acquisition any team made this offseason — and they still have a mess of talent on defense. They are pretty self-impressed for a team that watches the playoffs most years and Doug Marrone doesn’t wow me, but if they get hot, they can sneak up and take the competitive AFC South.
8. NEW YORK JETS
Even with the injuries stacking up on the defensive side of the ball (LB Avery Williamson, for instance, has a torn ACL and will be down for the year), the Jets have to feel encouraged about the progress of Sam Darnold and the fact they’ve got a really good offensive coach in charge of him with Adam Gase. Le’Veon Bell and Jamison Crowder are the skill position newcomers on offense, Quincy Enunwa, Robby Anderson and Chris Herndon are all talented holdovers. Defensively, they have C.J. Mosley, Jamal Adams and rookie Quinnen Williams giving them power at every level. The Jets are primed to make a huge jump.
7. TENNESSEE TITANS
After a few days of watching Marcus Mariota, I was inclined to drop the Titans down a notch or two. But then I decided to take into account the strength of the Patriots defense relative to where Tennessee appears to be and I pulled my punch. But Tennessee is on notice. Their 1s played a bunch last Thursday against what was mostly Patriots backups and it was an even fight. Three of their first four games are on the road and they open in Cleveland where Baker Mayfield could very well show the league what Marcus Mariota should have become by now.
6. CLEVELAND BROWNS
They are here strictly because of the talent on their roster. Whether first-year coach Freddie Kitchens can harness the personalities when the team is busy throwing itself preseason parades remains to be soon. It has the potential to go sideways there real fast with Baker Mayfield, Jarvis Landry, Odell Beckham, Kareem Hunt and Sheldon Richardson as some of their main guys in the locker room. Succeed or fail, the 2019 Browns will not be boring.
5. LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
Melvin Gordon’s holdout is still going on and Derwin James (pictured) has an injury that will keep him out likely until the stretch run. San Diego had a good draft on defense and — despite the James injury — are still loaded with defensive talent. The question about a team that went 12-4 last season is whether Philip Rivers is going to hit the much-discussed cliff faster than Tom Brady. Given Rivers’ skittishness under pressure in L.A.'s Divisional Playoff loss to the Patriots.
4. HOUSTON TEXANS
Deshaun Watson was sacked 62 times last year and his left tackle, Matt Kalil, is down with an injury. If the Texans can just give Watson a little better protection this year — and they spent their first two picks on tackles — he can flourish throwing to De’Andre Hopkins and Will Fuller. Defensively, as usual, they have a ton of playmakers even after losing Tyrann Mathieu and Kareem Jackson. Getting Jadeveon Clowney back from his holdout will be another boon for them.
3. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS
Andrew Luck is once again injured and his status for the start of the season is iffy. And if he’s iffy in August, you can bet he’ll be iffy in September, October and so on. Still, the Colts had a nice draft with corner Rock Ya-Sin, linebacker Ben Banogu and wide receiver Parris Campbell and have a pile of talent on defense. They have a tough road to start the season with games at the Chargers and Chiefs and home games with Houston and Atlanta in the first five games. If they are Luck-less at the start, Jacoby Brissett will be pressed into action.
2. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
Until I see Patrick Mahomes regress in Year 2 as a starter, I’m going to presume he’ll pick up where he left off and — now that Tyreek Hill’s escaped NFL discipline — the Kansas City offense is going to be a handful again. With Hill and rookie Mecole Hardman, the Chiefs have two wideouts who can run under anything and they have tight end Travis Kelce to boot. Defense was their problem last season. They jettisoned defensive coordinator Bob Sutton and replaced him with Steve Spagnuolo. They also brought in Emmanuel Ogbah and Frank Clark up front with Tyrann Matthieu on the back end. They were so desperately bad last year on defense and still made it to overtime of the AFC Championship Game. Hard to knock them back from here.
1. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
If there was hope in the AFC that they’d come back to the pack, the talent harvested by the Patriots in the 2018 and 2019 drafts is choking it. If they can stay as improbably healthy as they did in 2018, they’ll be one of the NFL’s best defenses this year. They are stocked in the secondary, deep and versatile at linebacker, and have myriad body types to bring at teams up front. Rookie Chase Winovich has the potential to be a dynamic first-year player and Ja’Whaun Bentley is already seeming like a field general. Offensively, they are strapped at tight end. No getting around it. And Julian Edelman is the only wide receiver you can positively rely on without reservation. But the Patriots will use their backs to even things up in the passing game and the offensive line with Isaiah Wynn at left tackle will be sturdy.