Who’s a Real Threat—and Who’s Not—From the AFC’s Murky Middle Class?

Who’s a Real Threat—and Who’s Not—From the AFC’s Murky Middle Class?

After we spent the offseason hyping up what figured to be a widely competitive AFC race, through two weeks, it once again feels like a two-team battle between Kansas City and Buffalo. The Chiefs are 2-0 following a come-from-behind victory over the Chargers on Thursday night, and the Bills can join them with a win over an overmatched Titans team on Monday. Meanwhile, the rest of last season’s AFC playoff field is a combined 2-7, and an unproven Dolphins squad is the conference’s only other team with a winning record.

It’s not going to stay that way, though. While there does seem to be a clear divide between the two AFC powerhouses and everyone else, the conference is deep with talented teams that have the capacity to make a postseason run. As we close the book on Week 2, the AFC’s middle class is awfully cluttered—so let’s sort through which teams actually pose a threat to the Bills and Chiefs, and which don’t stand a chance.

The Legit Threats

Los Angeles Chargers

The Chargers Charger’d on Thursday night. That’s really the only way to put it after Los Angeles failed to take advantage of a mistake-prone Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City. The 27-24 loss could end up deciding the AFC West—but as tough as that result was for this young Chargers team, there are a lot of positives to take away. Justin Herbert proved capable of keeping up with the NFL’s best quarterback and even outplayed Mahomes at times. Busted-up ribs couldn’t stop Herbert from making one of the more impressive throws of the young season.

And outside of the game-changing pick-six in the red zone—which was more of a miscommunication than an outright mistake—the 24-year-old played a clean game without his top receiver, Keenan Allen. L.A.’s dink-and-dunk approach was effective for the most part, and it would have been even better with its best underneath option available.

More importantly, Brandon Staley’s rebuilt defense, which got J.C. Jackson back from injury, lived up to its preseason billing. Mahomes came out of the game with a decent statline, but he had a few interceptions dropped and another wiped out by a questionable flag. The most impressive part? The Chargers didn’t do anything too elaborate in coverage. Staley mostly opted for single-high looks—which you’re not supposed to do against Mahomes—and L.A. generally got the better of the matchup.

There are some glaring issues with the Chargers offense—Herbert ranking 26th in average depth of target being chief among them—but we know this unit is playoff-caliber. And the season’s first two weeks suggest the defense might be catching up after dragging the team down a season ago. There will be many more tests to come for Staley’s defense, but it may have already passed the toughest one it will face all regular season.

Baltimore Ravens

Sunday should have been a celebratory day for Baltimore. Through three quarters, Baltimore held a 35-14 lead over a Dolphins team that didn’t seem to pose much of a threat. Lamar Jackson was averaging 13.4 yards per dropback and he’d just ripped off a 79-yard touchdown run to extend the lead. On the other side of the ball, Tua Tagovailoa had thrown two interceptions and was averaging just 5.8 air yards per attempt going into the fourth quarter … and then the Ravens secondary forgot how to play football.

A Tale of Two Tuas

Quarter Dropbacks Yards/Dropback EPA/Dropback Success Rate
Quarter Dropbacks Yards/Dropback EPA/Dropback Success Rate
1-3 34 7.7 0.15 47.1%
4 17 11.7 1.14 64.7%

Data via TruMedia

Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel deserves credit for calling the right plays to generate open receivers, and Tagovailoa had to make the throws. But you don’t erase a 21-point deficit without explosive plays, and the Baltimore defense made those easy to come by in Miami’s 42-38 win. Rookie safety Kyle Hamilton and cornerback Marcus Peters allowed Tyreek Hill to run free downfield on third-and-long to spark the comeback.

Then someone—it’s unclear who—forgot to take the deep half of the field on another long bomb to Hill.

It’s bad defense, and those plays certainly don’t reflect well on first-year defensive coordinator Mike MacDonald. “That just can’t happen; that’s not OK,” coach John Harbaugh said after the game. “I don’t care who’s back there, [or] what they’re doing. Those plays will cost you a game when you have a lead like that. You can’t have miscommunication; you can’t have a guy running a post behind Cover-3.”

Granted, the Ravens were dealing with injuries in the secondary and had to shuffle players in and out of the lineup, including Marlon Humphrey, who missed Friday’s practice with a groin injury and was on and off the field throughout Sunday’s contest. The Ravens secondary had a hard time coping with his absence, as is abundantly clear in his on/off splits:

Ravens Pass Defense Struggles Without Humphrey

On/Off Dropbacks Completion % Yards/Attempt Touchdowns Interceptions
On/Off Dropbacks Completion % Yards/Attempt Touchdowns Interceptions
On Field 38 67.6% 8.6 3 2
Off Field 13 84.6% 11.6 3 0

Data via TruMedia

It’s disconcerting that one banged-up player would have such a dramatic impact on the rest of the defense, but I’m skeptical that this will continue to be a problem going forward. The Ravens are a well-coached team that will be incentivized to work on communication after this painful setback. And based on everything else we saw on Sunday, Baltimore still looks like the clear favorite in the AFC North.

Lamar Jackson is off to his best start since the 2019 MVP campaign. Over two games he’s shown the ability to make plays downfield and carry the Ravens run game on his back, leading the team with 136 rushing yards. (Kenyan Drake is second with just 39 yards.)

Baltimore will have to fix its run game if it’s going to pose a threat to Buffalo and Kansas City, but there is reason for hope: Running back J.K. Dobbins and left tackle Ronnie Stanley were close to making their returns from injury in Week 2 and should be back any time now.

It’s hard to feel too good about this team after a loss like that, but if getting this passing game humming again was the chief concern for the Ravens headed into the season—and it should have been—they have to be encouraged by Lamar establishing himself as an early MVP candidate.


Maybe on a Good Day

Miami Dolphins

Even if Sunday’s come-from-behind win isn’t a referendum on what Tagovailoa is as a quarterback—he had played poorly before the fourth-quarter outburst—it can serve as proof of concept for this offense as a whole. McDaniel has been particularly impressive to start the season, using myriad tactics to get his two stars, Hill and Jaylen Waddle, into space and letting their talent take care of the rest.

On Sunday, the Dolphins generated 220 yards after the catch. Only the Broncos in Week 1 have more YAC in a game this season. And McDaniel is using all the speed he has at his disposal by stretching defenses vertically. The rookie head coach put a banged-up Baltimore secondary to work on Sunday.

So while any 21-point comeback is going to feel a little flukey, Baltimore’s defense wearing down in the fourth quarter wasn’t a lucky break for Miami. McDaniel made it happen.

If there is one concern—other than Tua’s up-and-down play, of course—it’s the Dolphins’ overreliance on third down to move the chains. Miami’s 48 percent conversion rate on first and second down ranks below the NFL average, according to Timo Riske of Pro Football Focus:

Good offenses tend to be productive on third down, as the Dolphins have been, but they also avoid third downs for the most part, which the Dolphins have not. McDaniel has to get his offense playing better on early downs if Miami is going to keep this up.

Cincinnati Bengals

The defending AFC champs aren’t just off to an 0-2 start—they’re off to an 0-2 start after playing against Mitchell Trubisky and Cooper Rush. So it’s even difficult to get excited about a defense that ranks ninth in EPA allowed and third in success rate after two weeks, according to RBSDM.com. Besides, this team was always going to go as far as its offense can take it, and the offense just isn’t very good at the moment. Joe Burrow just isn’t very good at the moment.

Only four quarterbacks are averaging fewer yards per dropback this season, according to TruMedia: Trubisky, Davis Mills, Justin Fields, and the injured Dak Prescott. And the third-year quarterback was sacked six times in a 20-17 loss to the Cowboys on Sunday, bringing his season total up 13. He’s now on pace to be sacked 110.5 times this season, which looks awfully bad for an offensive line that was supposedly upgraded over the offseason. It’s easy to blame pass protection for Burrow’s slow start, but that’s not entirely fair. Burrow has contributed to the issue by holding on to the ball for an eternity and running himself into sacks. And coach Zac Taylor has failed to properly mesh the different facets of the offense.

This is by no means a new problem. Even during the Bengals’ run to the Super Bowl last season, Taylor was unable to blend Burrow’s preferences in the passing game—shotgun formations and getting five receivers out into the route—and the under-center run/play-action game that serves as the foundation for the Shanahan/McVay-style offense the Bengals employ. Cincinnati’s running game is nonexistent and unable to punish defenses for selling out to stop the deep passes that fueled this offense last year. Burrow led the NFL in passing yards on throws of 20-plus air yards in 2021, according to TruMedia. He has yet to complete such a pass in 2022 and he hasn’t even attempted a pass that has traveled more than 30 yards in the air.

Joe Burrow on Throws of 20-Plus Air Yards

Season Attempts Yards/Attempt EPA/Attempt Success Rate
Season Attempts Yards/Attempt EPA/Attempt Success Rate
2021 53 17.4 0.89 45.3%
2022 3 0 -0.51 0.0%

Data via TruMedia

Tee Higgins did get a deep target on Sunday in Dallas, but Ja’Marr Chase has yet to have one thrown his way. And it’s not like defenses have come up with some revolutionary tactic to thwart Cincy’s deep passing game. They’re just playing basic-ass Cover 2, a coverage that has been around since the Steelers dynasty of the 1970s! So far this season, Burrow has seen Cover 2 on 45 of his dropbacks, while no other quarterback has seen it more than 30 times, according to TruMedia. He’s averaging negative-0.21 EPA per play against the coverage.

It’s not like this strategy should be a surprise. Back in June, Burrow said, “Teams are going to be playing two-high and making us check the ball down and all that. So we have to be able to sustain drives and run the ball and take what the defense gives us all the way up and down the field, and then take those [deep] opportunities when they present themselves.”

The Bengals aren’t doing any of that right now. The running game stinks, Burrow doesn’t trust his protection enough to get through a progression, and Taylor has been flummoxed by a coverage that’s been around for 50 years.

And yet, it’s still too early to count out a team as talented as this one. As hard as it is to see, the offensive line has actually played better than it did a year ago, and Lou Anarumo’s defense seems to have picked up where it left off last January. If Burrow and Co. can figure out how to get the deep passing game going, Cincinnati shouldn’t be any worse than it was a season ago when it took down the Chiefs in Arrowhead in the playoffs.

Whatever the Broncos Are

Denver Broncos

Listen, I could spend 400 words breaking down how the Broncos offense has already devolved into the Russell Wilson offense we saw in Seattle—which means no throws to the middle of the field and an overreliance on deep shots—but as long as this dude is the head coach, I’m not sure any of that matters:

Pretty rough! But there’s more …

We’re not done.

After opening the season with a disaster-class loss in Seattle, Broncos head coach Nathaniel Hackett took his game to the next level on Sunday with poor play-calling, terrible clock management, and a general lack of discipline in a 16-9 win over the lowly Texans. Two weeks in, the Broncos lead the NFL in both offensive penalties and sideline shots of a head coach looking very confused and out of his depth. I might’ve made up that last stat.

All the signs of a bad coach are present, so I don’t know how much Wilson’s highly volatile approach even matters. Even if Wilson is able to keep the Broncos in games against the Chiefs and Chargers in the division, do we really trust Hackett to pull the right strings in crunch time? I certainly do not.

The AFC South

Jacksonville Jaguars

Jacksonville’s going from Urban Meyer to Doug Pederson may have been the single biggest upgrade any NFL team made this offseason. A comprehensive 24-0 win over the Colts on Sunday speaks for itself, but you really have to watch this offense play to fully appreciate the job Pederson has done. It’s not just that the unit is more productive, which was to be expected with Trevor Lawrence entering year two and all the money that was poured into improving the skill players around him. It’s how it looks that’s really encouraging for the downtrodden franchise.

Everything just seems easier for Lawrence. And as much fun as we had mocking Trent Baalke for overspending on Christian Kirk, the Jags’ new receiver has emerged as the focal point of the offense. He’s done most of his damage from a traditional role in the slot, but against the Colts, Pederson started to move him around a little more. The first of two Kirk touchdowns came on a play in which he started in the backfield, à la Cooper Kupp.

On his second score, Kirk ran across the formation into the opposite flat, where he was wide open for an easy touchdown pitch from Lawrence:

Getting this group to where it is wasn’t cheap, but Kirk and Zay Jones have been reliable targets thus far, and the backfield duo of James Robinson and Travis Etienne might be the NFL’s most dynamic running back pairing. All of these weapons and a good scheme allow the Jaguars to do so much on offense, and Pederson is making good use of them.

With the rest of the AFC South struggling to just win a game, the Jaguars have a legitimate shot at competing for the division. They’re still clearly a year or two away from competing with the conference’s upper crust, but this is a fine start for Pederson’s reclamation project.

Indianapolis Colts

For a second consecutive week, the Colts lost the battle for the line of scrimmage to a team that lacks talent on both the offensive and defensive lines. Given the investment GM Chris Ballard has made in the trenches—and basically nowhere else on the roster—that’s concerning. And the offensive line struggles have clearly had an effect on Matt Ryan, whose waning physical skills have stood out under near-constant duress.

Ryan was particularly bad on Sunday when dealing with pressure. He completed just two of nine passes on 14 pressured dropbacks and averaged 2 yards per attempt in the 24-0 loss to the Jags, per TruMedia. Ryan isn’t any more washed than Philip Rivers was when he led the Colts to the postseason in 2020, but the rest of the team has devolved since that time.

The offense—which was missing most of its starting receiving corps on Sunday, including WR1 Michael Pittman Jr.—won’t be this bad. But with an underwhelming group of skill players outside of Jonathan Taylor, an aging quarterback, and an unreliable offensive line, this doesn’t look like a team that’s capable of competing with the AFC’s superpowers. It might be time to start over in Indianapolis.

They Don’t Stand a Chance

New England Patriots

It would probably be enough to just insert a photo of Matt Patricia and Joe Judge here to explain why the Pats find themselves in this group, but, really, the problems currently plaguing New England’s offense were also present a year ago. The Patriots just don’t have enough playmakers around Mac Jones, who isn’t a playmaker himself. And with no options on the perimeter and a quarterback who doesn’t have the arm to consistently make tight-window throws over the middle, New England’s passing game has been forced into a box that stretches no further than 20 yards downfield and rarely attacks outside of the numbers. Take a look at Jones’s passing map from the Pats’ unsightly 17-14 win in Pittsburgh on Sunday:

As the Patriots learned in their two losses to Buffalo in 2021: It’s hard to keep up with a metahuman like Josh Allen with an offense that seems designed to average exactly 17 points a game.

Those 17 points were enough against the Steelers, but other teams aren’t starting Mitch Trubisky. Speaking of …

Pittsburgh Steelers

As we’ve seen over the first two weeks, the Steelers defense remains good enough to keep this team in games against mediocre offenses. But if Pittsburgh insists on trotting Trubisky out there every week that won’t matter against the likes of Buffalo and Kansas City. Here’s why:

You see that lone dot at the 20-yard line in the middle of the field? That was a free play where Trubisky was able to chuck it up to Pat Freiermuth without any risk of turning the ball over.

It’s been only two weeks, but haven’t we seen enough here? Trubisky is not helping this team win—he nearly lost the Steelers the Week 1 game against Cincinnati with a 36-yard performance in the second half—and there’s a first-round rookie sitting on the bench who could be getting valuable in-game reps. Either Mike Tomlin is being overly protective of his not-so-young rookie, or drafting Kenny Pickett in the first round was a mistake. He can’t possibly be worse than this.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.