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Biggest threats to Bucs’ repeat chances? Breaking down the AFC

Will Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs make the Super Bowl for a third straight year?
Will the Bucs' Tom Brady and Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes meet at season's end once again? The Chiefs are one of the AFC's favorites.
Will the Bucs' Tom Brady and Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes meet at season's end once again? The Chiefs are one of the AFC's favorites. [ DAVID J. PHILLIP | Associated Press ]
Published Sep. 5, 2021

The early favorites in the AFC? The Bills, Chiefs and perhaps a bunch of Alabama rookies.

AFC East

Bills

Bills defensive tackle Ed Oliver (91) celebrates after making a tackle during a preseason game agains the Lions.
Bills defensive tackle Ed Oliver (91) celebrates after making a tackle during a preseason game agains the Lions. [ DUANE BURLESON | Associated Press ]

Coach: Sean McDermott (fifth season, 38-26)

2020 record: 13-3 (first in AFC East, reached AFC title game)

Notable departure: DT Quinton Jefferson (signed as free agent with Raiders)

Key acquisition: WR Emmanuel Sanders (signed as free agent from Saints)

Impact rookie: DE Greg Rousseau (Miami). On his first NFL series, power rushed past Lions first-rounder Penei Sewell for a sack of Jared Goff

Three questions

1. Can a solid run game be established to complement quarterback Josh Allen?

2. Can Rousseau and second-round pick Boogie Basham fortify a modest Bills pass rush?

3. Can defensive tackle Ed Oliver, a former No. 9 overall pick, finally break out in Year Three?

Prediction: 12-5

Dolphins

Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) looks down field to pass against the Falcons during a preseason game.
Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) looks down field to pass against the Falcons during a preseason game. [ Palm Beach Post ]

Coach: Brian Flores (third season, 15-17)

2020 record: 10-6 (second in AFC East)

Notable departure: DT Davon Godchaux (signed as free agent with Patriots)

Key acquisition: WR Will Fuller (signed as free agent from Texans)

Key re-signing: LB Jerome Baker

Impact rookie: WR Jaylen Waddle (Alabama). The 2019 SEC Special Teams Player of the Year reunites with his Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa

Three questions

1. Can Tagovailoa perform like a potential franchise quarterback?

2. Can Fuller, a former first-round pick, remain healthy?

3. Will an offensive coordinator tandem (Eric Studesville and Jesuit High alumnus George Godsey) work?

Prediction: 10-7

Jets

The Jets' Zach Wilson looks over the defense during the first half of a preseason game against the Packers.
The Jets' Zach Wilson looks over the defense during the first half of a preseason game against the Packers. [ JEFF HAYNES | Associated Press ]

Coach: Robert Saleh (first season)

2020 record: 2-14 (fourth in AFC East)

Most notable departure: QB Sam Darnold (traded to Panthers)

Key acquisition: DE Carl Lawson (signed as free agent from Bengals)

Key re-signing: FS Marcus Maye

Impact rookie: QB Zach Wilson (BYU). Organization’s latest projected franchise QB likely faces steep learning curve

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Three questions

1. How will No. 2 overall pick Wilson handle the fishbowl existence of a quarterback in New York?

2. Could former USF quarterback Mike White actually win the backup job?

3. How will the defense handle the devastating loss of Lawson (torn Achilles) for the season?

Prediction: 5-12

Patriots

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick in action during a preseason game against the Eagles.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick in action during a preseason game against the Eagles. [ RICH SCHULTZ | Associated Press ]

Coach: Bill Belichick (22nd season with Patriots, 244-92; 27th season overall, 280-136)

2020 record: 7-9 (third in AFC East)

Notable departure: WR Julian Edelman (retired)

Key acquisition: OLB Matthew Judon (signed as free agent from Ravens)

Key re-signing: C David Andrews

Impact rookie: QB Mac Jones (Alabama). Training camp performance of this first-round draftee led to release of Cam Newton earlier this week.

Three questions

1. How will Jones hold up against a stern early-season slate (Dolphins, Saints, Bucs in first four weeks)?

2. Will disgruntled all-pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore suit up for the Patriots this season?

3. Just how high will ticket prices go for Tom Brady’s return to Foxborough on Oct. 3?

Prediction: 9-8

AFC North

Bengals

Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow throws a pass during training camp.
Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow throws a pass during training camp. [ SAM GREENE | Associated Press ]

Coach: Zac Taylor (third season, 6-25-1)

2020 record: 4-11-1 (fourth in AFC North)

Notable departure: DE Carl Lawson (signed as free agent with Jets)

Key acquisition: DE Trey Hendrickson (signed as free agent from Saints)

Key re-signing: DE Sam Hubbard

Impact rookie: WR Ja’Marr Chase (LSU). The 2019 Biletnikoff Award winner is reunited with Joe Burrow in Cincy

Three questions

1. How will Burrow’s surgically repaired knee hold up?

2. Have adequate upgrades been made to an offensive line that allowed Burrow to be sacked 32 times in 11 games in 2020?

3. Now that Giovani Bernard is with the Bucs, who is Burrow’s pass-catching safety valve out of the backfield?

Prediction: 5-12

Browns

Browns linebacker Jadeveon Clowney runs drills during training camp.
Browns linebacker Jadeveon Clowney runs drills during training camp. [ TONY DEJAK | Associated Press ]

Coach: Kevin Stefanski (second season, 11-5)

2020 record: 11-5 (third in AFC North, reached AFC division playoffs)

Notable departure: CB Terrance Mitchell (signed as free agent with Texans)

Key acquisition: S John Johnson (signed as free agent from Rams)

Key re-signing: RB Nick Chubb

Impact rookie: CB Greg Newsome II (Northwestern). On 15 downfield targets last season, allowed one reception, according to Pro Football Focus

Three questions

1. What should fans reasonably expect from receiver Odell Beckham Jr., back from a torn ACL?

2. Can edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney forge a career resurgence and regain the QB-harassing form of his Texans days?

3. With an assortment of skill players (and egos), can Stefanski keep everyone content?

Prediction: 11-6

Ravens

Ben Cleveland runs during Ravens rookie minicamp in May.
Ben Cleveland runs during Ravens rookie minicamp in May. [ GAIL BURTON | Associated Press ]

Coach: John Harbaugh (14th season, 129-79)

2020 record: 11-5 (second in AFC North, reached AFC division playoffs)

Notable departure: OLB Matthew Judon (signed with Patriots)

Key acquisition: OG Kevin Zeitler (signed as free agent from Giants)

Key re-signing: OLB Tyus Bowser

Impact rookie: OL Ben Cleveland (Georgia). Third-round behemoth known as “Big Country” (6-foot-6, 357 pounds) might contend for left guard job

Three questions

1. 1. Can fourth-year tailback Gus Edwards fill the void created by the recent loss of J.K. Dobbins (torn ACL)?

2. Will this be the season the NFL cracks the code on dual-threat extraordinaire Lamar Jackson?

3. With Judon and Pro Bowl defensive end Yannick Ngakoue (Raiders) gone, who will get to the quarterback?

Prediction: 11-6

Steelers

Steelers running back Najee Harris (22) runs after the catch against the Lions during a preseason game.
Steelers running back Najee Harris (22) runs after the catch against the Lions during a preseason game. [ MATT DURISKO | Associated Press ]

Coach: Mike Tomlin (15th season, 145-78-1)

2020 record: 12-4 (first in AFC North, reached wild-card game)

Notable departure: LB Bud Dupree (signed as free agent with Titans)

Key acquisition: OLB Melvin Ingram (signed as free agent from Chargers)

Key re-signing: WR JuJu Smith-Schuster

Impact rookie: RB Najee Harris (Alabama). At 230-plus pounds, this former Crimson Tide star is the quintessential bellcow-type back Tomlin loves

Three questions

1. How much does torque does 39-year-old quarterback Ben Roethlisberger have remaining in his right arm?

2. Can the revamped offensive line adequately protect Big Ben?

3. Can the defense compensate for the loss of some significant pieces, including Dupree?

Prediction: 10-7

AFC South

Colts

Colts running back Marlon Mack runs a drill during training camp.
Colts running back Marlon Mack runs a drill during training camp. [ MICHAEL CONROY | Associated Press ]

Coach: Frank Reich (fourth season, 28-20)

2020 record: 11-5 (second in AFC South, reached wild-card game)

Notable departure: QB Philip Rivers (retired)

Key acquisition: QB Carson Wentz (acquired via trade from Eagles)

Key re-signing: WR T.Y. Hilton

Impact rookie: DE Kwity Paye (Michigan). Born in refugee camp in Guinea, this pass-rush force may be NFL’s most intriguing rookie

Three questions

1. What’s the long-term health status of Wentz, who injured his foot in training camp?

2. With Jonathan Taylor the lead back, what will former USF workhorse Marlon Mack’s role be?

3. How effectively will new left tackle Eric Fisher (acquired from Chiefs) perform following an Achilles injury?

Prediction: 8-9

Jaguars

Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer tries to get his players' attention late in the third quarter of a preseason game against the Browns.
Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer tries to get his players' attention late in the third quarter of a preseason game against the Browns. [ Trbune News Service ]

Coach: Urban Meyer (first season)

2020 record: 1-15 (fourth in AFC South)

Notable departure: WR Keelan Cole (signed as free agent with Jets)

Key acquisition: CB Shaquill Griffin (signed as free agent from Seahawks)

Key re-signing: LT Cam Robinson

Impact rookie: QB Trevor Lawrence (Clemson). Meyer and Co. will build their brand around this No. 1 overall draft pick

Three questions

1. How will Meyer, hit with health issues while losing rarely in college, handle losing regularly?

2. How substantial will Lawrence’s growing pains be?

3. How successfully will the Jags transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base defense?

Prediction: 5-12

Texans

Texans tight end Pharaoh Brown catches a pass before a game against the Titans last season.
Texans tight end Pharaoh Brown catches a pass before a game against the Titans last season. [ DAVID J. PHILLIP | Associated Press ]

Coach: David Culley (first season)

2020 record: 4-12 (third in AFC South)

Notable departure: DE J.J. Watt (signed as free agent with Cardinals)

Key acquisition: LB Kevin Pierre-Louis (signed as free agent from Washington)

Key re-signing: TE Pharaoh Brown

Impact rookie: WR Nico Collins (Michigan). Rangy 2020 opt-out totaled 75 catches his final two seasons at Michigan

Three questions

1. How much will the unsightly quarterback situation (see Watson, Deshaun) set back this franchise?

2. Who emerges as the defensive anchor in the wake of Watt’s departure?

3. How will the congested running back depth chart sort itself out?

Prediction: 3-14

Titans

Titans wide receiver Julio Jones (2) during the second half of a preseason game against the Bucs.
Titans wide receiver Julio Jones (2) during the second half of a preseason game against the Bucs. [ JASON BEHNKEN | Associated Press ]

Coach: Mike Vrabel (fourth season, 29-19)

2020 record: 11-5 (first in AFC South, reached wild-card game)

Notable departure: WR Corey Davis (signed with Jets)

Key acquisition: WR Julio Jones (acquired via trade from Falcons)

Key re-signing: LB Jayon Brown

Impact rookie: OT Dillon Radunz (North Dakota State). Second-round pick from Division I-AA juggernaut just might earn starting right tackle spot

Three questions

1. Can the organization mitigate the COVID-19 issues that plagued it in the preseason?

2. How will former tight ends coach Todd Downing transition to the offensive coordinator role?

3. At 32, how much does Jones (a two-time, first-team All-Pro) have remaining in the tank?

Prediction: 10-7

AFC West

Broncos

Broncos quarterback Teddy Bridgewater passes against the Seahawks during a preseason game.
Broncos quarterback Teddy Bridgewater passes against the Seahawks during a preseason game. [ JOHN FROSCHAUER | Associated Press ]

Coach: Vic Fangio (third season, 12-20)

2020 record: 5-11 (fourth in AFC West)

Notable departure: OLB Jeremiah Attaochu (signed as free agent with Bears)

Key acquisition: QB Teddy Bridgewater (acquired via trade with Panthers)

Key re-signing: OLB Bradley Chubb (team exercised fifth-year option on rookie deal)

Impact rookie: CB Patrick Surtain II (Alabama). No. 9 overall draft choice had a pick-six in his preseason debut

Three questions

1. Will Bridgewater be the answer behind center in Denver?

2. How many wins does Fangio need to keep his job?

3. With so many new offensive skills guys, can a chemistry be forged in short order?

Prediction: 6-11

Chargers

Chargers free safety Derwin James warms up before a preseason game against the 49ers.
Chargers free safety Derwin James warms up before a preseason game against the 49ers. [ JAE C. HONG | Associated Press ]

Coach: Brandon Staley (first season)

2020 record: 7-9 (third in AFC West)

Notable departure: TE Hunter Henry (signed as free agent with Patriots)

Key acquisition: C Corey Linsley (signed as free agent from Packers)

Key re-signing: FS Derwin James (exercised fifth-year option on rookie deal)

Impact rookie: OT Rashawn Slater (Northwestern). No. 13 overall pick allowed zero pressures in 12 pass-blocking snaps in preseason debut

Three questions

1. After being sacked 32 times in 2020, will QB Justin Herbert get better protection from a rebuilt line?

2. Speaking of Herbert, can he make significant strides in Year Two?

3. What’s the learning curve for Staley, the league’s latest under-40 coach?

Prediction: 8-9

Chiefs

Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) during the first half of a preseason game against the Cardinals.
Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) during the first half of a preseason game against the Cardinals. [ RICK SCUTERI | Associated Press ]

Coach: Andy Reid (ninth season with Chiefs, 91-37; 23rd season overall, 221-130)

2020 record: 14-2 (first in AFC West, reached Super Bowl 55)

Notable departure: LT Eric Fisher (signed as free agent with Colts)

Key acquisition: OG Joe Thuney (signed as free agent from Patriots)

Key re-signing: RT Mike Remmers

Impact rookie: C Creed Humphrey (Oklahoma). Southpaw snapper allowed zero pressures on seven pass-block attempts in preseason debut

Three questions

1. How effectively will the rebuilt offensive line protect Patrick Mahomes, who ran for his life in the Super Bowl?

2. With Sammy Watkins having departed (to Ravens), who emerges as the No. 2 receiver behind Tyreek Hill?

3. How will the situation involving defensive end Frank Clark (two offseason arrests) play out?

Prediction: 12-5

Raiders

Raiders running back Kenyan Drake warms up before a preseason game against the Seahawks.
Raiders running back Kenyan Drake warms up before a preseason game against the Seahawks. [ RICK SCUTERI | Associated Press ]

Coach: Jon Gruden (eighth season with Raiders, 57-55; 15th season overall, 114-110)

2020 record: 8-8 (second in AFC West)

Notable departure: WR Nelson Agholor (signed as free agent with Patriots)

Key acquisition: RB Kenyan Drake (signed as free agent from Cardinals)

Key re-signing: DT Johnathan Hankins

Impact rookie: OT Alex Leatherwood (Alabama). Fundamentally stout first-round pick projects as opening-day starter at right tackle

Three questions

1. Will the defense, ranked in the NFL’s bottom 10 in rushing and passing yards allowed, make a substantial stride?

2. With 1,000-yard rusher Josh Jacobs still around, how will Drake (a 900-yard rusher in 2020) be employed?

3. Can 33-year-old defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (signed on Aug. 4) enjoy a career resurgence in Vegas?

Prediction: 9-8

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