The race for the top seed in the AFC playoff race has been turned upside down in one Sunday of action. With the Chiefs (3-4) being routed on the road by the Titans (5-2) in Week 7 and the Ravens (5-2) getting ripped at home by the Bengals (5-2), the 2021 season is headed to an unpredictable finish for the conference contenders.
Kansas City is now tied with Denver in last place in the AFC West. Tennessee, after also beating Buffalo in Nashville in Week 6, is in complete control of the weak AFC South. Cincinnati displaced Baltimore atop the tough AFC North.
Here’s what all of that means in the bigger AFC playoff picture:
Chiefs have major concerns at 3-4
The day in Music City was the nightmare before Halloween as the Chiefs were drubbed from start to finish, 27-3. Patrick Mahomes struggled to move and protect the ball with his weapons against a weak Titans’ pass defense until he needed to leave the game late after a scary hit to the head when the outcome was no longer in doubt. His top wide receiver Tyreek Hill didn’t look healthy playing through a quad injury. The running game minus Clyde Edwards-Helaire was non-existent to help and not enough other pass-catchers stepped up after tight end Travis Kelce was bottled up.
Some of the offensive problems from Super Bowl 55 against the Buccaneers have carried over into 2021, the inability to adjust and be more patient with Mahomes. The Super Bowl hangover is real for the defending two-time AFC champions. With the defense having woes on every level, there’s too much on Mahomes and one can see him pressing. It’s a perfect storm blowing through Kansas City.
The Chiefs can still get going with a healthy Mahomes take back the division from the Chargers (4-2), who are bound to fade a little because of the league’s worst run defense. The Raiders (4-2) also are an inflated team with overrated defense. The Chiefs can make up a ton of ground in their five AFC West games left.
Kansas City will still win the West; it just can’t finish any better than 13-4. With the losses to the Titans, Bills and Ravens and a road game at the Bengals looming late, the ceiling for the Chiefs looks like the No. 4 seed vs. anything close to the No. 1. The goal from here on out is getting healthy and just getting Mahomes any kind of fighting chance in the tournament.
Ravens staring at another wild-card berth
The Ravens finished second behind the Steelers in the AFC North last season. They’re headed to same fate despite starting 5-2, this time either behind the red-hot Bengals or the dormant Browns, who proved to be a sizzling second-half team last season.
Baltimore lost in Las Vegas in overtime in Week 1. It has managed to trail in every game because of some fundamental (surprising) defensive issues and a traditional rushing attack that isn’t supporting Lamar Jackson as well with offensive line issues and running back depletion. They’ve become Jackson-dependent for everything. He’s playing great and been up to the challenge passing more than running, but he can’t be the sole savior every week.
The Ravens get a Week 8 bye to help them regroup after the Bengals debacle. They have a pretty good three-game stretch after that: vs. Vikings, at Dolphins, at Bears. But then Baltimore’s two games against the Browns sandwiching the first one vs. the Steelers. The Packers (at home), Bengals (on road) and Rams form a brutal stretch from Weeks 15 through 17.
Based on some of the offensive and defensive numbers, the Ravens overachieved and overcame to get to 5-1. But the Bengals provided more of a reality check — nothing will come easy for Jackson and the Ravens the rest of the season.
Titans in driver’s seat for No . 1 seed
The Titans have a loss to the Jets this season. It doesn’t matter much anymore after they beat the Bills and Titans at home in consecutive games to make sure they will repeat in the AFC South with the Colts starting slow and needing to play major catchup.
Mike Vrabel did a great job to get his team pumped for two massive games that had Tennessee’s season essentially on the line early. The offense has found its rhythm again with Ryan Tannehill and A.J. Brown doing their big-play thing playing off of a possessed running, receiving (and passing) Derrick Henry. The defense played well situationally against the Bills and found a whole new level of confidence shutting down the Chiefs.
The Titans already beat the Colts and should be in cruise control to take their division again. They can prey on Indianapolis and Jacksonville each one more, and still have the two bingo free spaces against Houston. The only game left in which they will be surefire solid underdogs is at the Rams, in Week 9. The Saints in Week 10 and the 49ers in Week 16, two more tough NFC opponents, both come to Nashville. Forget the Titans as an impressive midseason rise; remember them as the new favorites to jump from lower AFC playoff seeding into the best possible position for January.
Bengals should be new AFC North favorites at 5-2
Joe Burrow proved he was the best quarterback in the division in easily outdueling Jackson in Baltimore. Burrow’s 416 passing yards and 3 TDs fueled the shocking 41-17 away romp. The Bengals have now have won on the road against the Steelers, who won the North last season, and the Ravens. All the big offseason moves to improve, led by drafting dynamic wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase and signing high-energy pass-rusher Trey Hendrickson, are starting to pay off big time.
The Bengals get to prey on the Jets next on the road before coming home to face a shell of a Browns team that may be down Baker Mayfield and the top two running backs. The bye is well-timed in Week 10 before drawing the Raiders in Las Vegas before three consecutive home games against the Steelers, Chargers and 49ers. The most daunting games left on the schedule are the Ravens again and Chiefs back-to-back in Weeks 16 and 17, and those are also in Cincinnati.
When you look at teams as a whole offensively, defensively and on special teams, the Bengals are the unquestioned best team in the division with their strong resume so far that will continue to build. They also have a shot at sneaking away with a top two seed in an incredible turnaround, all because of landing Burrow in 2020.
Bills need to keep taking care of business
Remember their big win over the Chiefs in Week 6? it doesn’t seem to mean much now that they lost to the Titans and the Bengals have evened up the Ravens. The Bills (4-2) will come out of their Week 7 bye a half-game down and needing to make up key ground on non-Kansas City AFC powers.
The good news is the Bills have one of the league’s easiest schedules left this side of the Titans. They should roll through the Dolphins, Jaguars, Jets and Colts over the next month. Like the Titans, they have their NFC road doozy, against the Buccaneers, in Tampa Bay in Week 14.
There’s no reason the Bills should be faded from their track to No. 1. But the Titans’ loss puts a lot of pressure on them to take full advantage of whom they play in the final 11 games. Regardless, having the No. 2 behind the Titans and ahead of the AFC North winners would be still a good spot, as long it means no return trip to Kansas City for the AFC title game, which is certain to be the case.
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