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Which AFC teams pose the biggest threat to the Chiefs?

Let’s consider which franchises have the best chance to knock off the champs in 2023.

Syndication: The Enquirer Albert Cesare/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

The AFC is a mess.

10 weeks through the season, 11 of its 16 teams have a winning record — and three more now stand at 4-5.

All four AFC North teams have a record above 0.500 — and if the playoffs began today, three of them would be in the dance. Three AFC South teams have winning records. Two of them would now qualify.

Meanwhile, the Kansas City Chiefs are at 7-2. Can anyone dethrone them?

Let’s take a look.

Tier 6: Tanking for a quarterback — or Marvin Harrison Jr.

Neither the New England Patriots or Tennessee Titans are playoff contenders. The Patriots’ offense is a relic of the football that was played before I was alive — and the Titans are now starting a rookie quarterback who needs a lot of work.

Tier 5: “Hey, we might still make the playoffs!”

Here we find the New York Jets, Denver Broncos, Las Vegas Raiders and Indianapolis Colts. The operative word for these teams is might.

Tier 4: Past their window of contention

The Los Angeles Chargers, Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars headline this group of teams that have missed their latest chances.

The Chargers went all-in on adding defensive talent two years ago, but that unit is now a complete dumpster fire. The offense is functional — but with Mike Williams hurt, that’s it. Head coach Brandon Staley is going to get fired. After assembling this roster, though, general manager Tom Telesco should also be fired.

I feel terrible for the Bills, for whom the last 12 months have been an injury-riddled, unpleasant experience. The team is emotionally and physically drained. The last straw was losing linebacker Matt Milano to injury. Without him, the defense cannot be competent. And now... they've fired offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey. There are serious questions about this franchise franchise for the seasons to come — but for this year, Buffalo is done.

The Jaguars might not be completely past their window — but pretty soon, it’s going to get hard for them. The team has done a poor job of maximizing talent around quarterback Trevor Lawrence while he’s on his rookie deal. Let’s be honest: if an offense can’t integrate wide receiver Calvin Ridley in any capacity, it’s just a mess. Jacksonville provided a fun story in 2022 — but now, the team lacks the players (and physicality) to beat contenders.

Tier 3: They can’t keep getting away with this”

The Pittsburgh Steelers confound me. They’ve been outgained in every game this season — and still have a 6-3 record. It’s just embarrassing to watch the Pittsburgh offense — but somehow, Mike Tomlin is (mostly) getting it done; he continues to prove he’s one of the best head coaches in recent NFL history. The Steelers’ remaining schedule is pretty favorable, so they don’t need to do very much more to make the playoffs. Believe it or not, we may have to watch them play on Wild Card Weekend.

Tier 2: Pretenders

The Houston Texans, Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns are the teams just off the pace.

Texans’ quarterback C.J. Stroud is already one of my favorites. He’s the best rookie quarterback I’ve ever seen; I already consider him a top-10 NFL quarterback. Houston is in great shape to make the postseason — but it is still a young, inexperienced team. It’s unlikely it make it through the opening weekend.

The Dolphins would be in the top tier, but injuries to their offensive line are an issue. They’re struggling to consistently run the football, which affects the efficiency of the whole offense. While it is still explosive, the unit lacks the offensive line to keep things humming once it’s in a dropback script. I’m optimistic the defense can improve — but the offense just isn’t built for postseason success.

The Browns’ defense is electric — but the offense is now missing two tackles and its best player: running back Nick Chubb. Even after Sunday’s impressive win against the Ravens, I’m not convinced the Cleveland offense is even average. The Browns’ defense can keep them in games against playoff teams, but they lack the offensive firepower to beat the AFC’s best.

Tier 1: The real contenders

The Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs are the teams to beat.

The Bengals are the lone AFC North team that is currently on the outside looking in — and I don’t care. Sunday’s loss to the Texans did show that the Cincinnati defense is no longer the unit it’s been during the past two years (it gave up nine explosive plays) — but now that quarterback Joe Burrow is healthy, the offense looks as good as ever. As long as they have Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase and defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo’s game plans, they can beat anyone.

The Ravens now have three losses — all of them inexplicable — but they still terrify me. Since acquiring linebacker Roquan Smith, their defense has been almost impeccable. At times, the offense has struggled to get out of its own way — but I’m still a huge believer in quarterback Lamar Jackson. I think that by the time the playoffs begin, Baltimore will be surging.

And that leaves the Chiefs — who are still the favorite to win the AFC. Even with all my concerns about what the offense is going to look like in the playoffs, I have zero issues with the defense. Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo knows how to craft game plans for a specific opponent better than anyone else.

Overall, the Chiefs are in a great spot. I’ll bet on head coach Andy Reid, quarterback Patrick Mahomes, tight end Kelce — and the team’s defense — to get it done in the playoffs. As long as Kansas City can avoid both Cincinnati and Baltimore, I think the team will have a great chance to reach the Super Bowl.

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