The AFC is better and deeper than the NFC. Like the Eastern Conference being loaded in the NBA playoffs, this is going to take some getting used to.
About a dozen AFC teams have Super Bowl aspirations. If that number seems high, I'd like to direct you to the team that was leading in the Super Bowl with two minutes left last season.
The influx of quality quarterbacks into the conference -- Hello, Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan! -- has only further muddied the waters. After three months of hiring and firings, signings and trades, let's break down the AFC hierarchy heading into the 2022 NFL Draft.
Buffalo Bills, Kansas City Chiefs
The more things change, the more they stay the same. The Bills were ready to win a Super Bowl last season, but the Coin Flip Gods and an uncharacteristically toothless defense didn't cooperate in Kansas City. Still, this is one of football's best-run organizations with depth and answers in nearly every position group. I would love their offseason even if they didn't add Von Miller. (Oh, they did.) They have a huge margin for error and one of the most ridiculous quarterback talents in a league overstuffed with them. Speaking of which ...
The Chiefs have won the AFC West six straight times for a reason. They still have Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid. The offensive line they fixed a year ago should only get better. Losing Tyreek Hill isn't a good thing, yet I suspect Reid will show up this season with new tricks up his sleeve. If the Chiefs can nearly win the Super Bowl in a season where that many things went wrong offensively, they are a safe pick to be playing home games in January again.
Playoffs or bust
Baltimore Ravens, Los Angeles Chargers, Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos, Cleveland Browns
There will be busts here, of course. But this five-pack is put above the contenders below because anything short of the postseason will be considered a massive disappointment. The Ravens can’t possibly have worse injury luck as they enter the final year of Lamar Jackson's rookie contract. The Chargers have loaded up on defense in an effort to take advantage of Justin Herbert's last season before he's contract-extension eligible.
Dealing with success is not something the Bengals have had to do much of in recent years, but there is room to improve considering their skill-position talent. Russell Wilson has better weapons and a better defense around him than he did last year in Seattle, while the Browns didn't sell their integrity just to be mediocre again. The rest of Cleveland's roster is ready if Deshaun Watson is available.
Tennessee Titans, New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts, Miami Dolphins, Las Vegas Raiders, Pittsburgh Steelers
In a conference loaded with difference-making quarterbacks, most of this tier's signal-callers fall somewhere short of transcendence. The Titans find ways to win in surprising ways, but their offense clearly took a step back last year even when Derrick Henry was on the field. They have more roster holes than you'd expect from a reigning No. 1 seed. Offense is one reason to believe in the Patriots' upside; Mac Jones should get better. The defensive lineup, however, looks worse than it has in nearly a decade.
Matt Ryan is joining a Colts team that isn't quite as loaded as the one Philip Rivers landed with two years ago. Tua Tagovailoa, on the other hand, will be playing with a coaching staff and surrounding talent that could make the uneven start to his career nothing but a prologue. Derek Carr similarly has a better play-caller and more options on third down than ever before, while I respect Mike Tomlin's run without a losing record in Pittsburgh too much to put the Steelers any lower than this tier.
Uphill battle to the postseason
New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars, Houston Texans
Fear not, fans of this unloved trio. The Bengals were in this otherwise-identical group a year ago. It is absolutely reasonable for the Jets and Jaguars to see a path to the playoffs if everything breaks right, starting with the development of their second-year quarterbacks.
Robert Saleh's defense needs to take shape in Year 2, but it looks formidable on paper. The offensive line and weapons around Zach Wilson are absolutely better. It just comes down to whether the kid can play a lot better. I have higher hopes for Trevor Lawrence. He didn't make a lot of mistakes as a rookie; he just didn't look comfortable letting his talent flow often enough. Getting the coaching staff around average gives this team upside. Davis Mills showed more flashes than the top two picks in last year's draft, but there still isn't a lot of talent on the Texans' roster. They need a great draft as proof that there is a point to the Nick Caserio era.