Week Seven sees the Kansas City Chiefs go in as road favourites against the Tennessee Titans as the sides meet for the first time since the Chiefs edged the AFC Championship Game en route to Super Bowl glory in 2020.
Both the Chiefs and the Titans are again in the frame to make a deep run in the post-season, but there are plenty of teams squabbling for superiority in the American Football Conference.
So, who has the edge? Below Nat Coombs runs through the AFC power rankings after the Baltimore Ravens handed the Los Angeles Chargers a significant reality check last time out.
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1. Baltimore Ravens (5-1)
They have the best record in the conference cemented by their blowout win over the dangerous LA Chargers, and a QB who ranks 6th in passing yards (1686), 7th in rushing yards (392), and would probably be Top 10 in FGs made if they let him kick. Yet Lamar Jackson still doesn’t get the uniform love that some of his contemporaries garner. He needn’t listen to the noise. An offense that’s so potent both on the ground and in the air (rookie Rashod Bateman adding extra edge), a defense that’s in the top half in (Football Outsiders’) Defensive DVOA rankings, the best kicker in the game in Justin Tucker, and a Head Coach that’s been there, done it, won it. The Ravens are balanced and dangerous.
2. Buffalo Bills (4-2)
Inevitably, the overreaction to the Bills’ MNF loss is that their defense isn’t as good as advertised — which is nonsense, of course. A lot have been sleeping on the Titans because of their lacklustre D, which Josh Allen & Co sliced and diced comfortably, but offensively, Tennessee remain one of the most dangerous threats in the league when Derrick Henry is in that kind of form (156 scrimmage yards, 3 TDs). Allen is getting contributions from a deep supporting cast behind superstar Stefon Diggs, including the consistently on point vet Emmanuel Sanders, the reliable Cole Beasley and Dawson Knox, who ranks top five in yards per catch among all Tight Ends. He will want to see more from the ground game around him, though Devin Singletary (ranked 20th in total yards for RB, averaging 5.2 per carry) could continue to emerge, and with Allen, that weakness is less acute than it would be in other offenses.
3. Kansas City Chiefs (3-3)
The suggestion that the Chiefs have jumped the shark is one of the more fanciful hot takes of the season so far. Sure, their defense is flawed, but Steve Spagnuolo Ds always improve as the season goes on — it’s been a problem for years, but it hasn’t hindered their success. Indeed, the Super Bowl defeat last season was down primarily to the offensive line imploding, and the re-upped unit is getting stronger and stronger — continuity amongst starters greater than most other lines, something that’s essential to prolific protection. The idea that defenses have worked out Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes — cut off the deep threat, dummy — is lazy, and underestimates the Chiefs’ ability to slice and dice underneath. That’s without mentioning their innovation, which could give them the edge come playoff time, when Reid digs out some radical stuff that no-one saw coming.
4. Los Angeles Chargers (4-2)
The defeat to the Ravens was brutal, with Baltimore taking out the Chargers’ running game, and specifically the impact of Austin Ekeler. Justin Herbert (above), who’s moving within range of the top tier of NFL QBs, struggled with the looks that Ravens co-ordinator “Wink” Martindale threw, getting into his head and confusing matters, which may prove to be a blueprint for putting the Chargers off-stride in the post season. Baltimore also dominated possession (38 mins), wearing down the Chargers D, but this is a well-coached unit with elite components (Joey Bosa, Derwin James) that will bounce back. The West is highly competitive, but few doubt the Chargers will make the cut.
5. Tennessee Titans (4-2)
There’s a sense of the Deontay Wilder about Tennessee. They can bulldoze weaker opponents, and against the stronger Ds they’ll face in the post-season they retain a puncher’s chance because of Derrick Henry — and indeed the impressive play action passing game that Ryan Tannehill has mastered. Their defense is the problem, though the bold 4th down stop against the Bills in the Titans’ MNF win will instil belief. Mike Vrabel is one of the more impressive young coaches in the game, that, like his team, doesn’t receive the credit he deserves. The benefit of the weakness of AFC South — not to mention their pairing with the disappointing AFC East — means the Titans should cakewalk the division and land a relatively high seed. Approach with caution.
6. Cleveland Browns (3-3)
One of the most talented rosters on paper, injury has blindsided the Cleveland campaign so far, so whilst you shouldn’t read too much into their under par .500 record, the scale of their injuries may be too much to sustain a deep playoff run — indeed, a few missteps and they may struggle to make the post-season at all. It’s a team predicated on strong defense (their re-upped secondary, amongst the areas that has been affected by knocks, could be a significant advancement year-on-year when fully fit), major ground game (though Kareem Hunt is out for a few weeks) and lo-fi Baker Mayfield keeping it simple, a task made harder by — yep, you’ve guessed it — injuries to the O-Line. If it all comes good, most of these pieces will return fresh and rested just as the playoffs loom. Kevin Stefanski just needs to keep them in the frame and the timing may be perfect.
7. Las Vegas Raiders (4-2)
Under-fire, not just for the exit of the disgraced Jon Gruden, but for the team he left behind who many see through as all finesse and no substance. But the Raiders keep surprising their detractors, and the under-fire status may galvanise them. With the NFC East pairing, they could conceivably take three of their next five, even if they drop games to Dallas and KC, which would mean they’ll enter the run in 7-4, and within touching distance.
8. Cincinnati Bengals (4-2)
One of the most exciting teams to watch right now with the Burrow-Chase connection, there’s the vibe of a raw, early era great-band-in-the-making about them. Think raucous gigs in small clubs and a hot-selling debut album. Catch them before they sell out stadiums!
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9. Denver Broncos (3-3)
Were the hipster-pick Broncos overhyped, or have injuries distorted an accurate view of what we’re dealing with? I’ll happily sit on the fence, but I’m not sure this is a 10 team, which is most likely what’ll be needed for a wildcard.
10. Pittsburgh Steelers (3-3)
A tangibly aged Big Ben will keep on swinging, and any D with TJ Watt wreaking havoc will have its moments, but the Steelers’ schedule is brutal, and this will surely be Roethlisberger’s swansong.
11. New England Patriots (2-4)
My dark horse pick for the playoffs at the start of the season — and yes, it does feel weird to refer to a Bill Belichick side as a dark horse — but the Pats have thrown chances away already and are now behind the 8-ball. But as Mac Jones gains in confidence, my maths suggests they could still eke out 10 wins, so don’t count them out.
12. Indianapolis Colts (2-4)
They could be the best team in football with a losing record, and at 2-4 are still very much in the hunt given the AFC South’s status as the weakest division in football. And TY is back!
13. Miami Dolphins (1-5)
Biggest disappointment of the season so far? The loss in London — where they missed three of their best players — was heart-breaking, but Flores will be given time to turn it around. Remember the McDermott Bills had two steps forward and two back before their current lofty status.
14. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-5)
Trevor Lawrence is the real deal and Urban Meyer may use the win in London as the turning point after a messy start, but it’s a long way to go for a gutsy-but-flawed Jags side.
15. New York Jets (1-4)
Robert Saleh has got his Defense playing for him, but the Zach Wilson project is stuck on level one.
16. Houston Texans (4-2)
Exactly as we’d expected, Houston fans are already eyeing up the Mock Draft boards and deciding if they should trade their inevitable top-three pick down for more capital, find their QB of the future, or both. It’s not a rich quarterback class by all accounts.