Who’s a Real Threat—and Who’s Not—From the AFC’s Murky Middle Class?

After we spent the offseason hyping up what figured to be a extensively aggressive AFC race, by two weeks, it as soon as once more seems like a two-team battle between Kansas Metropolis and Buffalo. The Chiefs are 2-0 following a come-from-behind victory over the Chargers on Thursday evening, and the Payments can be a part of them with a win over an overmatched Titans workforce on Monday. In the meantime, the remainder of final season’s AFC playoff area is a mixed 2-7, and an unproven Dolphins squad is the convention’s solely different workforce with a successful document.

It’s not going to remain that method, although. Whereas there does appear to be a transparent divide between the 2 AFC powerhouses and everybody else, the convention is deep with proficient groups which have the capability to make a postseason run. As we shut the e-book on Week 2, the AFC’s center class is very cluttered—so let’s type by which groups really pose a risk to the Payments and Chiefs, and which don’t stand an opportunity.

The Legit Threats

Los Angeles Chargers

The Chargers Charger’d on Thursday evening. That’s actually the one method to put it after Los Angeles didn’t make the most of a mistake-prone Patrick Mahomes in Kansas Metropolis. The 27-24 loss may find yourself deciding the AFC West—however as robust as that end result was for this younger Chargers workforce, there are plenty of positives to remove. Justin Herbert proved able to maintaining with the NFL’s greatest quarterback and even outplayed Mahomes at instances. Busted-up ribs couldn’t cease Herbert from making one of many extra spectacular throws of the younger season.

And outdoors of the game-changing pick-six within the pink zone—which was extra of a miscommunication than an outright mistake—the 24-year-old performed a clear recreation with out his prime receiver, Keenan Allen. L.A.’s dink-and-dunk method was efficient for probably the most half, and it could have been even higher with its greatest beneath choice obtainable.

Extra importantly, Brandon Staley’s rebuilt protection, which acquired J.C. Jackson again from harm, lived as much as its preseason billing. Mahomes got here out of the sport with an honest statline, however he had just a few interceptions dropped and one other worn out by a questionable flag. Essentially the most spectacular half? The Chargers didn’t do something too elaborate in protection. Staley principally opted for single-high appears—which you’re not presupposed to do towards Mahomes—and L.A. usually acquired the higher of the matchup.

There are some obtrusive points with the Chargers offense—Herbert rating twenty sixth in common depth of goal being chief amongst them—however we all know this unit is playoff-caliber. And the season’s first two weeks recommend the protection is likely to be catching up after dragging the workforce down a season in the past. There might be many extra checks to return for Staley’s protection, however it could have already handed the hardest one it is going to face all common season.

Baltimore Ravens

Sunday ought to have been a celebratory day for Baltimore. By way of three quarters, Baltimore held a 35-14 lead over a Dolphins workforce that didn’t appear to pose a lot of a risk. Lamar Jackson was averaging 13.4 yards per dropback and he’d simply ripped off a 79-yard landing run to increase the lead. On the opposite aspect of the ball, Tua Tagovailoa had thrown two interceptions and was averaging simply 5.8 air yards per try going into the fourth quarter … after which the Ravens secondary forgot learn how to play soccer.

A Story of Two Tuas

Quarter Dropbacks Yards/Dropback EPA/Dropback Success Price
Quarter Dropbacks Yards/Dropback EPA/Dropback Success Price
1-3 34 7.7 0.15 47.1%
4 17 11.7 1.14 64.7%

Knowledge by way of TruMedia

Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel deserves credit score for calling the proper performs to generate open receivers, and Tagovailoa needed to make the throws. However you don’t erase a 21-point deficit with out explosive performs, and the Baltimore protection made these simple to return by in Miami’s 42-38 win. Rookie security Kyle Hamilton and cornerback Marcus Peters allowed Tyreek Hill to run free downfield on third-and-long to spark the comeback.

Then somebody—it’s unclear who—forgot to take the deep half of the sector on one other lengthy bomb to Hill.

It’s unhealthy protection, and people performs actually don’t replicate nicely on first-year defensive coordinator Mike MacDonald. “That simply can’t occur; that’s not OK,” coach John Harbaugh stated after the sport. “I don’t care who’s again there, [or] what they’re doing. These performs will price you a recreation when you’ve gotten a lead like that. You’ll be able to’t have miscommunication; you’ll be able to’t have a man operating a publish behind Cowl-3.”

Granted, the Ravens had been coping with accidents within the secondary and needed to shuffle gamers out and in of the lineup, together with Marlon Humphrey, who missed Friday’s apply with a groin harm and was on and off the sector all through Sunday’s contest. The Ravens secondary had a tough time coping along with his absence, as is abundantly clear in his on/off splits:

Ravens Move Protection Struggles With out Humphrey

On/Off Dropbacks Completion % Yards/Try Touchdowns Interceptions
On/Off Dropbacks Completion % Yards/Try Touchdowns Interceptions
On Discipline 38 67.6% 8.6 3 2
Off Discipline 13 84.6% 11.6 3 0

Knowledge by way of TruMedia

It’s disconcerting that one banged-up participant would have such a dramatic impression on the remainder of the protection, however I’m skeptical that this may proceed to be an issue going ahead. The Ravens are a well-coached workforce that might be incentivized to work on communication after this painful setback. And primarily based on every part else we noticed on Sunday, Baltimore nonetheless appears just like the clear favourite within the AFC North.

Lamar Jackson is off to his greatest begin because the 2019 MVP marketing campaign. Over two video games he’s proven the power to make performs downfield and carry the Ravens run recreation on his again, main the workforce with 136 dashing yards. (Kenyan Drake is second with simply 39 yards.)

Baltimore should repair its run recreation if it’s going to pose a risk to Buffalo and Kansas Metropolis, however there’s purpose for hope: Operating again J.Okay. Dobbins and left sort out Ronnie Stanley had been shut to creating their returns from harm in Week 2 and must be again any time now.

It’s arduous to really feel too good about this workforce after a loss like that, but when getting this passing recreation buzzing once more was the chief concern for the Ravens headed into the season—and it ought to have been—they need to be inspired by Lamar establishing himself as an early MVP candidate.

Possibly on a Good Day

Miami Dolphins

Even when Sunday’s come-from-behind win isn’t a referendum on what Tagovailoa is as a quarterback—he had performed poorly earlier than the fourth-quarter outburst—it will possibly function proof of idea for this offense as an entire. McDaniel has been significantly spectacular to start out the season, utilizing myriad ways to get his two stars, Hill and Jaylen Waddle, into area and letting their expertise deal with the remainder.

On Sunday, the Dolphins generated 220 yards after the catch. Solely the Broncos in Week 1 have extra YAC in a recreation this season. And McDaniel is utilizing all of the pace he has at his disposal by stretching defenses vertically. The rookie head coach put a banged-up Baltimore secondary to work on Sunday.

So whereas any 21-point comeback goes to really feel a bit of flukey, Baltimore’s protection sporting down within the fourth quarter wasn’t a fortunate break for Miami. McDaniel made it occur.

If there’s one concern—apart from Tua’s up-and-down play, in fact—it’s the Dolphins’ overreliance on third down to maneuver the chains. Miami’s 48 % conversion price on first and second down ranks beneath the NFL common, based on Timo Riske of Professional Soccer Focus:

Good offenses are usually productive on third down, because the Dolphins have been, however additionally they keep away from third downs for probably the most half, which the Dolphins haven’t. McDaniel has to get his offense enjoying higher on early downs if Miami goes to maintain this up.

Cincinnati Bengals

The defending AFC champs aren’t simply off to an 0-2 begin—they’re off to an 0-2 begin after enjoying towards Mitchell Trubisky and Cooper Rush. So it’s even troublesome to get excited a few protection that ranks ninth in EPA allowed and third in success price after two weeks, based on RBSDM.com. Moreover, this workforce was all the time going to go so far as its offense can take it, and the offense simply isn’t excellent in the intervening time. Joe Burrow simply isn’t excellent in the intervening time.

Solely 4 quarterbacks are averaging fewer yards per dropback this season, based on TruMedia: Trubisky, Davis Mills, Justin Fields, and the injured Dak Prescott. And the third-year quarterback was sacked six instances in a 20-17 loss to the Cowboys on Sunday, bringing his season whole up 13. He’s now on tempo to be sacked 110.5 instances this season, which appears awfully unhealthy for an offensive line that was supposedly upgraded over the offseason. It’s simple accountable cross safety for Burrow’s sluggish begin, however that’s not solely truthful. Burrow has contributed to the problem by holding on to the ball for an eternity and operating himself into sacks. And coach Zac Taylor has didn’t correctly mesh the totally different sides of the offense.

That is certainly not a brand new downside. Even through the Bengals’ run to the Tremendous Bowl final season, Taylor was unable to mix Burrow’s preferences within the passing recreation—shotgun formations and getting 5 receivers out into the route—and the under-center run/play-action recreation that serves as the muse for the Shanahan/McVay-style offense the Bengals make use of. Cincinnati’s operating recreation is nonexistent and unable to punish defenses for promoting out to cease the deep passes that fueled this offense final yr. Burrow led the NFL in passing yards on throws of 20-plus air yards in 2021, based on TruMedia. He has but to finish such a cross in 2022 and he hasn’t even tried a cross that has traveled greater than 30 yards within the air.

Joe Burrow on Throws of 20-Plus Air Yards

Season Makes an attempt Yards/Try EPA/Try Success Price
Season Makes an attempt Yards/Try EPA/Try Success Price
2021 53 17.4 0.89 45.3%
2022 3 0 -0.51 0.0%

Knowledge by way of TruMedia

Tee Higgins did get a deep goal on Sunday in Dallas, however Ja’Marr Chase has but to have one thrown his method. And it’s not like defenses have give you some revolutionary tactic to thwart Cincy’s deep passing recreation. They’re simply enjoying basic-ass Cowl 2, a protection that has been round because the Steelers dynasty of the Nineteen Seventies! To this point this season, Burrow has seen Cowl 2 on 45 of his dropbacks, whereas no different quarterback has seen it greater than 30 instances, based on TruMedia. He’s averaging negative-0.21 EPA per play towards the protection.

It’s not like this technique must be a shock. Again in June, Burrow stated, “Groups are going to be enjoying two-high and making us examine the ball down and all that. So we’ve to have the ability to maintain drives and run the ball and take what the protection provides us all the way in which up and down the sector, after which take these [deep] alternatives after they current themselves.”

The Bengals aren’t doing any of that proper now. The operating recreation stinks, Burrow doesn’t belief his safety sufficient to get by a development, and Taylor has been flummoxed by a protection that’s been round for 50 years.

And but, it’s nonetheless too early to rely out a workforce as proficient as this one. As arduous as it’s to see, the offensive line has really performed higher than it did a yr in the past, and Lou Anarumo’s protection appears to have picked up the place it left off final January. If Burrow and Co. can determine learn how to get the deep passing recreation going, Cincinnati shouldn’t be any worse than it was a season in the past when it took down the Chiefs in Arrowhead within the playoffs.

Regardless of the Broncos Are

Denver Broncos

Pay attention, I may spend 400 phrases breaking down how the Broncos offense has already devolved into the Russell Wilson offense we noticed in Seattle—which suggests no throws to the center of the sector and an overreliance on deep photographs—however so long as this dude is the pinnacle coach, I’m undecided any of that issues:

Fairly tough! However there’s extra …

We’re not achieved.

After opening the season with a disaster-class loss in Seattle, Broncos head coach Nathaniel Hackett took his recreation to the following stage on Sunday with poor play-calling, horrible clock administration, and a basic lack of self-discipline in a 16-9 win over the lowly Texans. Two weeks in, the Broncos lead the NFL in each offensive penalties and sideline photographs of a head coach trying very confused and out of his depth. I would’ve made up that final stat.

All of the indicators of a nasty coach are current, so I don’t understand how a lot Wilson’s extremely risky method even issues. Even when Wilson is ready to hold the Broncos in video games towards the Chiefs and Chargers within the division, do we actually belief Hackett to tug the proper strings in crunch time? I actually don’t.

The AFC South

Jacksonville Jaguars

Jacksonville’s going from City Meyer to Doug Pederson could have been the only greatest improve any NFL workforce made this offseason. A complete 24-0 win over the Colts on Sunday speaks for itself, however you actually have to observe this offense play to totally respect the job Pederson has achieved. It’s not simply that the unit is extra productive, which was to be anticipated with Trevor Lawrence coming into yr two and all the cash that was poured into enhancing the talent gamers round him. It’s the way it appears that’s actually encouraging for the downtrodden franchise.

All the things simply appears simpler for Lawrence. And as a lot enjoyable as we had mocking Trent Baalke for overspending on Christian Kirk, the Jags’ new receiver has emerged as the focus of the offense. He’s achieved most of his harm from a standard position within the slot, however towards the Colts, Pederson began to maneuver him round a bit of extra. The primary of two Kirk touchdowns got here on a play through which he began within the backfield, à la Cooper Kupp.

On his second rating, Kirk ran throughout the formation into the alternative flat, the place he was extensive open for a simple landing pitch from Lawrence:

Getting this group to the place it’s wasn’t low cost, however Kirk and Zay Jones have been dependable targets up to now, and the backfield duo of James Robinson and Travis Etienne is likely to be the NFL’s most dynamic operating again pairing. All of those weapons and scheme enable the Jaguars to take action a lot on offense, and Pederson is making good use of them.

With the remainder of the AFC South struggling to only win a recreation, the Jaguars have a reputable shot at competing for the division. They’re nonetheless clearly a yr or two away from competing with the convention’s higher crust, however this can be a wonderful begin for Pederson’s reclamation challenge.

Indianapolis Colts

For a second consecutive week, the Colts misplaced the battle for the road of scrimmage to a workforce that lacks expertise on each the offensive and defensive traces. Given the funding GM Chris Ballard has made within the trenches—and principally nowhere else on the roster—that’s regarding. And the offensive line struggles have clearly had an impact on Matt Ryan, whose waning bodily expertise have stood out below near-constant duress.

Ryan was significantly unhealthy on Sunday when coping with stress. He accomplished simply two of 9 passes on 14 pressured dropbacks and averaged 2 yards per try within the 24-0 loss to the Jags, per TruMedia. Ryan isn’t any extra washed than Philip Rivers was when he led the Colts to the postseason in 2020, however the remainder of the workforce has devolved since that point.

The offense—which was lacking most of its beginning receiving corps on Sunday, together with WR1 Michael Pittman Jr.—received’t be this unhealthy. However with an underwhelming group of talent gamers exterior of Jonathan Taylor, an getting old quarterback, and an unreliable offensive line, this doesn’t seem like a workforce that’s able to competing with the AFC’s superpowers. It is likely to be time to start out over in Indianapolis.

They Don’t Stand a Probability

New England Patriots

It could in all probability be sufficient to only insert a photograph of Matt Patricia and Joe Choose right here to clarify why the Pats discover themselves on this group, however, actually, the issues at present plaguing New England’s offense had been additionally current a yr in the past. The Patriots simply don’t have sufficient playmakers round Mac Jones, who isn’t a playmaker himself. And with no choices on the perimeter and a quarterback who doesn’t have the arm to persistently make tight-window throws over the center, New England’s passing recreation has been compelled right into a field that stretches no additional than 20 yards downfield and infrequently assaults exterior of the numbers. Check out Jones’s passing map from the Pats’ ugly 17-14 win in Pittsburgh on Sunday:

Because the Patriots discovered of their two losses to Buffalo in 2021: It’s arduous to maintain up with a metahuman like Josh Allen with an offense that appears designed to common precisely 17 factors a recreation.

These 17 factors had been sufficient towards the Steelers, however different groups aren’t beginning Mitch Trubisky. Talking of …

Pittsburgh Steelers

As we’ve seen over the primary two weeks, the Steelers protection stays ok to maintain this workforce in video games towards mediocre offenses. But when Pittsburgh insists on trotting Trubisky on the market each week that received’t matter towards the likes of Buffalo and Kansas Metropolis. Right here’s why:

You see that lone dot on the 20-yard line in the course of the sector? That was a free play the place Trubisky was capable of chuck it as much as Pat Freiermuth with none danger of turning the ball over.

It’s been solely two weeks, however haven’t we seen sufficient right here? Trubisky will not be serving to this workforce win—he almost misplaced the Steelers the Week 1 recreation towards Cincinnati with a 36-yard efficiency within the second half—and there’s a first-round rookie sitting on the bench who might be getting beneficial in-game reps. Both Mike Tomlin is being overly protecting of his not-so-young rookie, or drafting Kenny Pickett within the first spherical was a mistake. He can’t probably be worse than this.