So how do you beat a team with maybe the most talented quarterback of all time, one of the best wide receiver and tight end duos of all time, 2 of the 20 best defensive players in the league, AND an all time great coach? Well as the current cream of the crop in the AFC has learned it is not easy. As the Buccaneers showed us in the Super Bowl the best and easiest way to beat the Chiefs is for both of their starting tackles to be out and to pressure Mahomes 38 times. While I do congratulate the Bucs on their great victory this is not an easily replicable strategy for the other AFC contenders.
It seems that there are 2 ways to beat this Chiefs teams, to completely overwhelm them with your pass rush (Super Bowl Bucs, or 2019 Colts) or to outscore them in a shootout (2020 Raiders, 2018 Rams).
The current contenders:
The Bills seemed like 2020’s number #1 contender to knock off the Chiefs after they earned the #2 seed in the AFC and made it all the way to the AFC title game. However, we saw in the 2 matchups this year that this Bills team as currently constructed just does not match up well at all with the Chiefs. The Bills front office has spent a lot of money on the defensive front and just hasn’t gotten a lot of production, and their best pass rusher-Jerry Hughes (32 years old) is not getting any younger. So, the Bills method of victory would likely coincide with that of a shootout. The Bills are pretty cap-strung so its unlikely they’ll be picking up any big free agents, but they could use an early draft pick on a running back or tight end to bolster their offense. On a positive note Josh Allen did come into the year one year after Patrick Mahomes, meaning that his massive contract extension will kick in one year after Mahomes’. That one year (the 2022 season) Mahomes’ contract will spike and Chiefs GM Brett Veach will have to make some tough decisions about who to keep around, the Chiefs will undoubtably lose some of their core, and this could ultimately end up being the Bills best shot, if they continue to build up this roster. And who knows, maybe Josh Allen can get even better in 2021. NFL coordinator of the year Brian Daboll is back and perhaps can finally crack the code and put up some points on the Chiefs defense in the 2021 season and beyond.
The Ravens actually matchup pretty well with the Chiefs, their combination of pass rush and ball control has led them to play the Chiefs down to the wire in each of the last 3 regular seasons. The problem for the Ravens is making it far enough into the playoffs to get a shot at the Chiefs. The Ravens have lost their 3 matchups to the Chiefs by a combined 12 points, showing they can compete with one of the best teams in football. And 3 years in a row they have been blown out of the playoffs in disappointing losses to 3 different teams. The Ravens need to develop a semblance of a passing game that will be productive during January football, as they are yet to exceed 20 points in a playoff game in the Lamar Jackson era. The Ravens have already made a lot of splash trades to acquire veterans to help them in the playoffs acquiring players like Calais Campbell, Marcus Peters, and Yannick Ngaouke. It recently came out that stud right tackle Orlando Brown has demanded a trade, so maybe that will give the Ravens an opportunity to reallocate their assets and get more skill position talent.
Ultimately it’ll be up to the Ravens to commit to Lamar, they have already committed to building an offensive scheme entirely around his skillset, but now they must decide if they want to commit 40 million dollars a year to him to be their quarterback.
The Browns like the Bills took a huge step forward this year and were a couple plays away from possibly upsetting Kansas City in this years playoffs. Unlike the Bills, the Browns have a little bit of cap space to maneuver with. Kevin Stefanski did a great job turning Baker Mayfield into the best version of himself and the Browns have the best running back tandem in the NFL. If Baker can keep up this level of play the Browns might be set to contend with this current roster, however the defense is still a huge concern. This is a great free agent class for safeties including Justin Simmons, Anthony Harris, and Marcus Williams and the Browns are in need of a Safety (no diss to Andrew Sendejo). The Browns would do well to come out of free agency/the draft with a new starting safety, another reliable wide receiver for Baker Mayfield, and a new starting corner to play across from Denzel Ward.
The Titans are a good football team, but it’s very difficult to imagine them matching up with the Chiefs outside of Derek Henry and AJ Brown going super saiyan. The Titans had one of the worst pass rushes in the league this past year, and as much as Ryan Tannehill has improved since joining the Titans, he still is Ryan Tannehill. The Titans also lost offensive coordinator Arthur Smith to the Falcons this past offseason and are only projected to have about 1.5 million in cap space. It seems more likely than not that they will be trending downwards in the coming seasons, although I think they will remain one of the most entertaining teams in the league.
The current contenders are dealing with Patrick Mahomes being paid on a rookie contract, which has allowed the Chiefs to keep the rest of their star talent such as; Eric Fisher, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Chris Jones, and Tyrann Mathieu. However with Mahomes 40+ million dollar a year contract extension due to kick in at the start of the 2022 season the Chiefs are going to start losing some pieces. Teams with good quarterbacks on rookie deals have a great window to schedule their ascent for the time of the Chiefs descent.
The Future Contenders:
With the current contenders I brought up a lot of teams that just don’t have enough firepower defensively, so why not start the future contenders list with one of the better defenses in the NFL from a year ago. Brian Flores defense forced a turnover in every game of the 2020-21 season including 4 in a regular season matchup against Patrick Mahomes’ Kansas City Chiefs. The Dolphins perhaps have the most room for improvement out of any AFC team (save the dumpster fire Jags and Jets) with a projected 31 million dollars in cap space (spotrac) and 3 of the first 36 picks in the 2021 NFL draft, including #3 overall. Overall, the rest of this Dolphins team including the coaching staff is basically super bowl ready. Which is why Miami could be the new home for Deshaun Watson. The Dolphins treasure chest of draft picks from the Houston Texans prior regime makes it easier for them to meet the Texans demands of multiple first round picks. While I’m not ready to give up on Tua, adding Deshaun Watson to this Dolphins team would make them an instant superbowl contender.
Los Angeles Chargers
Justin Herbert is already a great quarterback which means the Chargers aren’t that far off from being a great team. The Chargers took the Chiefs to overtime in Herbert’s first career start before beating the Chiefs taxi squad in week 17. As an NFL fan I was hoping the Chargers would pair Herbert with an offensive minded coach, but former Rams DC Brandon Staley is a potential home run hire. Joey Bosa is an absolute game wrecker on defense and Derwin James is a potential all pro if he can stay healthy. If the Chargers can allocate some of their 30 million in cap space on their offensive line and draft a deep threat at wide receiver, this team could become one of the most dynamic offense in the NFL as early as next year. Now it is the Chargers, so the most likely outcome for the 2021 season is that they will spoil away their season by losing 5 games in the most inexplicable fashion you’ve ever seen. But on paper this organization is loaded and things are starting to feel a little bit different.
There’s not much one can say when projecting the Jags future, because 75% of the players from last years team probably won’t even be on the roster in 3 years. But if Trevor Lawrence is as good as everybody thinks he is the Jaguars will be pretty good and it will happen pretty soon. New Jaguars GM Trent Baalke has 80 million dollars in cap space to work with and can basically build this team into whatever he wants it to be.
The Middle Class:
And if you’re the Jets, Patriots, Steelers, Bengals, Raiders, Broncos, Colts, or Texans: There’s a reason you’re not on this list, if you have a franchise QB go make a big splash, if you don’t have a QB? Well you better start looking.