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NFL: AFC preview - Gunning for the Chiefs

Welcome to the Cloudbet Blog’s AFC preview of the 2020 gridiron season. Who has it in them to take down Kansas City?

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In an NFL season in which nothing is assured - least of all how events might play out in the pandemic - Cloudbet brings you the first of its pre-season previews with a look at the AFC.

Next week it's the turn of the NFC.

Gunning for the Chiefs

The closest thing to a certainty that we can write about is that the AFC will be going through Kansas City, with or without partisan support from the stands.

We could realistically end the preview here, but there’d be no fun in that.

Patrick Mahomes has found himself behind by double-digits in each of his career playoff outings – against Houston, Tennessee and San Francisco – and all it should take is one or two shrewd in-game adjustments by defensive coordinators to prevent those big plays that have seen Mahomes do down big before sparking a Chief’s resurgence.

So, let’s take it division by division in an AFC that’s sans Tom Brady for the first time in two decades.

AFC East

Speaking of the beloved, his (checks notes) former team, the New England Patriots are facing a season - for the first time since 2001 - in which they’re no longer favourites to win the East.

These are indeed very strange times.

Bill Belichick has managed to avoid a total overhaul for some time now; a down period where his unit has to regroup and maybe sit out from playoff contention for a year. That day has finally come, and without a top-tier signal-caller on the roster, it seems wise to do it now.

Following Brady out the door were Jamie Collins, Joe Thuney, Matthew Slater and Devin McCourty. Of the Pats’ additions, only Cam Newton and Beau Allen are earning over $3,000,000 a year. Don’t be mistaken – the Pats aren’t trying to contend – but their level of coaching may just land them in a race for the East regardless, and that’s a scary prospect.

Oh, and if they want to continue that man scheme in Foxboro, Steph Gilmore actually has a #1 wideout in Stefon Diggs to worry about this year, as he lines up for the Buffalo Bills. If you need to see how you press the reset button and build organically, look at what they did in upstate New York.

Since 2017, the Bills have selected cornerstone after cornerstone of their team for the future: Tre’Davious White; Dion Dawkins; Josh Allen; Tremaine Edmunds; Ed Oliver; Cody Ford – and have now added a stud in defensive end A.J. Epenesa, a complementary back in Zack Moss, and another soon-to-be-star in wide receiver Isaiah Hodgins.

Buffalo is blessed with incredible, rarely found talent in the shape of Edmunds and White in the two key defensive positions - and there simply isn’t an offence or opposition coordinator with enough nous to deal with that imposition.

Teams are going to have to try and keep up with them through innovation, and with that in mind, at least the Miami Dolphins are entering a new era.

If Tua Tagovailoa runs his West Coast Offence from Alabama at the pros, Miami could well be a double-digit win team in the next two years - but that isn’t going to happen overnight. However, they will be splitting series here due to familiarity with divisional schemes and continuity – the key building blocks for the Dolphins if they’re to conquer this division for the first time in some time.

Meanwhile, the New York Jets have decided that they’re going all-in on draft capital next year by releasing half of their assets and taking a down year. Don’t expect to see them land five wins.

Suggested bet: Buffalo Bills to Win the AFC East - 2.19. Cloudbet odds quoted at the time of writing and subject to change - for a full list of outright markets and latest odds, click here.

AFC North

Let us get this out of the way first: Lamar Jackson cannot throw a corner route, nor anything other than a go route beyond 20 yards.

The Baltimore Ravens’ success will rest on the effectiveness of that offensive line, and they’ve managed to retain it. They’ll be fine, but don’t expect them to be putting up the points you saw last year.

However, they might not need to.

This year, they play the easiest schedule in the entire league based on 2019 records (.438), so whatever you saw of them last year, it’s going to be similar in terms of results if not in terms of individual moments on the field.

Many see the AFC North as a division of up-and-coming teams rather than a stagnant one-horse race. We share that view to a certain extent, but not wholly.

Yes, the Pittsburgh Steelers have got their bases covered. They could well be the best defensive unit in the entire league, but they’re still relying massively on the health of “Big Ben” Roethlisberger… And if he comes back in the same shape that his fellow 2004 draftees Philip Rivers and Eli Manning did in their most recent campaigns - well, then Pittsburgh won’t be the success story many predict.

To protect Ben, they need to stay out of 11 personnel and go more heavy set-based on offence.

We believe they’ve finally got that tandem at tight end to launch into teams and test their hybrid players – Eric Ebron and Vance McDonald is as good a one-two as there is at the position in the league, and because of that (combined with a .457 strength of schedule) they should be fine.

Rookie quarterback Joe Burrow’s speed of adapting to the big leagues is what’s central to the Cincinnati Bengals’ record in 2020, but expectations need to be toned down, especially in a division that boasts offensive talent like this one.

The Louisiana State alum - who took LSU to the national title and lifted the Heisman Trophy in 2019 - isn’t just going to be competing with tough defences, but also some of the most tricky disguises pre-snap that you’ll find in the entire NFL.

If Cincinnati are smart, they’ll lean on relative veteran Joe Mixon for the majority of play-making in the red zone, and let Burrow grow organically rather than forcing him into tough situations that could end up knocking his confidence.

For that reason, consider the Bengals conservative… Unfortunately, conservative ain’t winning you games in this division.

But at least those three teams are making moves to improve, while the Cleveland Browns seem like they’re standing still. The addition of Jack Conklin is massive, and between him and Jedrick Wills, the Browns are set at tackle for 10 years if they want.

Yet, they’ve shipped off Christian Kirksey and Joe Schobert, and failed to replace that gaping hole at inside linebacker. Given that they clearly suffer from beef mid-defensive line they’re unlikely to be stout against the run this year – and in a division where you have Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro Alejandro Villanueva, Billy Price, Jonah Williams, Orlando Brown and Ronnie Stanley, they could be in serious trouble.

Suggested bet: Cleveland Browns – Under 8.5 Wins – 1.84

AFC South

For what seemed like the longest time, the Indianapolis Colts were short a roster around Andrew Luck to win a Super Bowl.

And now, minus Luck, they’re moving onto a wily veteran to scrape them across the line, in the shape of 38-year-old Philip Rivers, having built one of the more impressive 53s in all of football.

There is no hole in this roster whatsoever – and that’s the only time we’ll be saying that in any of these previews.

But, can Old Man Rivers improve on his final campaign with the Chargers? He’ll have to.

Rivers’ safety blanket has always been a combination of a checkdown back and a perimeter receiver on the outside who wins jump balls. This year, through clever drafting, he has Michael Pittman and Jonathan Taylor.

If that progression is smooth, the Colts are our most likely contender to dethrone Kansas City

That task has been made considerably easier due to Bill O’Brien sending the Houston Texans into the void. DeAndre Hopkins has been the focal point of their offence for so long now that their lack of structure everywhere else has been glossed over. Now, they’ve shipped him off to Arizona and picked up an oft-injured David Johnson in return.

Ouch.

And that’s only the good side of this unit – they’re wasting Deshaun Watson’s prime by failing to add anything on the defensive infrastructure. There’s zero pass rush outside of JJ Watt, nor is there any recognisable defensive back likely to make plays in big moments.

This will, in all probability, be the straw that breaks the camel’s back with O’Brien. The Texans simply cannot contend anymore.

So, step up the Tennessee Titans. It seems futile to say this, as if it’s some sort of introduction given they were just pipped by KC in last year’s AFC title game, but their core is young, under contract, and ready to roll again under the guidance of Mike Vrabel - a rare Belichick disciple that appears competent out on his own.

Yes, they’re minus Jack Conklin and Logan Ryan, but they’ve made moves in the draft to patch that problem over via Georgia’s Isaiah Wilson – a project at tackle in the pros, admittedly – and the very exciting rookie cornerback Kristian Fulton out of LSU.

The biggest transition will lie on just how well Ty Sambrailo can hold up in the Titans’ play-action-heavy blueprint. If he’s average or above, they look set to make another playoff push via the wildcard spot at the very least.

Anchoring the four-team table, we have the Jacksonville Jaguars who may have had the best draft class of all teams in April... but they needed to.

In our humble opinion, this looks like the worst roster in football - and by some distance. There isn’t a player with Pro Bowl potential on this entire roster, bar maybe Myles Jack.

But we don’t say that with malice - the reason for that is by design. The rebuild is firmly underway.

Cornerback C.J. Henderson was a terrific pick, in our view, and the additions of K’Lavon Chaisson at outside linebacker and offensive lineman Ben Bartch made us stand up and applaud - but their learning curve with minimal leadership around them is going to be rough.

Probably significantly rougher than many people anticipate.

Suggested bet: Jacksonville Jaguars – Under 4.5 Wins - 1.88

AFC West

So, the Kansas City Chiefs held onto every valuable asset from their Super Bowl success - and in Clyde Edwards-Helaire added the most dynamic running back in college football since Christian McCaffrey. Seems fair.

General manager Brett Veach and head coach Andy Reid made some nifty cap adjustments earlier in the off-season to ensure the long-term sustainability of this unit - and we’re all about to pay for it.

In reality though, they were struggling in their secondary at corner. Losing Kendal Fuller is tough, but adding another dynamic piece in Adrian Colbert means that they should survive in sub packages. Their biggest issue is the absence of offensive lineman Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, who opted out of the season. Patrick Mahomes is still mobile enough to escape pressure, but there’s a gaping hole for coordinators to attack given Duvernay-Tardif’s absence.

Don’t expect as many deep shots this year, folks. They have him for 10 years, so there’s no need to rush things.

Patrick Mahomes is still mobile enough to escape pressure, but there’s a gaping hole for coordinators to attack

On some level, you’ve got to feel for the Denver Broncos.

They’ve done everything the right way - and could even conceivably win 11 games this year. But they still won’t win the division this year, and that’s gotta be soul destroying for Broco’s fans.

You need speed to contend with the Kansas City track team in Sammy Watkins, Tyreek Hill and Mecole Harman - and now the Broncos have added two rookie wide receivers in Jerry Jeudy (Alabama) and KJ Hamler (Penn State) into the mix.

If you’re going to watch one division every week, we recommend watching these guys.

But here’s the rub – practically the entire focus in the West has been in preparation to keep up with the Chiefs, rather than focussing on building each franchise’s own team. And once you actively make decisions to stop Patrick Mahomes, and that mindset sets in, you’re always going to be behind the ball.

John Elway is petty enough for that to resonate, too.

The Las Vegas Raiders have moved house, and that’s automatically a negative as teams will forever take time to adapt to new beginnings. Both the Rams and Chargers went 4-12 in their first seasons in LA, and while that probably won’t be as big a drop-off for this unit, don’t expect them to compete with the top two.

Quarterback Derek Carr is the most obvious player on the chopping block for 2021, and any failure to ignite Las Vegas won’t be seen as a negative by Jon Gruden who is clearly in search of the show-off superstar that Vegas demands.

Until a building is fully behind their signal-caller, there will be cracks – and with the news that Tyrell Williams will miss the season, all of a sudden the single coverage that new recruit Henry Ruggs was getting is gone.

If this team is successful, they’ll need Josh Jacobs to max out at 1,500 yards this year… And that’s a very tall, possibly impossibly, order.

And finally, it wouldn’t be a year without the Los Angeles Chargers having a major injury to seriously affect their season before it starts.

The loss of strong safety Derwin James to knee surgery takes 2020 from a season in which sneaking into the playoff picture was a possibility, to a transitional one - regardless of possessing a top-three defence unit.

It’s sad for the Chargers, but the crowning of Justin Herbert will be the actual launchpad that they felt this season may, could or should, have been. Sorry to disappoint – but it won’t.

It’s tough being in the AFC West. It’s even tougher being the worst team in the division. And toughest yet to be the worst team in the division despite arguably having the best defence too.

Suggested bet: Denver Broncos – Over 7.5 Wins - 1.85

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