The AFC’s Two Surprise Packages This Season

Can you believe that the 2023 NFL Season is already in its final stages? It feels as though the Detroit Lions’ shocking one-point victory against the reigning champion Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead on the opening day of the season was just a few days ago. Actually, however, it was well over three months ago, and there have been plenty of stories since. 

Just a few days on from that late summer Missouri evening, Aaron Rodgers suffered a season-ending injury just six minutes into his New York Jets debut. Four-time MVP A-Rod and his trade from his long-time home in Green Bay to the Big Apple was the talk of the close season, but that chatter became something much more sinister once he actually stepped foot on the gridiron. He left the Jets counting the cost of their ill-fated trade, and their Lombardi aspirations plummeted in the process. 

THE BENGALS’ WOES

Another team that has unexpectedly struggled is the Cincinnati Bengals. The Paycor Stadium side has reached the AFC championship game in each of the last two seasons, winning the first of them before slipping to a narrow defeat against the Chiefs last term. They started poorly once more, but looked as though a familiar second-half upturn in form was well underway when they beat the team that is currently the NFL odds providers’ +225 favorite for the Super Bowl, the San Francisco 49ers. However, a season-ending injury to franchise quarterback Joe Burrow all but extinguished their hopes. 

In their place, however, a number of teams have stood up in the conference in the hopes of stopping the Chiefs from reaching yet another Super Bowl this term. Here are the four teams that have taken the league by storm so far this season, and our predictions about whether they actually have any chance of lifting the Lombardi at the start of February. 

MIAMI DOLPHINS

Last season, the Miami Dolphins threatened to return to their very best. With former Alabama Crimson Tide standout Tua Tagovailoa firing on all cylinders at quarterback, the Florida outfit won their first three games. Unfortunately for them, their superstar QB suffered a scary-looking injury and his team went on to lose their next three games in his absence. 

Upon his return, however, they won their next five games on the spin to improve to 8-3. That was as good as it got though, as they would have a disastrous second half to the campaign before being dumped out of the postseason at the hands of the Buffalo Bills. This season, however, they started strong and unlike last term, have managed to keep on powering. 

At present, the Dolphins are sitting at the top of the AFC East, ahead of the heavyweight Bills with a record of 9-4. They have the second-best record in the entire conference and are just one victory away from top-seed status with three games remaining in the postseason. They have amassed huge scores, including a total of 115 points in their two games against the Washington Commanders, and they look to be genuine contenders once more. 

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Over the course of the last decade, the Baltimore Ravens became synonymous with success. They were the second seed in the 2011 NFL playoffs and won the Super Bowl the following season. In 2019, they finished the regular season as the top seeds in the AFC, after losing just two games all season, and superstar quarterback Lamar Jackson became the second person in history to win the MVP award unanimously. In the years since, though, the former Louisville Cardinal suffered from a number of injury worries and the Ravens were usurped as the top team in the AFC North by the Cincinnati Bengals. 

The Maryland outfit were defeated by Cincy in the wildcard round of last year’s playoffs and many expected them to play second fiddle to their divisional rivals this season as well. But how wrong they were: The Ravens picked up a narrow 27-24 victory over the Bengals on week two of the season, and they never looked back. Further impressive victories followed, including a 38-6 victory against the Detroit Lions, as well as dominating the Bengals 34-20 in that pair’s reverse fixture at M&T Bank Stadium. 

Quarterback Jackson has returned to his very best as well. He’s picked up 2,934 throwing yards at a rate of 7.8 yards per completion, the fourth highest in the league of the regularly starting QBs. But it’s his power on the ground that has truly shone, just as it did when he secured MVP honors four years ago. 

He has picked up 644 rushing yards, the most of any quarterback in the league. He’s just over 100 yards behind some of the league’s best running backs, such as Joe Mixon and Isiah Pacheco. If he continues in the same vein, a second Lombardi in 11 years may very well be on its way to Charm City.

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