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2023 AFC Analysis, Odds & Picks: Can the Chiefs Go Back-to-Back?

Travis Kelce Kansas City Chiefs Lamar Hunt Trophy
Travis Kelce 87 of the Kansas City Chiefs celebrates with the Lamar Hunt Trophy after defeating the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC Championship Game on January 29 2023 Kevin C CoxGetty ImagesAFP

What if the NFL’s 2023 AFC race turns out to be the incredible 2022 race we expected but did not get? The 2022 AFC was let down in a massive way by the Broncos and Colts, who could not score points despite acquiring quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan.

The playoffs were still a good lineup of teams, but things would have been much more interesting if Lamar Jackson (Ravens) and Tua Tagovailoa (Dolphins) were healthy enough to play in January. In the end, it came down to that expected 3-team battle of Buffalo, Cincinnati, and Kansas City with the Chiefs going on to beat Philadelphia in the Super Bowl.

If you look at the AFC odds found at OddsTrader, those three teams are still the favorites to get to the Super Bowl this year. The Chargers and Jaguars hope to return to the playoffs, and Baltimore and Miami would like to be there with their franchise quarterbacks this time.

But there are a few wrinkles with Aaron Rodgers joining the Jets, Sean Payton returning to the coaching ranks to help Wilson in Denver, a full offseason for Deshaun Watson in Cleveland, and Kenny Pickett is no longer a rookie in Pittsburgh for a coach who has never had a losing season.

Of course, a deeper AFC could still lead to the same outcome with the Chiefs (+333 at BetRivers) going to their fourth Super Bowl in six seasons with Patrick Mahomes at quarterback.

We break down the AFC race below by division with our favorite picks to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.

AFC West: Chiefs Still the Best in the West?

Remember when the 2022 AFC West was going to be one of the greatest division races in NFL history? Whoops. The Chiefs basically had it locked up by Thanksgiving. But maybe we jumped the gun a year early and 2023 will be the epic race we hoped for a year ago.

Should We Ever Bet Against Patrick Mahomes?

It is getting harder each year to justify betting against Patrick Mahomes. He pulled off an incredible feat of leading a team to a No. 1 seed and No. 1 offense despite losing his No. 1 receiver (Tyreek Hill) in the offseason and playing with a defense that ranked No. 21 in points per drive allowed. He then made it through the playoffs to a Super Bowl MVP award after suffering a high-ankle sprain in the first quarter of the divisional round.

Mahomes might just be at the highest level a quarterback can get, and he is going to drag the Chiefs to as many wins as he can. The Chiefs were 5-0 in one-score games against the Chargers, Raiders, and Broncos last year, so it is not like they ran away with those division games. They just had Mahomes (and Travis Kelce).

That combo with Andy Reid calling the shots is usually enough for this team, but winning a division title for the 8th year in a row (2nd-longest streak ever) should be harder than ever this year if these other teams deliver on their expectations.

The Chiefs also face the uphill battle of repeating in a league where no one has been able to repeat since 2003-04, the longest drought in NFL history. But just getting to another Super Bowl is doable as we saw the Patriots go to three straight as recently as 2016-18.

Will Justin Herbert Ever Get a Defense?

Not many people are hyping the Chargers right now after they blew a 27-0 lead in the playoffs to ring in the Justin Herbert era in style. But they have the 4th-best odds to win the AFC at many top-rated sportsbooks, and they should get healthier on defense after Joey Bosa and J.C. Jackson missed so many games last year.

Herbert is 19-4 when the Chargers allow fewer than 27 points, but they do not do that frequently enough for him. However, Herbert is a gamer, and he has a new weapon in wideout Quentin Johnston, who will hopefully provide good injury insurance for Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. But defense is where the Chargers must improve, and their lack of solid play there reflects poorly on coach Brandon Staley since he is a defensive specialist.

Herbert has had the Chargers ahead in the fourth quarter of every game he has played against Mahomes, but the Chargers are still 1-4 in those games because the defense cannot stop the Chiefs in crunch time like the Bengals and Bills have been able to.

Can the Broncos and Raiders Stop Blowing Leads?

The Raiders (6) and Broncos (5) combined to blow 11 fourth-quarter or overtime leads last season, the two highest totals in the NFL. They were better than their records suggest, but they must find ways to close games.

Fortunately, the Broncos have hired Sean Payton to try to fix Russell Wilson after Denver finished last in scoring. Wilson was shockingly bad at times, but not many want to admit the offense did have some key injuries that did not help matters. Still, the signing of Payton could not be any better in fixing what was the most disappointing unit in the league last year.

The Raiders have moved on from Derek Carr, but they better make sure Jimmy Garoppolo is healthy enough to play this season. It is hard to be optimistic about this team for a Super Bowl, but winning more games than last year is on the table for sure.

At the end of the day, you still have to trust the Chiefs to come out of this division and conference. They have had some issues in recent games against the Bills and Bengals, and those teams are not afraid to match up with the Chiefs. Neither are the Ravens nor Chargers for that matter.

But as long as Mahomes is healthy, you have to trust a quarterback who has always hosted the AFC Championship Game in his first five seasons, either winning the game or losing in overtime each time.

NFL Pick: AFC Winner – Kansas City Chiefs (+333) at BetRivers

AFC East: Can the Bills Circle the Wagons?

Funny how for two decades the AFC East was Bill Belichick and Tom Brady vs. The Three Stooges. Now, the roles reverse and Belichick is the one without a quarterback solidified as the Patriots hope to avoid the cellar.

Did Buffalo Blow It?

Super Bowl windows do not stay open forever, and the Bills were certainly the talk of the NFL in 2022 with the highest of expectations. They beat the defending champs (Rams) on opening night, and they won in Kansas City again, but for the second year in a row, they seemed to peak with that October win in Arrowhead.

Josh Allen went from MVP favorite to throwing too many interceptions, they had a shocking loss to the Jets where he injured his elbow, they had a historically-bad loss to the Vikings in overtime after that fumble in the end zone on offense, and then more bad things kept happening. Von Miller, the last piece to a Super Bowl team, tore his ACL on Thanksgiving, Buffalo was hit with a massive snowstorm that moved a game to Detroit, and Damar Hamlin laid motionless on the field for a long time against the Bengals on a Monday night no one will forget.

If the Bills were able to put all of this behind them and win a championship, it would have been one for the ages. But they simply looked gassed come playoff time, and they were flat as could be in the playoffs at home against the Bengals in the divisional round, a 27-10 blowout.

The Bills have to deal with the fact that last year was the 5th season together for head coach Sean McDermott and quarterback Josh Allen, and they still have not reached the Super Bowl. No team has won its first Super Bowl after starting the same quarterback for the same coach for more than five seasons in NFL history.

But before we write off the Bills, they still have a good core, Allen to Stefon Diggs is one of the best connections, Miller will be back on defense, and they have been a consistent winner with four straight playoff appearances.

Teams bounce back from playoff heartbreak all the time, and Buffalo is no stranger to that as the only team to lose four Super Bowls in a row, but this era of the Bills would love to just get to one. At least they know how to win in Kansas City and did beat the Ravens in the playoffs in 2020.

Broadway Aaron and the Jets

The Jets have not made the playoffs since 2010, but they have the 5th-best odds of winning the AFC thanks to the trade for Aaron Rodgers as he continues his Brett Favre path in this league.

But Rodgers will be 40 and coming off his worst season, so it is a gamble. We also see these quarterback moves do not always work out as well as Peyton Manning to Denver or Tom Brady to Tampa Bay. Not after what happened last year with Russell Wilson (Denver) and Matt Ryan (Indianapolis).

But there are reasons to believe Rodgers will do better than that. He has great familiarity with the offense as the Jets hired his old offensive coordinator, Nathaniel Hackett, to who he won two of his MVP awards in 2020-21. He also has familiar receivers in Allen Lazard and Randall Cobb, and he has a new No. 1 wideout in Garrett Wilson after playing 2022 without a legit No. 1 following the trade of Davante Adams.

Rodgers also could have the best defense since his 2010 Super Bowl season if the Jets play anywhere close to how they did on defense last season, led by corner Sauce Gardner.

Quarterback play is almost always the main issue with the Jets. For a change, we might not have to worry about that this year if Rodgers can play up to his usual standards. With plenty of motivation and a good team around him, this is a move that should pay off well to end that playoff drought at 12 seasons.

But expecting a Super Bowl in Year 1 from the quarterback who has only been there once in 15 tries is probably asking for too much.

Dolphins and Patriots Have the Coaching Edge

While McDermott and Robert Saleh get passed over as defensive coaches, Bill Belichick’s success and Mike McDaniel’s potential give the Patriots and Dolphins some advantages in the coaching department.

But the Patriots are in purgatory at the quarterback position with Mac Jones, and hiring Matt Patricia to be the de facto offensive coordinator over Josh McDaniels was a huge misfire. Even if the Patriots end up getting DeAndre Hopkins, it is hard to see this team returning to serious contender status in 2023.

The Dolphins will absolutely have a shot, but they must keep Tua Tagovailoa healthy after multiple concussions in 2022. He still finished 0-4 as a starter down the stretch before the final concussion ended his season. But that can be a special offense with Tua throwing to the speed of Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. Surprisingly, the vaunted running attack famous in Shanahan-style offenses did not travel with McDaniel to Miami, and he will have to field a better defense this year after getting to hand-pick his new coordinator for 2023.

The Bills are going to be the forgotten team by many in the AFC East, but they still have the right mixture of offense and defense with the ability to play the contenders in this conference to have the best shot at a Super Bowl in 2023.

NFL Pick: AFC Winner – Buffalo Bills (+500) at BetRivers

AFC North: Lamar’s Time?

Winners of the last two AFC North titles, the Bengals are still a considerable betting favorite over the Ravens in the AFC. But a healthy Lamar Jackson could be the difference-maker in 2023.

Can the Bengals Get Over the Hump?

We have seen the most successful 2-year run in Cincinnati history since 2021, but in both seasons, the Bengals came up short in the playoffs with Joe Burrow unable to lead the offense into field goal position in a tight game.

It happened against the Rams in the Super Bowl, and it happened again in Kansas City in a 20-20 tie in the AFC Championship Game. No one is talking about Mahomes getting shoved out of bounds from behind if the Bengals simply went on a clutch drive like many past greats before Burrow has done in that position. Instead, he took his 5th sack of the game and the Bengals punted.

In his last 30 games, Burrow is 21-1 when taking fewer than 5 sacks and 1-7 when taking 5-plus sacks.

The Bengals are hoping to remedy this by getting the linemen who were injured late in the season healthy even though they were still on the field for most of the losses early in the season. But their big signing was left tackle Orlando Brown Jr., who has been with the Ravens and Chiefs. He should be an upgrade for the Bengals, but he is unlikely to swing the pendulum from the Chiefs to the Bengals in the AFC.

However, their four meetings in the Burrow-Mahomes era have all been decided by 3 points, so it always comes down to razor-thin margins. The Bengals just have to find a way to close in these playoff games.

The New Baltimore Ravens?

Lamar Jackson finally has a new long-term deal in Baltimore, but does he have a new offense that could preserve his health for a full season? You could argue the reason the Ravens have not won the AFC North the last two years instead of Cincinnati is that Jackson was injured in early December and never played again in either season.

With Tyler Huntley at quarterback, the Ravens nearly upset the Bengals in the wild-card round before a quarterback sneak was returned for a record-setting defensive touchdown. That is how thin the margin was last year for the Ravens finishing deeper in the playoffs than Cincinnati.

The change this year will hopefully be more passing and more weapons to catch the ball for Jackson, who is still one of the deadliest runners at quarterback. But he has not thrown for 3,000 yards since his MVP season in 2019 because of injury and a stubborn attack of running the ball under Greg Roman.

Roman is out, and the new offensive coordinator, Todd Monken, comes from a pass-happier history with stops in Tampa Bay and the back-to-back national champions in Georgia in the college game.

With Jackson running Monken’s offense with Odell Beckham Jr. and Zay Flowers joining Rashod Bateman, Mark Andrews, and Isaiah Likely, this should be the deepest, most talented offense he has had in his career. We know the Ravens have the best kicker (Justin Tucker) and they are usually sound on defense with one of the best coaches (John Harbaugh) in the league as well.

But the offense needs to get with the times, and hopefully, this hiring of Monken will lead to the best and healthiest Jackson season since he won MVP.

Pittsburgh and Cleveland Still Battling for Third?

The Steelers have not finished behind the Browns in the standings since the 1989 season. That was still true last year despite a 2-6 start for Mike Tomlin’s team. But the schedule eased up, Kenny Pickett stopped throwing interceptions, and T.J. Watt returned to help the defense to a 9-8 finish.

Cleveland had some really tough losses early in the season to the Jets, Falcons, and Chargers in winnable games. By benching Jacoby Brissett for Deshaun Watson after his suspension ended, the offense tanked and suddenly could not find the end zone as the team finished 7-10 and missed the playoffs again.

There will be more optimism for both teams in 2023. However, Pittsburgh’s decision to bring back offensive coordinator Matt Canada despite going 35 straight games without 400 yards of an offense under him – the next longest streak is 22 games by Washington – is likely going to hold them back from flourishing in 2023. Meanwhile, Cleveland’s continued reliance on Nick Chubb and Myles Garrett combined with Watson’s ugly 2022 season does not bring the greatest hope they can compete with these other AFC North teams this year.

The Bengals are still a favorite pick by many, but Baltimore is the best value pick in the division with Jackson hopefully staying healthy and thriving in a new offense this year.

NFL Pick: AFC Winner – Baltimore Ravens (+1200) at BetRivers

AFC South: Doug Pederson Déjà vu?

As has usually been the case since 2011, the AFC South looks like the weakest division in the AFC, and it still features 2-of-4 NFL teams to never reach the Super Bowl (Jaguars and Texans). The last Super Bowl for the AFC South was in 2009 when the Colts lost to New Orleans.

Trust the Jaguars?

But does Jacksonville have a shot? It depends on how much of the second half of 2022 was legitimate vs. fool’s gold. The Jaguars were 2-6 to start the Doug Pederson era, but suddenly, the team started rallying from big deficits and winning the high-scoring games they have lost time after time in the last decade.

Just going back to November, the Jaguars had comeback wins against the Raiders (17 points), Cowboys (17 points), and Chargers (27 points in the playoffs). Since 1995, this franchise had one comeback win of more than 15 points prior to November 2022.

Pederson won a Super Bowl in his second season with the Eagles in 2017 when he had Carson Wentz as an MVP candidate and Nick Foles as the Super Bowl MVP that year. He won’t be able to come that far out of left field in 2023 with Jacksonville a heavy favorite to win the AFC South, but winning the Super Bowl would be a huge step forward for a team with little track record of success.

But adding Calvin Ridley to the wide receivers and hoping to see further improvement from Trevor Lawrence makes the Jaguars an exciting pick as an underdog to finally reach their first Super Bowl this year.

The Unholy Quarterback Trinity

As for the rest of the AFC South, it comes down to finding that worthy successor to challenge Lawrence in quarterback duels for years to come. The Texans (C.J. Stroud), Colts (Anthony Richardson), and Titans (Will Levis) all drafted top quarterback prospects in the draft, and you will likely see Stroud and Richardson starting games this season for rookie head coaches (DeMeco Ryans and Shane Steichen).

Brock Purdy and San Francisco fans can look away, but there still has never been a rookie quarterback to start a Super Bowl in NFL history.

This is why the Jaguars must strike while the window is wide open before these teams figure out their next moves. The Titans seemingly blew their golden opportunity in 2021 when they had the No. 1 seed, because since then they traded A.J. Brown, Ryan Tannehill, and Derrick Henry are another year older with more tread on the tire, and the passing offense looks broken with the limited receiving corps they have left.

It would be the biggest longshot division to send a team to the Super Bowl, but Jacksonville is the team to do it this year if it happens.

NFL Pick: AFC Winner – Jacksonville Jaguars (+1400) at BetMGM

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