For two decades, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots ruled the AFC. Now, Brady is the NFC’s problem. The future Hall-of-Famer led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to an upset win in Super Bowl 55, which put the Kansas City Chiefs’ budding dynasty on hold. For a year, at least.
While Brady and the Bucs are primed to challenge for another title in 2021, the AFC will be looking to bounce back. The Chiefs have represented the conference in each of the last two Super Bowls, but Kansas City is far from the only legitimate contender in the conference entering the 2021 campaign.
The Buffalo Bills have emerged as a trendy pick to dethrone the Chiefs and make it to their first Super Bowl since the mid-1990s. The Cleveland Browns came closer than any AFC team to outsing the Chiefs from last year’s playoffs. The Baltimore Ravens are just two years removed from a 14-2 showing and the top seed in the AFC playoffs. The Tennessee Titans have built themselves into a bona fide contender, and they’ve retooled on both sides of the ball this offseason with the major acquisitions of Julio Jones and Bud Dupree.
We haven’t even gotten into teams like the Steelers, Colts, Dolphins, and Chargers that are hoping to crash the postseason party. Unlike the NFC, the AFC is legitimately deep. The Chiefs are the early favorites, but NFL betting sites indicate that the field is wide open as we prepare for the new season.
The Chiefs have the best odds of any AFC team to reach the Super Bowl, but they’re not exactly odds-on favorites. Four teams have odds of +900 or better, which should make this a fun race to follow as the season progresses. Let’s do a quick division-by-division breakdown before picking which team will ultimately win the AFC this term.
AFC East Winner
Buffalo Bills (-150)
Miami Dolphins (+340)
New England Patriots (+340)
New York Jets (+1800)
The Patriots have been the cream of the crop in the AFC East dating back to the 90s, but the times have changed. New England failed to qualify for the playoffs last year after a tumultuous 7-9 finish, and Bill Belichick is prepared to run it back with Cam Newton under center again this season.
Newton didn’t look anything like the MVP-winning QB we saw in Carolina several years ago. Injuries have robbed the former No. 1 overall pick of many of his best physical attributes, which means he’s really just a shell of his former self at this point. Newton completed about 66 percent of his throws and finished with more interceptions than touchdown passes in his first year with the team.
The Patriots’ defense is good enough to keep them relevant on a weekly basis, but it’s hard to have too much faith in this offense as long as Newton is still running the show. The Pats simply won’t be able to score enough to keep up with a team like the Bills, who have suddenly assembled one of the NFL’s most electrifying offenses.
Josh Allen Blossomed Last Season Into the Face of the Bills’ Franchise
Buffalo was one of just two teams in the league to score at least 500 points during the regular season, and their point differential of plus-126 was easily the best mark in the AFC. With just about everybody returning from last year’s 13-3 team, there’s no reason to expect a drop-off in performance on either side of the football from this team.
At this point, the Dolphins look primed to emerge a the Bills’ chief competition. Miami was one of the league’s biggest surprises under Brian Flores last season, as he took a very underwhelming roster and nearly led it to the playoffs. Miami went 10-6 despite changing their starting QB on three separate occasions, but Tua Tagovailoa is set to begin the year as the unquestioned starter in his second pro campaign.
Miami has added some legitimate weaponry in the passing game with the additions of Will Fuller and Jaylen Waddle, which should make Miami’s passing attack far more dynamic than the lackluster unit we saw last year. The Dolphins’ defense is oozing with young talent, as well. Miami is way further along than anyone could’ve expected them to be so shortly after starting their teardown process a couple of years ago.
Speaking of teardowns, the Jets are likely to bring up the rear again in 2021. The team is hoping that Zach Wilson will be everything Sam Darnold wasn’t, and that Robert Saleh will be the man to lead the franchise back to respectability following the disastrous Adam Gase era. The Jets are a work-in-progress, though, and finishing any higher than last place would be a massive success this season.
Who Wins the AFC East?
I’m bullish on the Dolphins, but this division is the Buffalo Bills‘ to lose. Assuming Allen and the rest of the key cogs in the offense stay healthy, there just isn’t another team in the AFC East capable of keeping up with Buffalo. Miami may well contend for a Wild Card spot again this season, but it also wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see the team take a slight step back after exceeding expectations in 2020.
New England has a 50-50 shot at the playoffs, at best, while the Jets will challenge once again for the top pick in next year’s draft. Don’t overthink this. The East belongs to Buffalo.
The Kansas City Chiefs weren’t at their best for most of last season, yet they still finished with a record of 14-2 and as the top seed in the AFC. Kansas City ultimately failed in their quest to win back-to-back Super Bowl titles, but the team’s brass has ensured that they won’t fall behind after their disappointing finish.
Kansas City has won the AFC West in each of the last five seasons, and the -250 odds tell us everything we need to know about their chances to make it six straight.
After injuries decimated the offensive line heading into Super Bowl 55, all the Chiefs did this offseason was add a pair of All-Pros to the left side of the OL in Orlando Brown and Joe Thuney.
The Chargers look like the Chiefs’ biggest threat after Justin Herbert’s impressive rookie campaign. Herbert cruised to the Offensive Rookie of the Year award after throwing for over 4,300 yards with a rookie-record 31 touchdown passes. Armed with their new franchise QB, Los Angeles will enter the 2021 season with an outside shot of contending for an AFC Wild Card berth.
The Broncos traded for Teddy Bridgewater in order to give Drew Lock some competition in training camp, though the QB1 job is still Lock’s to lose. Lock was rather disappointing last year after finishing with nearly as many interceptions (15) as touchdowns (16), but the return of top target Courtland Sutton along with the continued development of Jerry Jeudy should help.
The Raiders got off to a hot 6-3 start in their first season in Las Vegas, only to lose five of their last seven to fall out of playoff contention. Vegas was one of just two teams to beat the Chiefs during the regular season, but defense will be key. The Raiders have hired Gus Bradley to commandeer the defense and turn a bunch of new talent into a capable unit.
Who Wins the AFC West?
As is the case with the East, it’s hard to imagine any team but the defending champion winning the West again in 2021. The Chiefs won’t be getting complacent after their embarrassing nine-point showing in Super Bowl 55, so motivation shouldn’t be an issue for this team. Without a clear-cut challenger in the division, this is a race that could be over by November.
Bet the Chiefs to win the West and don’t think twice.
The AFC North wasn’t a particularly competitive division for most of the 2020 season, but things took a turn late. The Steelers stumbled across the finish line following their impressive 11-0 start, and they wound up scratching their way to a division title in the end. The North produced three of the AFC’s seven playoff teams last year, though none of them advanced beyond the second round.
Pittsburgh is certainly capable of exceeding expectations again, but the reality is that they were never quite as good as they looked to begin last year. Ben Roethlisberger isn’t getting any younger, and the offense is running the risk of being completely one-dimensional again. Pittsburgh is hoping that first-round running back Najee Harris will be the answer to their questionable rushing attack, but it’s hard to put too much faith in rookie RBs to carry a heavy load.
The Steelers’ odds to win the AFC North have drifted all the way to +425. Clearly, oddsmakers think this division will be a two-horse race.
The Ravens (+140) are optimistic that they can bounce back after a relatively disappointing showing last year. Baltimore was able to exact some revenge on the Titans in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs, but some still question whether Lamar Jackson is capable of taking the next step. His rushing prowess is unquestioned, but Jackson’s struggles in the passing game were more pronounced a season ago.
The Cleveland Browns (+140) are garnering plenty of buzz, and rightfully so. Cleveland was a massive disappointment two years ago after entering the year with lofty expectations, but the franchise has a far better vibe under head coach Kevin Stefanski.
Armed with a potent rushing attack built around Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, and a stacked offensive line, the Browns don’t necessarily need Baker Mayfield to be Patrick Mahomes in order for the team to succeed.
The Bengals were surprisingly pesky last season before Joe Burrow went down with a serious knee injury. While the team will show signs of life, especially with their impressive talent on offense, the defense is still very much a work-in-progress. As is the case with the Jets in the East, it would be quite shocking if the Bengals finished anywhere above the cellar in the North.
Who Wins the AFC North?
With Pittsburgh looking like a fringe contender and Cincinnati in rebuild mode, the North seems likely to come down to Baltimore or Cleveland. The Ravens are the team with the better track record, but the Browns may be extra motivated after giving the Chiefs a run for their money in last year’s Divisional Round.
Neither is a bad bet, but I have more optimism about Cleveland’s chances of winning the division. That would be no small feat, of course, as the Browns haven’t won the AFC North since its inception back in 2002. There’s a first time for everything, though. Cleveland will finally win a division title in 2021.
The AFC South was hotly contested in 2020, and oddsmakers are expecting more of the same this year. That said, we can almost write off both the Jacksonville Jaguars (+675) and Houston Texans (+2500) right away.
Jacksonville seems to be trending in the right direction. The Jags finally have a franchise quarterback in Trevor Lawrence, while first-year head coach Urban Meyer will be tasked with bringing the team back to respectability. Rome wasn’t built in a day, however. Jacksonville may make strides this season, but this is still nowhere near a playoff team.
The Texans, conversely, are not trending in the right direction. JJ Watt left for Arizona after last season, while Deshaun Watson has almost surely played his last game for the franchise. The Texans are likely to head into the season with Tyrod Taylor as their QB1, with a bevy of underwhelming talent lining up on both sides of the ball. Houston won’t run the risk of finishing 0-17, but this squad has the longest Super Bowl odds of any team for a reason.
Colts' QB Carson Wentz is out indefinitely as he undergoes further testing on a foot injury that he suffered at the end of Thursday's practice, per @MikeWellsNFL and me.
Colts' second-year QB Jacob Eason took the starter reps at today's practice, with Sam Ellinger as his backup.
The Colts settled for a Wild Card after losing a divisional tiebreaker to the Titans last season. Indy had hoped to replace the retired Philip Rivers with Carson Wentz, but Wentz’ season has been thrown into doubt after undergoing offseason foot surgery. Wentz is expected to be sidelined for 1-2 months, so there’s no telling when the Colts’ new signal-caller will be healthy enough to make his debut.
All things considered, the Tennessee Titans should probably be bigger than -135 favorites to win this division. Tennessee made a couple of major moves this offseason in signing Bud Dupree and trading for Julio Jones. Jones will join an offense that was one of the AFC’s highest-scoring units in 2020, while Dupree will give the defense a sorely-needed presence in the pass rush.
Who Wins the AFC South?
The shoddy defense is one reason for pessimism with this team, but the offense should be good enough to carry them to the top of the division. No defense has shown the ability to slow down Derrick Henry over the past couple of years, and the passing game with Jones, Ryan Tannehill, and AJ Brown speaks for itself. The Bills (501) were the only team in the conference to score more points than the Titans (491) last season.
The Texans and Jaguars are out of the race before the season even begins, while the Colts may start the season with a QB that has never taken an NFL snap before. Bet on the Titans to run away with the South at -135.
AFC South Winner –Tennessee Titans (-135)
Who Wins the AFC Conference in 2021?
You can easily argue that each of the four AFC conferences features at least one legitimate Super Bowl contender. The Chiefs are understandable early favorites, of course. Until another team shows they can actually dethrone Andy Reid’s side in the playoffs, this conference runs through Kansas City.
That said, getting out of the AFC for a third consecutive year won’t be an easy task. Both the Bills and Browns have dutifully built themselves into realistic contenders over the past few years, while the Titans have been knocking on the door.
The race for the Wild Card spots should be a fascinating one, too. The Dolphins will be looking to improve on their surprising 10-6 showing last season, while the Colts, Ravens, Chargers, Patriots, and Steelers are all in win-now mode. Baltimore has won at least 10 games in each of the last three seasons, so the Ravens look like a shoo-in for one of the Wild Card spots if they come up short of Cleveland in the division.
If Wentz Returns Relatively Early From His Injury, Indianapolis Should Be a Playoff Contender, Too
Wentz is a bit of a question mark himself after struggling mightily in Philly last year, but the Colts have enough talent elsewhere on the roster to stay relevant. As of now, I like the upstart Dolphins over the Steelers and Pats to grab the seventh and final Wild Card spot in the AFC.
Assuming Patrick Mahomes stays healthy, the Chiefs are clear-cut favorites to finish with the best record in the AFC again. That means home-field advantage for another playoff run. The last time the Chiefs lost a playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium was the 2018 AFC Championship Game against New England. Since then, the Chiefs are 4-0 on home soil in the postseason.
Is it lame to pick side with the favorite? Of course it is. That said, the rich got richer this offseason. Those upgrades along the offensive line will go a long way toward ensuring that the Chiefs will be in this thing until the very end yet again. You can still get good value at the Chiefs to win the AFC at +270, so grab those odds while you still can.
The Chiefs will be the AFC’s representative in the Super Bowl for the third straight year.
2021 AFC Conference Winner –Kansas City Chiefs (+270)
Taylor Smith has been a staff writer with GamblingSites.org since early 2017. Taylor is primarily a sports writer, though he will occasionally dabble in other things like politics and entertainment betting. His primary specialties are writing about the NBA, Major League Baseball, NFL and domestic and international soccer. Fringe sports like golf and horse racing aren’t exactly his cup of tea, bu ...
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