By Chris Cheetam, Staff Writer. Ryan Houlihan, Staff Writer. Drew Dykowski, Sports Editor

The AFC collectively features the most surprising and disappointing teams in the NFL. The Ravens knocked off the undefeated Patriots and look like a legitimate contender. The Bills and Colts have outlasted daunting expectations. The Browns were Super Bowl favorites heading into the season, but have been a complete disaster and are already looking to trade Odell Beckham Jr. The Chargers have also been widely disappointing and the Steelers have been plagued by injuries. The conference remains a three horse race between New England, Baltimore, and Kansas City, and the battle should be fun to watch for the rest of the season.

AFC East:

Predictions

  1. New England Patriots: 12-4
  2. Buffalo Bills: 7-9
  3. New York Jets: 3-13
  4. Miami Dolphins: 2-14

Actual

  1. New England Patriots: 8-1
  2. Buffalo Bills: 6-3
  3. Miami Dolphins: 2-7
  4. New York Jets: 2-7

Verdict: 

The AFC East has gone as expected this year… well actually as expected for over the past decade. Brady and Belichick are feasting on a perennially poor division. The Patriots looked dominant throughout the first eight weeks, but fell back to earth after giving up 37 points to Lamar Jackson and the Ravens. With the division already in the bag, New England has to sure up a leaky defensive line and get into some sort of rhythm on offense before the playoffs start. The Ravens and the Browns were able to run at will against New England’s defensive tackles the past few weeks. Tom Brady’s regression is obvious and inevitable, which makes it all the more important for the Patriots offensive line, most notably Isaiah Wynn, to get healthy. A healthy line opens up more space for Sony Michel and eases the pressure off Brady as he makes another Super Bowl run. 

Out in Buffalo, Sean McDermott leads one of the best coaching staffs in football and has the Bills in playoff contention. Offensively, Josh Allen is limited in his ability to throw the ball, but his legs make him dangerous. The defense has led the way as one of the best in the NFL, ranking third in the league. The Bills have benefited from a fairly easy schedule to this point, but things will get much tougher in the second half. With games coming up against the Cowboys, Ravens and Patriots, we will find out if the Bills are for real or not. They will likely tail off a bit down the stretch. 

Yes, the Dolphins are tanking, and to their credit, they are still playing hard. Journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick replaced prospect Josh Rosen early in the season, making it all the more likely that Miami selects Tua Tagovailoa or Joe Borrow in the NFL Draft next year. The Dolphins need help everywhere, so it is a good thing they have been stashing away picks for the draft. 

In the Meadowlands, Sam Darnold went from contracting mono to seeing ghosts and new acquisition Le’Veon Bell has yet to return to his Pittsburgh form. It is hard for either to succeed with a horrible offensive line. To make matters worse, New York has been playing musical chairs with the GM position. Just a little word of advice to the Jets organization as they prepare for next season: Settle on your front office staff before you draft players. 

AFC North:

Predictions

  1. Cleveland Browns: 11-5
  2. Pittsburgh Steelers: 10-6
  3. Baltimore Ravens: 8-8
  4. Cincinnati Bengals: 3-13

Actual

  1. Baltimore Ravens: 7-2
  2. Pittsburgh Steelers: 5-4
  3. Cleveland Browns: 3-6
  4. Cincinnati Bengals: 0-9

Verdict: The Ravens are a force to be reckoned with. Quarterback Lamar Jackson has played at an MVP level in his first full year as the starter and has led this team to huge wins. The Steelers are hanging around despite a weak offense. The addition of Minkah Fitzpatrick has turned this defense into a powerhouse. The Browns have been an absolute circus. Baker Mayfield has looked lost in his sophomore season and the offense has been a letdown. The star pieces acquired in the offseason, most notably Odell Beckham Jr., have not exuded superstar capabilities. 

The Bengals are in full rebuild mode as they finally look to move on from the inept Andy Dalton. They stand a good chance at the number one draft pick and their choice of Chase Young or any quarterback in this year’s loaded draft class. 

AFC South

Predictions

  1. Houston Texans: 10-6
  2. Indianapolis Colts: 8-8
  3. Tennessee Titans: 7-9
  4. Jacksonville Jaguars: 6-10

Actual:

  1. Houston Texans: 6-3
  2. Indianapolis Colts: 5-4
  3. Tennessee Titans: 5-5
  4. Jacksonville Jaguars: 4-5

Verdict: The AFC South has been just as predicted. None of the four teams are terrible, but none of them are spectacular. The Texans have been inconsistent so far this year. They looked dominant against the Chiefs in week six only to look lost against the Colts one week later. Deshaun Watson, Carlos Hyde, and DeAndre Hopkins will continue to lead one of the top-five offenses in the NFL, but the J.J. Watt injury brings up some serious concerns on the defensive side of the ball. 

After Andrew Luck retired, the Colts were expected to have a rough season. Shockingly, they are in contention and are solid on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Jacoby Brissett went down with an injury and was ruled out for week 10. If Brissett recovers quickly, then Indianapolis is a playoff team. If not, the Colts will be watching the postseason from their couches. Jacksonville lost Nick Foles to an injury, but Gardner Minshew has filled in admirably and may have earned the starting job even when Foles returns. Although the Sacksonville days are long gone, the Jaguars are still a good defensive team and remain top five in sacks. They will compete for a playoff spot and eventually come up just short. 

Marcus Mariota struggled mightily for the Titans early on and was replaced by Ryan Tannehill. Since the move, Tennessee has been 3-1 and Tannehill has been surprisingly productive, throwing for 1,017 yards and eight touchdowns. The Titans have an elite running back in Derrick Henry and a spectacular defense, but have lacked consistency at the quarterback position. If Tannehill can stay healthy and keep playing well, Tennessee could surprise some teams and reach the postseason.

AFC West

Predictions

  1. Kansas City Chiefs: 12-4
  2. Los Angeles Chargers: 10-6
  3. Oakland Raiders: 6-10
  4. Denver Broncos: 5-11

Actual

  1. Kansas City Chiefs: 6-4
  2. Oakland Raiders: 5-4
  3. Los Angeles Chargers: 4-6
  4. Denver Broncos: 3-6

Verdict: The AFC West has been an entertaining division to follow this season. If Patrick Mahomes returns back from his knee injury in good health, the Chiefs will certainly run away with the division title. Their defense has improved just enough to avoid liability status, as was the case last year. 

As for the Raiders, Josh Jacobs and Derek Carr have been pleasant surprises as this team competes for a wild card spot. They have the league’s softest schedule from here on out, so look for a potential string of wins from the silver and black. The Chargers got off to a rocky start. A re-energized Melvin Gordon, and a defense improving in health gives them a chance to challenge the Chiefs and Raiders. The Broncos continue to move in the wrong direction after winning the Super Bowl just a few seasons ago. The Drew Lock experiment may be in full effect to start next season.