By David Mullen
For 10 seasons from 1960 to 1969, renegade football was played in the American Football League (AFL).
The AFL had personality, and the fun guys played quarterback. Joe Namath, Len Dawson, John Hadl, Daryle Lamonica and others would be a welcome jolt to the new NFL, joining the old guard of Johnny Unitas, Sonny Jurgensen, John Brodie and Norm Snead. Only Fran Tarkenton and Roman Gabriel resembled the AFL image of a rebel signal caller.
Although some fact-driven football historians have tried to shoot holes through theories that the AFL was full of gunslingers, the old AFL, which morphed into the AFC, is unquestionably loaded with the NFL’s best quarterbacks. The conference is led by Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson, Aaron Rodgers, Josh Allen, Justin Herbert, Trevor Lawrence and Tua Tagovailoa. Only the Philadelphia Eagles QB and NFC Offensive Player of the Year Jalen Hurts can join that company.
In searching for the AFC Champion in 2023, look under center. All of the aforementioned QBs can lead their teams to Super Bowl LIX on Sunday, February 11, 2024, at the Caesars Superdome in New Orleans.
Mahomes and the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs are the target of at least eight teams that have the capability to represent the AFC.
Kansas City, winners of the AFC West every year since 2016, look too good to fail. But the Chiefs have never faced fiercer conference competition, especially from other quarterbacks, since head coach Andy Reid joined the team in 2013.
Herbert and the Chargers could get in the way of another KC division title, but they don’t have the depth of talent and coaching acumen. The Chargers made the playoffs last season despite average offensive numbers, injuries to key players and questionable coaching. Head coach Brandon Staley must learn from his mistakes. QB Herbert is a special talent who deserves better sideline support.
The Denver Broncos, with new coach Sean Payton and old shell of a QB Russell Wilson, have nowhere to go but up in the Mile High City. Having Payton should make Denver more competitive. The Las Vegas Raiders are great at the blame game. Blame QB Derek Carr, let him go and sign oft-injured Jimmy Garafolo. Blame milquetoast head coach Josh McDaniel, and he gets a vote of confidence from the coiffure-challenged owner Mark Davis. Add in a perennial porous defense, and the odds of success in Las Vegas are long.
The AFC South is the conference’s worst division. The young Jacksonville Jaguars are the best team and won the division last season with only nine wins. Despite Lawrence’s head scratching decision making, he plays like Thor with the blonde locks to match. One year of invaluable experience makes this team better.
The Tennessee Titans should rebound from last season’s collapse and will compete with the Jags, assuming running back Derrick Henry returns to his once dominant self. Ryan Tannehill remains the QB with a surprisingly high success rate amid very low expectations. The Indianapolis Colts seem like a disaster without Jonathan Taylor and with Anthony Richardson at the helm. The Houston Texans, under new head coach DeMeco Ryans, are the worst team in professional football.
Conversely, the AFC North might be the best division in pro football. For one more year, the doubters will learn that the Cincinnati Bengals are real. With a healthy Burrow, Cincy has an excellent chance to dethrone the Chiefs. Remember, the Bengals have played in two consecutive AFC Championship games and in Super Bowl LVI.
It feels like this could be a banner year for the Baltimore Ravens. QB Jackson is dynamic, and the Ravens have always been a defense first team. The Pittsburgh Steelers, led by coach Mike Tomlin, may not be as strong as previous years but Tomlin won’t let the team get complacent. And the Cleveland Browns remain an anomaly. No one outside of the Cleveland front office — and possible Akron native LeBron James — thinks QB Deshaun Watson is worth $230 million guaranteed.
The AFC East is a throwback to the old AFL. The Buffalo Bills are the division favorites, and QB Allen is expected to lead Buffalo to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1994. They have the look of a winning team and are running out of excuses.
Although he doesn’t have the flair of Namath, Rodgers is just as cocky and is the type of leader that could get the New York Jets back to the Super Bowl for the first time in 55 years. Rodgers is the Jets’ oldest player at 39, five years younger than 44-year-old head coach Rober Saleh. If HBO’s “Hard Knocks” is any indication, the Jets will be a sure fire hit on Broadway.
It is time to take the Miami Dolphins seriously. Their uniforms look like they are straight out of the crayon box. Their coach looks like an Uber driver. And their QB looks like he could be mixing Mai Tais at Duke’s in Waikiki. But Yale grad Mike McDaniel is smart, and QB Tagovailoa leads a powerful offense that has weapons Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. They might be the league’s most dynamic team.
It is never prudent to question Bill Belichick, the greatest coach of all time (sorry, Vince Lombardi and Bill Walsh fans), but the New England Patriots just aren’t very good, and the rest of the division has gotten better. Mac Jones is not an elite QB in a division of elite QBs.
I think that the Chiefs, Jaguars, Ravens and Bills will win their divisions with the Bengals, Jets and Dolphins as wild card participants. No room for the Chargers or Titans this post season. While an injury to any of the All-Star squad of conference quarterbacks will derail a season, I think Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens will surprise and make it to the Big Easy in February 2024. But it won’t be easy.
Next week, we will look at the NFC and the prospects for the local team. Notorious bad clock manager Dallas head coach Mike McCarthy is on the clock.