An AFC viewer’s guide for Ravens fans: Making sense of an overcrowded field of contenders at the midway point

Hard as it is to think in these terms after their Miami dumpster fire, the Ravens are 6-3 and a game out of the top spot in the AFC playoff standings. We will spend plenty of time talking about their flaws and their repair plans over the weeks to come, but with no game this Sunday, it’s a good time to take stock of the conference.

Eleven of the AFC’s 16 teams entered the weekend with winning records. Call it madness. Call it parity run amok. Just don’t call it boring. So let’s take a shot at sorting through the pile of would-be contenders.

Bills quarterback Josh Allen celebrates a touchdown during a game against the Titans on Oct. 18, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn.

For real ...

Buffalo Bills (5-3)

Why they should scare the Ravens: The Bills have accumulated the best point differential, by far, in the conference. Their defense has allowed the fewest yards and points in the league. Their ability to pound lesser teams suggests they still have a good chance to earn the AFC’s No. 1 seed and precious home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Why they should not: Four days before the Ravens came out listless and unprepared in Miami, the Bills did their own version of that dance in Jacksonville, losing 9-6 to the pitiable Jaguars. They have not been as sharp on offense as they were in 2020, ranking just 19th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Quarterback Josh Allen, regarded by many as a Most Valuable Player favorite in the early weeks, has taken a half-step back from his 2020 breakout, ranking 11th in ESPN’s QBR after he ranked third last season. Stefon Diggs was the best receiver in football last year. This year, he has been merely very good.


Game that will tell us more: Buffalo’s remaining schedule is not difficult, but the Bills have yet to play their chief pursuer in the AFC East, the New England Patriots. They will host the Patriots, whom they swept last season, on Monday, Dec. 6.

Cleveland Browns (5-4)

Why they should scare the Ravens: The Browns have the best offensive line and best running game in the conference and some of the best front-line defensive talent. More than any other AFC contender, they’re built to withstand mediocre performances by their quarterback. They blew out the Cincinnati Bengals two weeks after the Bengals blew out the Ravens.

Why they should not: Until they hammered the Bengals, the Browns had not played well against the better teams on their schedule. They gave up 84 points in consecutive losses to the Los Angeles Chargers and Arizona Cardinals. Quarterback Baker Mayfield is up and down in the best of times, and his injured left shoulder could become a problem again at any moment.

Game that will tell us more: The Browns did not get to enjoy their win over the Bengals for long. They will travel to face the surging Patriots on Sunday afternoon. If they’re going to pass the Ravens in the AFC North, they need to stack victories instead of taking one step forward, one step back.

Tennessee Titans (7-2)

Why they should scare the Ravens: The Titans have banked the most wins and have built the only commanding divisional lead in the conference. They are likely to be in the playoffs, even as they go forward without superstar running back Derrick Henry. They don’t do anything spectacularly, but they have been resourceful enough to beat several Super Bowl contenders.

Why they should not: As stated above, the Titans don’t do anything exceptionally well without Henry, who could be out until the end of the regular season. The Ravens beat the Titans and smothered Henry in the playoffs last season, so if the matchup comes around again, they will be comfortable.

Game that will tell us more: The Titans have the easiest remaining schedule in the league and their true level could be a mystery going into the postseason. At least they will visit the Patriots the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

New England Patriots (5-4)

Why they should scare the Ravens: Their plus-60 point differential is second-best in the AFC, and their 4-1 record against conference opponents sets them up to be a bear in tiebreakers. Bill Belichick is still the last coach you want to face in a must-win situation, and he has again figured out how to field a top-level defense, aided by the stellar pass rushing of former Raven Matthew Judon.


Why they should not: The Patriots are depending on a rookie quarterback in Mac Jones, and they are still short on offensive game-breakers, though their running game is dependable. Four of their five wins have come against teams that rank in the bottom 10 in DVOA.

Game that will tell us more: The Patriots have won three in a row, but how will they look against a more talented team that can pound them physically? We’ll find out Sunday when they host the Browns.

Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes throws during a game against the Green Bay Packers on Nov. 7, 2021, in Kansas City, Mo.

Could go either way ...

Kansas City Chiefs (5-4)

Why they should scare the Ravens: Even when they finally beat the Chiefs earlier this season, the Ravens could not stop quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Kansas City has scored just 36 points over its past three games — one of the wildest statistic from a wild stretch around the league. But it feels like folly to write off Mahomes, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. Meanwhile, the Chiefs’ defense has played better over the last month, and their special teams remain elite.

Why they should not: The Ravens put to the bed the idea that they could not come back against the defending AFC champs. More importantly, the Chiefs have not put together a complete performance all season. They have been blown out more than they have blown out others, and there is little evidence to suggest they are still the cream of the conference.

Game that will tell us more: The Chiefs will host the Dallas Cowboys a week from Sunday. Can they still go toe to toe with a top offense from the other conference?

Los Angeles Chargers (5-3)

Why they should scare the Ravens: When quarterback Justin Herbert is on his game, as he was last weekend against the Philadelphia Eagles and earlier this season against the Browns, he’s incredible. In running back Austin Ekeler and wide receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, the Chargers have three skill players who are difficult to account for on every play.


Why they should not: The Ravens destroyed the Chargers and rattled Herbert in Week 6, and Los Angeles has yet to rebound with a performance that screams, “Contender!” Like the Ravens, the Chargers have sweated through a lot of close games, and their defense is ripe for bullying.

Game that will tell us more: The Chargers face an easier remaining schedule than any AFC contender but the Titans. Will they finally string together a few decisive victories in games they are favored to win? A Nov. 21 home date with the Pittsburgh Steelers will give us some sense of their mettle.

Cincinnati Bengals (5-4)

Why they should scare the Ravens: It’s pretty simple; they came to M&T Bank Stadium with tremendous swagger and sent the Ravens into a tailspin from which they have yet to recover. Quarterback Joe Burrow still throws too many interceptions, but his connection with rookie wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase could be the scariest in the AFC North for years to come.

Why they should not: As soon as the football world agreed to take the Bengals seriously, they turned around and lost to the New York Jets. Then the Browns jumped them in Cincinnati. Their defense, which looked so fast against the Ravens, gave up 75 points over those two losses. The Bengals rank 22nd in DVOA, suggesting their win in Baltimore was an outlier.

Game that will tell us more: Can the Bengals regain their footing against another AFC contender that has stumbled recently? We’ll find out when they travel to face the Las Vegas Raiders a week from Sunday.

Indianapolis Colts (4-5)

Why they should scare the Ravens: They moved the ball relentlessly against the Ravens in a Week 5 game they would have won if not for the brilliance of Lamar Jackson. They are a well-rounded team and rank 10th in DVOA despite their losing record. With slightly better luck, they would be neck and neck with the Ravens, not staring up at 11 teams.


Why they should not: The Colts have already lost five games, and they have dates ahead against the Bills, Cardinals and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Football Outsiders placed their odds of making the playoffs at 34.6% headed into the weekend, even though they are better than half the teams ahead of them in the standings. Carson Wentz has played fairly well at quarterback, but his track record is uneven at best.

Game that will tell us more: Can the Colts actually beat a top team instead of merely hanging close? They will have their next chance Nov. 21 in Buffalo, where they played the Bills tough in the playoffs last season.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) takes the field to cheers before a game against the Chicago Bears on Nov. 8, 2021, in Pittsburgh.

Pretenders ...

Las Vegas Raiders (5-3)

Why they should scare the Ravens: They beat the Ravens in Week 1 as quarterback Derek Carr gave us an early glimpse of the troubles that would haunt the Baltimore pass defense. The Raiders have skill-position talent to complement Carr, and they have made life difficult for opposing quarterbacks with a productive pass rush and excellent cornerback play.

Why they should not: The Raiders dumped their coach, Jon Gruden, because of an off-field mess and have lived through the horrific downfall of wide receiver Henry Ruggs III, who was charged with killing a 23-year-old woman while driving drunk. On the field, they face a remaining schedule full of potential pitfalls.

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Game that will tell us more: The Raiders will play the Chiefs, Bengals and Cowboys over the next three weeks. Will they make a stand or fall out of contention by the end of the month?

Pittsburgh Steelers (5-3)

Why they should scare the Ravens: The Steelers will move to 6-3 and tie the Ravens atop the AFC North if they handle the Detroit Lions at home this weekend. Coach Mike Tomlin always finds a way to keep them relevant, and their front seven is still menacing, even if their overall defensive numbers are not. The Ravens will play the Steelers the first weekend of December and again in Week 18. Those games, always tough, will likely be important to both teams’ postseason prospects.


Why they should not: The Steelers have not won a game decisively all season, and they do not move the ball in chunks with a faded Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback, playing behind an unimpressive offensive line. Their defense has taken a step back as well, despite the star power of T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward.

Game that will tell us more: The Steelers will not have an easy game left after they face the Lions. Their season-ending gauntlet will begin with a trip to face the Chargers in prime-time on Nov. 21. Can Roethlisberger keep up with Herbert?

Denver Broncos (5-4)

Why they should scare the Ravens: It’s hard to think of a reason after the Ravens smothered them in Denver in Week 4. They did beat the Cowboys by two touchdowns less than a week after they traded superstar linebacker Von Miller. So give them credit for a proud effort, on the road no less.

Why they should not: Teddy Bridgewater is an accurate passer, but the Ravens pressured him into a poor start before he had to leave the game with a concussion. With so much competition in their own division, the Broncos will be hard-pressed to reach the postseason. They had not beaten a quality opponent until they upset Dallas.

Game that will tell us more: Their remaining schedule is not treacherous, but the Broncos will have to win a few divisional games to hang around. That quest will start when they host the Chargers Nov. 28.