OPINION: Making changes in AFC's top tier

The bye week was a perfect opportunity to re-assess the Bills' competition for the top seed and home field advantage in the AFC playoffs

I used the Buffalo Bills' bye week to do a little scouting. I thought it would be a good idea to take a look around the AFC and see how the competition for the top of the conference is faring.

There have been some big changes as we approach the mid-point of the 2021 regular season schedule.

By the way, now that there is a 17-game schedule, where exactly is the mid-point? There is no game No. 8.5.

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Remember when the season began and we all said the Kansas City Chiefs were the gold standard? Well, forget all of that.

Not only are the Chiefs not the gold standard, but you can cross them off the list of teams realistically competing for the No. 1 seed in the AFC. I think you can even take them out of the AFC West division title race, and it's even possible the Chiefs will miss the playoffs entirely.

Just two weeks after the Bills delivered a thrashing of the two-time defending AFC champions, the Chiefs were totally destroyed by the Tennessee Titans.

While Kansas City's defense continues to be among, if not, the worst units in the National Football League, the fall of the Chiefs' offense is the shocking development. Patrick Mahomes and company look completely lost.

Mahomes had a career-low 6.7 quarterback rating in the loss to the Titans. The three points scored by Kansas City marked the lowest point total since Mahomes replaced Alex Smith as the starter.

The 26-year-old has thrown nine interceptions this season, which is tied for the most in the league. This after throwing 11 combined over the last two seasons.

The 2018 NFL MVP appears to be caving under the pressure of having to play a near perfect game to compensate for a defense that can’t stop anybody. Mahomes is forcing plays as if he knows he needs to produce a touchdown drive on the majority of their possessions.

As to the No. 1 seed discussion, the Chiefs are now 3-4, and their record in conference games (a key tiebreaker) is an abysmal 1-4. Kansas City has also lost the head-to-head matchup to the Bills, Titans, Los Angeles Chargers and Baltimore Ravens.

Remember that bad defense I mentioned a moment ago? In the four games with those other AFC contenders, Kansas City has given up 141 points, or an average of 35 points per-game.

As far as the possibility of the Chiefs going from Super Bowl runner up to playoff outsider, their next four games include meetings with the Green Bay Packers, Las Vegas Raiders and Dallas Cowboys, all of whom currently sit in first place in their respective divisions. Later in the season. the Chiefs will have second games against the Raiders and Chargers, as well as a game with the Cincinnati Bengals.

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Which brings me to the second most-surprising story in the AFC right now - the Bengals. Make that the AFC leading Bengals, who are 5-2 after obliterating the Ravens this past week in Baltimore.

If you saw any of that game, you had to come away super impressed with second-year quarterback Joe Burrow. He looked like a season veteran, as he skillfully took apart a good Ravens defense. Burrow showed great composure, poise, decision making and accuracy while throwing for a career high 416 yards. There were plenty of times he did not have a clean pocket, whether it was pressure from a four-man rush or Baltimore sending blitzers, but Burrow stood calmly in the pocket and made throw after throw after throw.

Cincinnati’s decision to pass on an offensive lineman with their first pick in the 2021 NFL Draft last April to select wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase has turned out to be a stroke of genius. Chase is their equivalent to the Bills getting Stefon Diggs as the big time weapon for their young signal caller.

Chase simply could not be covered, even when the Ravens put their best cover corner, Marlon Humphrey, on the rookie. Chase had 201 yards on eight catches, and his 754 receiving yards is the most by any player in NFL history over their first seven games.

But the Bengals' success is also due to an overhauled defense that features six pickups in free agency from the offseason.

I still think Baltimore is the best team in the AFC North. I don’t think they’re getting enough credit for being 5-2, despite the rash of injuries at running back, the loss of their best cornerback, Marcus Peters to injury, and the offseason departure of edge rusher Matthew Judon.

I’m re-thinking my stance on the Titans.

I knew their offense would be good, and now that they have A.J. Brown and Julio Jones in the lineup at the same time, it sure looks that way. But I had serious doubts about the Titans defense and how that unit would fare after a rebuild of the secondary.

Tennessee’s defense was outstanding against the Chiefs, much better than the unit looked against the Bills, and are doing it despite a run of injuries in that secondary.

Like the Bills, the Titans should cruise to their division title. They can essentially wrap up the AFC South this weekend if they finish off a season sweep of the second place Indianapolis Colts.

Throw in the Chargers and there you have my top tier in the AFC:

- Buffalo
- Los Angeles
- Baltimore
- Tennessee
- Cincinnati

I’m not sold on the Raiders yet, and while I was high on the Cleveland Browns going into the season, they look like they could end up third in the AFC North.

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