The Kansas City Chiefs are about to face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV -- marking a second consecutive appearance on Super Sunday for Patrick Mahomes and Co. But the other 15 teams from K.C.'s conference are already plotting ways to take down the Chiefs in 2021. Below, Gregg Rosenthal spotlights one significant thing each non-Chiefs AFC team must do to pave a pathway to Super Bowl LVI.
The Ravens must: add dimensions to the passing attack.
Helping to further support quarterback Lamar Jackson is a two-part process. First, Baltimore needs to add multiple pass catchers who can take advantage of all the favorable coverage the Ravens' running game dictates. Marquise Brown was the only wide receiver on the team who could play for most quality offenses. Baltimore missed the versatility tight end Hayden Hurst brought before being traded to Atlanta last offseason. General manager Eric DeCosta must add playmakers to the mix, but part of the change needs to come from offensive coordinator Greg Roman's approach. The Ravens brag about the depth of their rushing playbook, but spending all that practice time on the ground attack leaves less room to work on a passing game that lacked the ability to adjust and became predictable. Baltimore took this extreme run-heavy offense as far as it could go, and it wasn't quite far enough.
The Bills must: find the next defensive cornerstones.
The four-year ascent accomplished by coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane could be taught at Team Building University. My "one thing" the Bills needed to do last year to make the Super Bowl was make life easier for QB Josh Allen, and they succeeded beyond anyone's dreams, nearly making the big game. Now it's time to clean up the defensively oriented McDermott's side of the ball. There isn't a pass rusher to be excited about. The secondary is missing at least one cornerback, and linebacker Matt Milano is about to be a free agent. With an explosive offense in great shape long-term, the best way to make Allen's life easier now is to find more defensive difference-makers to slow down the Chiefs, especially up front.
The Bengals must: protect Joe Burrow.
Yup, this is the same improvement I wrote about last year, before Burrow was officially even a Bengal. Nope, the Bengals don't seem any closer to accomplishing that goal, much less to reaching the Super Bowl. They haven't finished in the top 25 in Pro Football Focus' pass-blocking grades or in the top 25 in pass-block win rate on ESPN in either of Zac Taylor's two seasons in charge. Former offensive line coach Frank Pollack, who spent the last two seasons with the Jets, was brought back with a beefier title, mostly because of his run-game bonafides. Burrow showed he was a keeper last year after being drafted first overall, and 2019 first-round pick Jonah Williams was league average at left tackle, but I worry about Burrow developing bad habits and getting hit too much coming off the torn ACL that ended his rookie season in November.
The Browns must: find explosive pass catchers.
Jarvis Landry is a great player, but he does not stretch the field. Tight end Austin Hooper is another possession-type pass catcher making star money. The Browns have a terrific offense that could be greater with more big plays to complement their nasty running game. Odell Beckham Jr. is a superstar, but there are legitimate reasons to question whether he'll be back in Cleveland. When NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported that Beckham was available in a trade back in October, there was seemingly no public pushback. Whether the Browns build off OBJ after he recovers from the torn ACL that ended his season in Week 7 or add to the receiver room with picks obtained for Beckham, Cleveland should look for more pass catchers who can reliably win one-on-one matchups even when Kevin Stefanski doesn't scheme them open.
The Broncos must: supplant Drew Lock.
Last offseason, John Elway didn't even want to bring in a quality backup quarterback behind Lock. Now the Broncos should be looking for someone to displace Lock, not compete with him. It would be a welcome surprise if Lock showed growth in Year 3 -- if Denver ended up with two viable QBs, that would be a good problem to have -- but Lock has too rarely shown a feel for the position to rely on him. The Broncos have the No. 9 pick in the draft and a raft of exciting, young skill-position weapons ready to play with a veteran starter. They would be the perfect landing spot for an established quarterback, although one potentially sensible fit came off the board when the Lions traded Matthew Stafford to the Rams.
The Texans must: not trade Deshaun Watson. Stop. Don't do it. Stop it!
Watson wants a trade, and it looks bleak for Texans fans. But he's on the roster, and the organization still has a chance to avert a car crash that could take decades to recover from, so why not at least try to hit the brakes? That's what the Texans attempted by retaining offensive coordinator Tim Kelly, whom Watson works well with, on new head coach David Culley's staff. No amount of draft picks would make up for dealing away a top-five quarterback entering his prime. It would be an admission of defeat by the organization, a sign it values the front office members over a transcendent, incredibly respected talent. It's hard to shake off a rabid fan base's interest, but cutting ties with DeAndre Hopkins, Watson and possibly J.J. Watt in the span of a year might just do it.
The Colts must: add a veteran QB.
Philip Rivers proved in 2020 that the Colts were a move-in ready playoff house; they just needed a solid signal-caller. Following Rivers' retirement, Indy is now again in the same situation it was in before Rivers arrived last offseason. The team has the luxury of endless cap space in a cap-strapped year, but there are also a few more roster holes following left tackle Anthony Castonzo's decision to retire, too. The simplest solution is to use that financial surplus, head coach Frank Reich's reputation and a few draft picks to secure a quality veteran -- if there was a team built to mortgage the farm in a Dak Prescott trade or try to deal for Matt Ryan, the Colts would be it. They aren't far away; they out-gained the Bills, the hottest team in the NFL entering the playoffs, by 75 yards in a highly winnable game. Taking a step back at quarterback, however, would leave this organization without a key to get this great foundation back in the tournament.
The Jaguars must: be right about Urban Meyer.
The new head coach has a lot of work to do. Some of the men he put in place -- general manager Trent Baalke and defensive coordinator Joe Cullen -- have steep hills to climb, as well. More than anything, the Jaguars need Meyer to deliver the goods. He's always had an advantage of having superior players compared to his college opponents. Now, the script will be flipped, with a rookie quarterback and mediocre roster to support him. Trevor Lawrence is an extraordinary talent, and Meyer could be the right man to get the best out of the presumptive No. 1 overall pick. But no one knows if Meyer's leadership and schemes will translate without all the enormous advantages of coaching at Florida or Ohio State. After the instant successes we've seen over the years, from Justin Herbert to Dak Prescott, Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck, Cam Newton and Matt Ryan, it's no longer premature to expect production from a rookie quarterback, especially when backed by a hotshot coach.
The Raiders must: find a pass rush.
It's hard to overstate how poor the Raiders defense has been since the day Jon Gruden showed up in 2018, with no improvement. Yes, it's an offense-first league. Yes, Gruden has shown he can still create yards as a play-caller. But the lackluster Raiders pass rush (Las Vegas ranked 29th in sacks) created a prohibitively small margin for error for Gruden's side of the ball. This group looks better on paper than reality with Clelin Ferrell and Maxx Crosby leading the way on the outside. The Raiders need more juice there, and they need to get tougher at defensive tackle. It's not like Gruden and GM Mike Mayock haven't tried to improve the defense; they just need to find more success with new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley providing different energy.
The Chargers must: prove me wrong about Joe Lombardi.
Justin Herbert was as good a rookie quarterback as I've ever seen. The Chargers responded by changing their offensive staff and appointing Joe Lombardi, who spent much of his mediocre two-season run as offensive coordinator in Detroit (2014-15) defending himself against accusations of predictability. This was an organization that failed to maximize Drew Brees and Philip Rivers and now has allowed general manager Tom Telesco to choose his third head coach despite having to fire the first two quickly. Skepticism is warranted until Lombardi proves the Chargers aren't filling up a Ferrari with discount gas.
The Dolphins must: get Tua Tagovailoa more weapons.
I'm going to assume Deshaun Watson doesn't wind up in Miami, despite the Dolphins having an enticing array of picks and Tagovailoa to offer. I also believe Tua's rookie season was misunderstood. Operating behind a poor offensive line and with a patchwork group of mid-level, oft-injured pass catchers, Tagovailoa played too conservatively. He also showed some next-level mental traits of the kind that are rare in rookies. DeVante Parker is a fine player, but he's not a true No. 1, and the fall-off to No. 2 and beyond on the depth chart was steep. I want to see the Dolphins invest intelligently in the offense like they have on defense, giving Tagovailoa a real chance to make a second-year leap. He may surprise a lot of people.
The Patriots must: see Bill Belichick end his personnel losing streak.
The Patriots are well-coached. They are also one of the least-talented teams in football. The departure of Tom Brady overshadowed the total collapse of the Patriots' defense, where the team lacks playmakers, just like on offense. There has been speculation that Belichick has not listened to his college and pro scouting departments in recent years, to disappointing results. The Patriots are among the league leaders in cap space and will probably load up on free agents in a season where other teams are strapped. But they also need to draft much better, because even a serviceable replacement at quarterback (like Jimmy G?) after Cam Newton's year under center is not going to succeed with the group of pass catchers currently in place.
The Jets must: make the Texans an offer they can't refuse.
The Texans may prefer to trade Watson to the NFC, where he can't torture them as often. Makes sense. The Patriots pedigree in Houston's front office could also inhibit a trade with the Jets, although new Texans GM Nick Caserio did make a few minor deals with New York GM Joe Douglas last year. The Jets need to not worry about that and do everything possible to entice the Texans into making a massive mistake. The No. 2 overall pick in this year's draft is the Jets' advantage, and it doesn't hurt that Watson reportedly wants to go to New York. I can't think of a possible offer that would be too rich. If four first-round picks sound crazy to you, just look at the players taken with the last four first-round picks by any team and decide if you'd rather have them or Watson. It's usually not close.
The Steelers must: recognize that loyalty has its limits.
The Steelers do right by their head coaches and often stick with their great players a year too long rather than the alternative. With an aging roster and salary-cap issues on the horizon, however, this is not the offseason for sentiment. Steelers owner Dan Rooney indicated 38-year-old QB Ben Roethlisberger will have to take a pay cut to continue in Pittsburgh, and it sounds like Roethlisberger is willing to oblige, at least based on comments he made to Ed Bouchette of the Athletic. But if Big Ben wants guarantees beyond 2021, the Steelers should move on. Center Maurkice Pouncey, guard David DeCastro and cornerback Steven Nelson are three other veterans whose salaries could be excised to get Pittsburgh under the cap. The Steelers have one of the best drafting general managers of the last two decades in Kevin Colbert, though his year-to-year contract status remains uncertain. Assuming Colbert will be back, they'll need him to hit on more picks -- like he did in 2020! -- to replenish the talent base.
The Titans must: get Mike Vrabel more help on defense.
Vrabel has been a defensive coordinator or head coach in four NFL seasons. In two of those four seasons (with the 2017 Texans and 2020 Titans), his defenses have been among the very worst in football. The other two seasons, the Titans' defense was mediocre. It's clear that Vrabel's coaching isn't providing a tremendous advantage; in fact, there's an argument to be made that he's providing a disadvantage. It's not for lack of trying -- the Titans have spent tons of money and draft capital on defense. Their free agent signings last season (Vic Beasley and Jadeveon Clowney) did not work out, but the Titans have also struggled to draft difference makers. Still, there were enough quality individual performances (Jeffery Simmons, Kevin Byard, Malcolm Butler, Jayon Brown) to make the Titans' defensive collapse perplexing. Whether it was the loss of old defensive coordinator Dean Pees or Vrabel's coaching, Tennessee's pass rush was non-existent. Promoting Shane Bowen from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator, when Bowen called the plays last year, doesn't feel like much of a change. What Vrabel and GM Jon Robinson have done on defense through three seasons hasn't worked, so they need to try something different.