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Ranking logjam of contenders for AFC's No. 1 seed: Chiefs, Dolphins, Ravens most trustworthy

The NFL's two best records through 10 weeks of the 2022 season belong to NFC teams, the 8-1 Eagles and Vikings.

But the AFC appears to be the stronger, deeper conference, and with the most to settle -- right now, two victories separate nine teams atop that side of the bracket. Two AFC teams have seven wins, four have six wins and three more have five. 

When it's all said and done at the completion of Week 18, only seven of them will make the postseason. But if we look back exactly one year ago -- leading up to the Week 11 games in 2021 -- there was still quite a bit to be determined.

It wouldn't have been shocking to suggest the Rams at 7-3 had Super Bowl potential last year. 

But the 5-4 Bengals? They hadn't yet hit their stride.

The four other teams with seven or more wins at the time were the Cardinals, Cowboys, Packers and Titans -- all of them would go on to lose prior to the conference championship games. The 49ers were slogging along at 4-5 then before making a run all the way to the NFC title game, even leading by 10 points early in the fourth quarter.

The point is this: Just because a team has a great record now doesn't mean it has an open freeway to make the Super Bowl in a few months. And likewise, the gig isn't up for clubs that have started slowly, perhaps even those below .500.

We won't dig quite that deep here. As strong as the AFC field is, it's hard to make a strong No. 1 seed case for the 4-5-1 Colts or the three 3-6 teams.

So we'll stick to the current top nine teams in the AFC standings and rank them based on our trust level of them being able to grab the all-important top playoff seed. Some have earned far more than others to this point.

Kansas City Chiefs

They’re currently in the top spot in the AFC at 7-2. They also have Patrick Mahomes, probably the MVP front-runner right now. Those are two pretty strong reasons to trust them the most of any team in the conference. 

But there’s more to like. The addition of Kadarius Toney looks like a potential home run if he stays healthy. The defense has rebounded after some early-season missteps. Travis Kelce is having maybe his best season yet, and that’s saying something. 

Plus, the schedule is very friendly, made softer by the Rams’ slide and the Raiders’ utter collapse. They’ll be in Vegas in Week 18, a game that could end up with Mahomes resting on the sideline if the Chiefs keep it up. A visit to the rival Chargers is next, and there’s a three-game road stint upcoming, but all signs point to Kansas City as the favorite to top the AFC playoff order again.

Miami Dolphins

The only other seven-win team in the AFC is Miami. The Dolphins’ bye this week comes as the team has once again hit warp speed offensively with Tua Tagovailoa healthy. They haven’t exactly faced the most daunting competition lately, but if you’ve not had the pleasure of watching this group humming, it’s right up there with some of the prettier offenses league-wide.

That and their win total give the Dolphins a fighter’s chance to not only win the AFC East but also make a run at the top seed. Their Week 3 win over Buffalo carries more weight with the Bills falling back to third place in the division for now, and the Week 15 rematch in Buffalo is going to tilt the division dramatically. 

Win that one, and the Dolphins can even afford a loss to, say, Mike McDaniel’s old 49ers club in Week 13 and still have enough wins to carry the East. But to realistically push the Chiefs for the top overall seed, the Dolphins might need to go 6-1 down the stretch. Will the late bye week stall their momentum or energize them?

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens will be kicking themselves for their close early-season losses, which were games they should have won. But they’ve righted the ship the past three games and have about as favorable a schedule left -- literally the easiest by remaining opponent win percentage at .360.

They kick off the post-bye slate with old friend Baker Mayfield (back starting for the Panthers), whom they’ve had success against. The toughest remaining game might be in Week 18 at Cincinnati. But it’s entirely possible that they won’t have faced an eventual playoff participant after Week 8.

Lamar Jackson isn’t having his best season, but he appears to be back on track after some struggles. If he starts hitting layups more consistently, he can carry this team to the top of the AFC. Not having Rashod Bateman hurts, but if they can get healthy in the backfield and keep getting big games from Roquan Smith, it wouldn’t be shocking to see them claim the top spot.

Buffalo Bills

The first big question: Is Josh Allen OK? I have confidence that he is, though far less than I had a few weeks ago. The elbow injury is one factor; his red-zone struggles, after blowtorching the league in that area last year, are another big one. Both are concerning right now.

From an emotional standpoint, the Bills’ loss to the Vikings hurt badly because of the number of ways they could (and should) have won the game. But looking back, the Week 9 loss to the Jets might sting more long-term when you factor in the tiebreaking elements of division and conference records, plus the head-to-head loss (assuming the Jets keep winning). Right now, Buffalo is 0-2 vs. AFC East teams, and that’s a tough hurdle.

The Bills don’t feel like the kind of team that will just curl up and die. But they’re trending in the wrong direction amid a loaded field. If they still look this way after the Browns and Lions games the next two weeks, we’ll have more reason to think it’s not their year. They’re swimming up Niagara Falls for the top seed but can still claim the AFC East.

Tennessee Titans

UPDATE: The Tennessee Titans improved 7-3 after defeating the Green Bay Packers 27-17 on Thursday night.

Last year’s No. 1 seed has a path back to that same spot. But despite the Titans winning six of their past seven games -- with the one loss a heartbreaker to the Chiefs -- there are plenty of minefields that lie ahead. 

They have sneaky-tough games at Green Bay and home against the Bengals coming up, and we know what happened the last time Cincinnati came to Nashville for a big game.

A lot clearly rides on the health of Ryan Tannehill. Derrick Henry has carried this team on his back for long stretches before, and he certainly can again. But if Tannehill isn’t at his best down the stretch, the Titans can still win the division handily -- but the AFC’s top seed might be out of reach.

New York Jets

The Jets are winners of five of their past six games after the 1-2 start. If they can beat New England on Sunday, they’ll be in good shape for a playoff spot. But getting all the way to the top of the AFC feels like a reach for this team, talented as it might be.

Zach Wilson is a riverboat gambler capable of anything each week. Bad against the Patriots one week, outplaying Josh Allen the next -- go figure. That’s the kind of player who is fully capable of getting the Jets cooking, but are you comfortable backing him?

Maybe for a run at the division. But all the way to the top of the conference feels too far for our taste. These young Jets sure are fun to watch, but there are too many possible tripwires awaiting them. They’ve been strong on the road (4-0) but still have five games away from home remaining.

Cincinnati Bengals

Similar to the Jets, the Bengals seemingly have gotten on track after a slow start, although Cincinnati’s Week 8 thumping by the Browns sticks out sorely. It also highlights a wicked factor working against them: an 0-3 mark against AFC North teams. That alone renders their chances of topping the AFC nearly impossible. 

We could still back the concept of this being a tough team to face down the stretch, especially as Ja’Marr Chase might be a few weeks from returning. But they might need to run the table. With a remaining opponent win percentage of .562 and half their remaining games on the road, it’s a pretty cavernous leap we’ll let someone else attempt. 

If they beat the Chiefs on Sunday, they’d have the slimmest of slim chances. If not, forget about it. The Chargers have left too much meat on the bone this season, getting waxed at home by the Jaguars and Seahawks and letting close ones slip away on the road at Kansas City and San Francisco.

The late-season schedule might have looked a bit tougher at one point earlier this season, but there are still very big games against the Chiefs, Dolphins and Titans -- and they pretty much have to run the table against them and not have a Chargers-esque flop against a lesser foe. No guarantee there.

They might hold a glimmer of intrigue because of Justin Herbert and the hope of getting a healthy receiving corps soon. But whatever hopes they had of a first-round bye are nearly extinguished. 

First the good news: They’re 4-2 versus AFC teams, thanks to strong defensive outings against the Browns, Jets and Colts. They’re winners of four of their past five games, and back-to-back road games at Arizona and Las Vegas in December don’t look so daunting now.

But the rest of the schedule beyond that is pretty fierce -- a .595 opponent win percentage -- with critical games against the Bills (two), Dolphins and Jets, plus toughies against the Vikings and Bengals. 

Plus, are you buying Mac Jones stock right now? I’m not. Maybe if Bailey Zappe gets back in there, the Patriots can pull a rabbit out of their hat. The playoffs are in play, and the division isn’t a lost cause yet. But winning the top seed? I don’t see it.

Follow Eric Edholm on Twitter.

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