Even though the AFC was viewed as the weaker conference in terms of Super Bowl contenders heading into the NFL season, its power structure seemed a lot more defined than the NFC’s.
The two-time defending AFC champion Kansas City Chiefs looked like the leaders of the conference, while the hard-charging Buffalo Bills appeared to be a good bet to see them again in the conference championship game.
That prognostication might still hold some validity, as both teams are squarely in the mix this year.
However, expecting the unexpected in most NFL campaigns is pretty much a given.
We’ll take a look at two teams in the AFC who have a great chance to make the postseason, that weren’t given too much love during training camp.
2. Cincinnati Bengals
There’s no doubt that the Cincinnati Bengals featured one of the most talented young cores in the NFL.
But there were a lot of question marks surrounding Cincinnati heading into the season.
One of the most pronounced was whether quarterback Joe Burrow would feel comfortable stepping up in the pocket after an unfortunate knee injury ended his 2020 campaign.
Burrow was quoted in the preseason expressing his uncertainty about trusting the knee fully in game action.
As we embark on Week 10, those worries appear to have been resolved.
Additionally, rookie wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase struggled with drops during the summer, leading some to wonder whether he would need time to get adjusted to the NFL game.
It turns out those fears were way overblown, as Chase has been a shining star from day one.
The Bengals now sit at 5-4, and have a good a chance as any to nab a Wild Card spot in the AFC.
They’ll have to be more consistent, after throttling the Baltimore Ravens, but then losing to the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns.
With that said, Bengals fans have to be happy about whether they are to this point.
— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) November 7, 2021
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
It feels counterintuitive to put the Pittsburgh Steelers in a conversation regarding surprises in the AFC.
Pittsburgh has not finished with a regular season record below .500 since 2003, and have basically been in the mix for the last two decades.
However, there were some real signs this year that the Steelers could have a down season.
That type of attrition isn’t good for any NFL roster, let alone one featuring a 39-year-old starting quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger.
But somehow, they’ve managed to patch things together.
Rookie running back Najee Harris is playing as advertised, and looks well worth the first-round pick the Steelers spent on him in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Harris is providing a between the tackles presence, and has been integral in their short passing game as well.
Head coach Mike Tomlin deserves a lot of credit for holding the ship together, after Pittsburgh went 1-3 in the first four contests.
On Monday night, Chris Boswell became the first kicker to make two field goals from 50+ yards in the same game at Heinz Field. pic.twitter.com/E36XE0UAJv
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) November 10, 2021
They’ve since won four consecutive games, and are picking up momentum in the conference.