The NFL‘s American Football Conference has numerous teams that could compete in Super Bowl LVI this season.
The Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills, who both advanced to the AFC Championship Game last season, both look poised to reach the postseason again.
So do the Tennessee Titans after the acquisition of wide receiver Julio Jones.
The AFC North should be a three-dog fight with the Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, and Pittsburgh Steelers.
Overall, like any NFL season, there should be some overturn in the AFC’s playoff teams.
These three teams have the potential to not just make the playoffs, but compete for the 2021 AFC Championship.
3. Los Angeles Chargers
The hype surrounding the Los Angeles Chargers starts with sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert.
Herbert burst onto the scene last season, starting 15 games for the Chargers and completing 66.6 percent of his passes for 4,336 yards and a 31/10 TD/INT ratio.
He added 55 carries for 234 yards and five rushing touchdowns while being named the 2020 AP Offensive Rookie of the Year.
As he enters year two, Chargers fans are expecting Herbert to continue his upward trajectory.
— Dan W. (@ChargersHomer) August 9, 2021
The Chargers finished ninth in the NFL in total offense last season.
Assuming Herbert continues to elevate his game, they should only rise in 2021.
Herbert did take 32 sacks last season, which ranked ninth-highest in the NFL.
However, the Chargers went and drafted former Northwestern tackle Rashawn Slater with the No. 13 overall pick in the NFL.
Slater should help Los Angeles’ offensive line keep Herbert upright this season.
Last season, the Chargers ranked 10th overall in yards allowed on defense.
Now, former Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley is the Chargers head coach.
The Rams finished with the lowest yards allowed (4,511) and points per game (18.5) in the NFL last season.
If Staley can coax that same effort out of the Chargers, he can turn a good defense to a great one.
Despite having the Chiefs in their own division, the Chargers have a strong enough defense and a rising offense that could lead them to the AFC crown.
2. New England Patriots
For the first time since 2008, the New England Patriots missed the playoffs in 2020.
It doesn’t seem long before the Pats are destined to find themselves back in the postseason.
Heading into last year, New England had numerous defensive players opt out due to COVID-19.
While Chung would go on to retire, Hightower and Cannon are both now back with New England.
During the offseason, the Patriots went out and added a few more weapons to the offense.
They brought in two top of the line tight ends in Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith.
The Patriots even traded for offensive lineman Trent Brown, who was with the team in 2018.
New England also has a decent running back room led by Damien Harris, who looks poised for a breakout in 2021.
Damien Harris is very strong. He hit the blocking sled so hard that it flew so high and almost hurt him. He didn't miss a beat though 🤯 pic.twitter.com/J7jSaN1ClX
— The Camera Guys (@NBCSCameraGuys) August 3, 2021
They aren’t the flashiest group in the AFC, but New England’s offensive weapons should make the team’s quarterback’s job much easier.
Who that quarterback is is still a question as Cam Newton and Mac Jones battle it out for the starting role.
Newton is a former MVP who struggled last year but is a former NFL MVP and one of the best rushing quarterbacks in league history.
Jones is coming off of a National Championship with Alabama and was selected No. 15 overall in the 2021 NFL Draft.
It’s unclear who will start, but both have the potential to lead the Patriots offense.
The Patriots finished middle of the road defensively last season, ranking 15th with 5,660 yards allowed.
They went out and signed former Ravens linebacker Matt Judon, who had 50 tackles and six sacks last season on his way to his second straight Pro Bowl.
Between him and the return of Hightower, it’s fair to assume New England’s defense should improve in 2021.
It was rare to see head coach Bill Belichick not on the sidelines during last year’s playoffs.
It would be even rarer if he weren’t there this year as the Patriots have the potential to not just make it back, but shine during the postseason.
1. Cleveland Browns
Since the merger, the Cleveland Browns have never won the AFC Championship Game.
They’ve made it to the title game three times but their last appearance hasn’t been since 1989.
Now, after a 17-year playoff drought was ended last season, the Browns have a real shot for another chance at AFC Championship glory.
Cleveland reached the postseason with an 11-5 record and won in the Wild Card Round against the Steelers, 48-37.
While they would fall to the Chiefs in the Divisional Round by a final of 22-17, 2020 was the best season Browns fans have seen in years.
The league noticed as Kevin Stefanski, who was in his first year with the Browns, was named the NFL’s Coach of the Year.
Last year, Chubb rushed 190 times for for 1,067 yards and 12 touchdowns on his way to his second Pro Bowl.
He has averaged over five yards per carry in all three of his NFL seasons and has a career average of 5.2.
Hunt rushed 198 times for 841 yards and six touchdowns while also catching 38 passes for 304 yards and five more scores.
Chubb is one of the best running backs in the game while Hunt is a perfect complement; they should both be catalysts on offense for the Browns.
Cleveland will also see the return of wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who missed nine games last season with a torn ACL.
Baker Mayfield connects with DPJ on a 60-yard go ball for six. A.J Green beat in coverage. Peoples-Jones is cooking everybody. pic.twitter.com/0MhmpDyRqX
— Ellis L. Williams (@BookofEllis) August 4, 2021
For the Browns, the key to success will be Baker Mayfield.
In his three-year career, Mayfield has played in 46 games for Cleveland, completing 61.9 percent of his passes for 11,115 yards and a 75/43 TD/INT ratio.
While the former number one overall pick has never made a Pro Bowl, he is still the best quarterback the Browns have had in a long time.
If he can do so, the Browns could easily have one of the best offenses in the NFL.
Defensively, the Browns finished 17th overall in yards allowed last season with 5,735 yards.
Heading into last season, the Browns hadn’t had success in a very long time.
Now, Cleveland has momentum and that momentum could take them back into the postseason and potentially to the AFC Championship Game.