2023 AFC Preview: 1 Team From Each Division That Will Surprise

The NFL is approaching the calm before the training camp storm. So let’s take a look at four teams in the AFC, one from each division, that could surprise in 2023. 

4 AFC Surprise Teams

North: Pittsburgh Steelers

It’s amazing the Pittsburgh Steelers are not being talked about more, but when you look at this division, you understand why. They have to deal with the Cincinnati Bengals and the issues their offense presents. There are the Cleveland Browns, who have arguably the best running game in the league and an X-factor at quarterback in Deshaun Watson. And the Baltimore Ravens have QB Lamar Jackson back and obtained more weapons for him. This is a ridiculous division.

The Steelers, however, have 18 starters coming back, and they finished the 2022 season as strong as anyone, going 7-2 in their final nine games and just barely missing the playoffs. 

The Steelers are having an excellent offseason. Between the draft and free agency, they added multiple offensive linemen hoping to shore up that unit. They did the same thing on the defensive line, adding five more. The third area they identified was the secondary, and they added four corners and a safety. 

Add it up. The Steelers wanted to get bigger and stronger up front, and they did. 

QB Kenny Pickett will be one year further along in his development. He made strides from where he was early in the season to where he was late in the season. The Steelers also have coaching continuity and system continuity, so they could be a team that makes a lot more noise than anyone believes is possible in a tough division. 

East: Miami Dolphins

The question for the Miami Dolphins is QB Tua Tagovailoa. His development is something everyone is excited about, but his concussions are something everyone is concerned about. Can he survive and play the entire season? If he can, they could be as explosive as any team. 

Miami added All-Pro CB Jalen Ramsey in the offseason, and it acquired edge Bradley Chubb at the trade deadline last year. Even though he didn’t play great when he first got to Miami, he has a chance to grow in new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s system. Chubb was more prolific in that system when Fangio was his coach with the Denver Broncos

Fangio does a great job of keeping things simple but causes many problems for offenses with his disguises. He also adds a lot of experience to a younger staff. He can come in, run the defense and add insight from being a head coach. There’s real value in that. As a young head coach, it’s good to have people like that to bounce ideas off of. 

Not many pundits are talking about the Dolphins because their division is so challenging. 

C.J. Stroud

South: Houston Texans

WR Robert Woods’ offseason comments about the Houston Texans’ similarity to the Los Angeles Rams team he was on when they exceeded expectations are telling. He talked about the overall buy-in and how successful they were when no one expected it.

When you have a young team, if everyone buys into the vision, and everybody’s pushing in the same direction, there’s some value there. 

You can get some wins that nobody expects you to get, and there’s no expectation. Every game the Texans go into some people are going to say, “This is our in-season bye.” That makes them more dangerous if they don’t view themselves that way. 

West: Las Vegas Raiders

The Las Vegas Raiders lost seven one-score games during the 2022 season. They had another game where they blew a 21-point lead. So improving their defense has to be the starting point because they should be better than that. 

Defensive end Maxx Crosby recently talked about how they understand the defense better, and they’re more comfortable in it. There is a big difference between what they’re trying to do there now vs. what they did last season. 

A team can approach defense in a couple of ways. It can either do essentially the same thing every week with a few tweaks. That lets guys play fast, but it doesn’t give you many options to change things up against various offenses.

The other approach is a flexible defense where you adjust weekly to try to take away what your opponent does well and attack what they do poorly. That’s harder, and it takes more time, but that’s what I believe in.

It is something that’s harder in the first year, especially if you’re transitioning from the other approach. So that experience in this defense should help the Raiders. 

Eric Mangini is a former NFL Head Coach and won three Super Bowls as the defensive backs coach of the New England Patriots. In 2006, he became the then-youngest head coach in the NFL with the New York Jets.

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