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Grading Each AFC Team's Season: Chiefs, Bengals Finish With Top Marks

The general belief heading into the 2022 season was the AFC was superior to the NFC. When all the passes were thrown, tackles made and field goals soared through the uprights – including Harrison Butker’s Super Bowl LVII winner – that theory had been tested. 

Sure, the Kansas City Chiefs, Cincinnati Bengals and Buffalo Bills were formidable, but the rest of the conference had its share of disappointing showings and downright flops. Those were balanced somewhat by the revival of the Jacksonville Jaguars and the strong closing burst by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

>> READ: NFC Team Grades

Here’s how each AFC team rated:

Final AFC Team Grades

AFC East

Buffalo Bills (13-3)

Grade: B+

Just coming back from the near-tragedy of Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest displayed the fortitude of the Bills. Then, to beat New England in the season finale and take a wild-card win over the Miami Dolphins was uplifting everywhere in Western New York. But Buffalo, which entered the season as Super Bowl favorites, fell flat in the Divisional Round, plagued by far too many mistakes to challenge for a championship. Well-coached and skilled nearly everywhere, the Bills warrant a high grade. Not as high as many projected, though.

Miami Dolphins (9-8)

Grade: B

The Dolphins might be the most difficult team to rate this season, in large part because of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s injury situation. When he was healthy, Miami’s offense, boosted by two superb receivers in Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, was dangerous. Don’t forget this team sneaked into the playoffs despite key injuries and a defense that allowed far too many big plays. Mike McDaniel looks like a keeper as a coach, though he needs to vary his play calls better.

New England Patriots (8-9)

Grade: C

The New England Patriots' three seasons post-TB12 sure make it look like the quarterback was, by far, the main reason they have so many rings. The Patriots got into the playoffs last season and then were hammered by Buffalo. This time, with several opportunities to get in, they failed. The Tom Brady-less offense can run the ball, but teams must have a strong passing attack to compete. We liked the defense and special teams enough to give this mark.

New York Jets (7-10)

Grade: C+

If this appears high for a team that went from 7-4 to its 12th successive season out of the playoffs, consider where the New York Jets were in 2020 under Adam Gase and in ’21 during Robert Saleh’s first year as head coach. The defense is one of the NFL’s best, young and aggressive groups, featuring top rookie cornerback Sauce Gardner. There is some promise on offense with top rookie wide receiver Garrett Wilson and running back Breece Hall. Otherwise, the Jets are a black hole. They found out that quarterback Zach Wilson, the second overall pick in the 2021 draft, is fragile physically and mentally. 

>> READ: Jets Inquire About Rodgers Trade

AFC South

Jacksonville Jaguars (9-8)

Grade: A

The NFL likes to brag about turnarounds that teams make each season. It can use the 2022 Jaguars as the measuring stick. Going from worst in the entire league to a division winner – and then to a massive rally to take a wild-card matchup with the Chargers – is impressive enough. Changing the culture from rancid under Urban Meyer to productive and encouraging under Doug Pederson ups the grade. Add in the rapid development of quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Jacksonville could become a force for the rest of this decade.

Tennessee Titans (7-10)

Grade: D

How quickly people – except those in Music City – seem to have forgotten the Tennessee Titans were the No. 1 seed in the AFC in 2021. The spiral downward in the second part of the schedule this season revealed issues on both sides of the ball. For the second straight year, a massive number of injuries also were debilitating. It became clear that coach Mike Vrabel needed to make changes to his staff, and the roster required some retooling. At least the Titans are in a weak division.

Indianapolis Colts (4-12-1)

Grade: F

This might seem harsh, except that most folks, particularly those in Indy, believed the Indianapolis Colts were an AFC contender. Instead, they became the worst kind of pretender. With a roster of skilled players such as running back Jonathan Taylor, offensive linemen Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith, linebackers Shaq Leonard and Zaire Franklin, and cornerback Stephon Gilmore, the table was set for a big year. It all fell apart, and bringing in veteran quarterback Matt Ryan flopped when the blocking disappeared. Frank Reich took the fall, and Colts legend Jeff Saturday couldn’t rescue them as interim coach.

>> READ: Colts Targeting QB in Draft

Houston Texans (3-13-1)

Grade: F

Three seasons and three new head coaches? No answers at quarterback or on either line? Few playmakers anywhere? We will give the Houston Texans a minimal amount of credit for actually going 3-13-1; their roster was the weakest in the conference, if not the entire NFL. New coach DeMeco Ryans figures to fix the defense in time, with defensive backs Jalen Pitre and Jonathan Owens as building blocks. The offense, other than running back Dameon Pierce, needs a ton of work. 

AFC North

Cincinnati Bengals (12-4)

Grade: A-

Yes, the Bengals are one of the NFL’s best teams. But any club that makes – and barely loses – a Super Bowl, then fails to get at least that far can’t get a higher mark than this. That said, Joe Burrow has stamped himself among the five best quarterbacks in the league, his offensive mates are very solid (even the line improved in 2022), and the defense is underrated, filled with playmakers such as Trey Hendrickson, Logan Wilson and Sam Hubbard. This should be an AFC powerhouse for a while. 

Baltimore Ravens (10-7)

Grade: B-

Had the regular season lasted a bit longer, the Baltimore Ravens likely wouldn’t have gotten a wild-card spot. It’s a tribute to John Harbaugh’s coaching the Ravens survived well enough without Lamar Jackson at quarterback to sneak into the postseason – and then give Cincinnati a challenge in the first round. But this was a second straight disappointing season for a team that can’t stay healthy. Now there is the seeming contract impasse with Jackson. Age on the defense is a concern, too.

Pittsburgh Steelers (9-8)

Grade: B

The way the Steelers closed the season, winning their final three games to avoid Mike Tomlin’s first losing season as coach, says so much about this organization. There’s plenty to build on, from the late-season performances of rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett to the turnaround by a defense filled with stars such as T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Alex Highsmith. It’s not exactly a Steel Curtain, but it could be headed for big things. So could the Pickett-to-George Pickens passing combination.

Cleveland Browns (7-10)

Grade: D

Some critics would give the Cleveland Browns an F simply for trading for quarterback Deshaun Watson and then giving him a guaranteed contract. Watson never really worked out the rust from not playing in 2021 and being suspended for the first 11 games this season. Other than the solid run game led by Nick Chubb and the strong blocking of guard Joel Bitonio, there wasn’t much success on offense. The ballyhooed defense was a flop compared to expectations and recent history, and now 2020 NFL Coach of the Year Kevin Stefanski has shakier job security.

AFC West

Kansas City Chiefs (14-3)

Grade: A+

If you win the Super Bowl, you get the top mark. The courageous performance of league MVP Patrick Mahomes with his injured ankle in the playoffs was exemplary, but there’s virtually nothing to criticize about Andy Reid’s group. Indeed, even the suspect special teams were special in the Super Bowl. Kansas City upgraded its defense, won a title after trading away its most dangerous weapon, Tyreek Hill, and tight end Travis Kelce was better than ever. Dynasty? Sure has that look.

 Los Angeles Chargers (10-7)

Grade: B

This mark could have been higher had the Los Angeles Chargers not fallen apart and blown that massive lead in the playoffs at Jacksonville. We worry about the coaching decisions by Brandon Staley, but there is little concern about quarterback Justin Herbert, running back Austin Ekeler (107 receptions, 1,637 total yards, 18 touchdowns) and receivers Mike Williams and Keenan Allen. The Chargers’ penchant for losing games they seem to control is worrisome; isn’t Staley’s strength supposed to be defense?

Las Vegas Raiders (6-11)

Grade: D

In his second stint as a head coach, Josh McDaniels didn’t fare much better than in his previous, failed tour with the Broncos. Instead of building off a rare playoff appearance in 2021, the Las Vegas Raiders regressed. And now they don’t know who their quarterback for the future is after summarily dismissing Derek Carr near the end of the season. At least Josh Jacobs led the league in rushing and Davante Adams, despite all the turmoil in Sin City, performed well.

>> READ: Raiders Release Derek Carr

Denver Broncos (5-12)

Grade: F

Maybe the easiest mark of them all. Acquiring Russell Wilson to go with a staunch defense, a coaching change designed to upgrade the offense, and a loyal fan base indicated a rise to the top of the Rockies. Instead, the Denver Broncos plummeted into the Grand Canyon. The offense never fit Wilson’s skills, the defense became overburdened, Nathaniel Hackett was an abject failure as head coach, and Denver at points of the schedule was a laughing stock. At least the fans are reinvigorated by the hiring of Sean Payton.

Barry Wilner was been a sportswriter for the Associated Press for 40 years. He has covered virtually every major sporting event, including 13 Olympics, 9 World Cups, 30 Super Bowls, the World Series, and the Stanley Cup finals, and has written 52 books. Follow him on Twitter @Wilner88.