Bills on top, AFC dominates
A few AFC teams might want to band together soon and ask the NFL to consider instituting the old format of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Before 1993, hockey didn’t split into conferences but rather gave playoff berths to division winners and wild cards who had the best records among the rest of the field. Well, that format might help the balance of power that has shifted to the quarterback-dominant AFC, where even 10 wins might not be a playoff guarantee.
Here are The Post’s NFL power rankings after free agency and the draft, including 12 AFC teams in the top 19 spots:
1. Buffalo Bills
Maybe the defending Super Bowl champions if they had just won an overtime coin toss in Kansas City. Signing two-time champion OLB Von Miller felt like the final piece of the puzzle. This will be the first time QB Josh Allen adjusts to a new play-caller, but the Bills minimized disruption by promoting Ken Dorsey.
2. Kansas City Chiefs
In a show of guts, the Chiefs traded WR Tyreek Hill. Odds are QB Patrick Mahomes will be just fine throwing instead to imports Juju Smith-Schuster, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Skyy Moore. Three rookies are likely Week 1 defensive starters. The Chiefs are 31-5 against the AFC West under Andy Reid.
3. Green Bay Packers
Like Mahomes, QB Aaron Rodgers lost his top receiver. Like the Chiefs, the Packers used their two first-round picks on defense. It looks like another easy path to the NFC North crown, but, after losing as the No. 1 seed in the playoffs two years in a row, their next big game happens in mid-January.
4. Los Angeles Rams
After keeping coach Sean McVay and DT Aaron Donald from retirement, the Rams made their signature splash by adding MLB Bobby Wagner and WR Allen Robinson. But LT Andrew Whitworth and WR Robert Woods aren’t returning. WR Odell Beckham Jr. might not, either. There hasn’t been a repeat Super Bowl winner since 2004.
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
For a moment, it looked like Bruce Arians would coach a Tom Brady-less team. Now Brady will quarterback a team coached by Todd Bowles, who was too conservative when he had the Jets and not the G.O.A.T. The Bucs used their first two draft picks on replacements for DT Ndamukong Suh and OG Ali Marpet.
6. Cincinnati Bengals
At least one of the Super Bowl participants has missed the playoffs in 14 of the past 22 seasons. The Bengals have to prove last year’s run was no joke. Replacing turnstiles with three new offensive linemen accomplished one main offseason objective. But FS Jesse Bates refusing the franchise tag is an issue.
7. Los Angeles Chargers
Combine the NFL’s biggest risk-taking coach (Brandon Staley) to a surging gunslinger (Justin Herbert), a touchdown machine (RB Austin Ekeler) and three major additions on defense (CB J.C. Jackson, DT Sebastian Joseph and OLB Khalil Mack). But the Chargers have fallen short of high expectations for two decades.
8. San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers fell one quarter short of a second Super Bowl appearance in three years and aren’t ready to risk a step back by going from QB Jimmy Garoppolo to Trey Lance. WR Deebo Samuel is irreplaceable in his unique role as the bulk of the offense, but he’s unhappy with his contract.
9. Denver Broncos
No more making the unprovable claim that the Broncos would have a championship-caliber roster on both sides of the ball if only they had a quarterback. Russell Wilson left behind poor offensive lines in Seattle to join the best division in the NFL. Nathaniel Hackett faces as much pressure as any first-time coach can.
10. Baltimore Ravens
A six-game losing streak as injuries mounted created a false narrative. The Ravens aren’t far away, especially after crushing the first two days of the draft with a best-available philosophy. The running back- and tight-end-heavy offense looks a lot like it did in QB Lamar Jackson’s 2019 MVP season.
11. Dallas Cowboys
Welcome to a special kind of no-man’s land: Good enough to keep winning the NFC East, not good enough to make a deep run in the playoffs. Mike McCarthy is on the hot seat with two coordinators (Dan Quinn and Kellen Moore) ready to pounce on his job if owner Jerry Jones gets impatient.
12. Indianapolis Colts
Even when the Colts make a bad trade like dealing a first-rounder for Carson Wentz, they minimize damage by flipping Wentz and stealing Matt Ryan. With a solid defense in place, they drafted offense with their first three picks to make life easier for NFL rushing leader Jonathan Taylor.
13. Philadelphia Eagles
Lesson learned last season: As long as a team is good on both sides of the line of scrimmage, it can simultaneously win and rebuild. The Eagles stole CB James Bradberry with salary cap manipulation in May free agency to fill one of their last big holes. Jalen Hurts faces as much pressure as any young QB.
14. Las Vegas Raiders
After returning to the playoffs, the Raiders got better by trading for WR Davante Adams. But so did their three rivals. Could the AFC West be the first division to send four teams to the playoffs? It’s crazy to think what the Raiders could be if not for a busted 2019 draft.
15. Arizona Cardinals
Last season’s 7-0 start is ancient history, erased by a 4-7 finish (including one-and-done in the playoffs). QB Kyle Murray wants a new contract but instead got an old friend at receiver with the trade for WR Marquise Brown. Kliff Kingsbury needs his best coaching job to hold this talented roster together.
16. New England Patriots
Bill Belichick enjoys making fools of those who question his unorthodox decisions. But leaving offensive play-calling to one of two fired head coaches — former defensive coordinator Matt Patricia or former special teams coordinator Joe Judge — is a big risk. The Patriots’ first- and second-round draft picks felt like major reaches.
17. Tennessee Titans
How the mighty No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs has fallen. One year after pairing Julio Jones with A.J. Brown envisioning a fearsome duo, both WRs are gone. That’s only going to increase the wear on workhorse RB Derrick Henry. QB Ryan Tannehill’s playoff stinker cost him a lot of believers.
18. Cleveland Browns
The most difficult team to rank because of the variables at QB. Will Deshaun Watson be suspended for sexual misconduct? For how many games? Will Baker Mayfield be around to fill in at the risk of bad energy, or will he be traded? Waiting on DE Jadeveon Clowney’s free-agent market was smart.
19. Miami Dolphins
Either coach Mike McDaniels is the next head coach/play-calling sensation or he is about to flop. It feels like there is no middle ground, but the Dolphins should be used to extremes after losing seven straight and winning seven straight last season. It’s make-or-break time for QB Tua Tagovailoa.
20. New Orleans Saints
Consider this a vote that QB Drew Brees isn’t going to unretire. Actually, even if he did, his tank looked empty even before his year off. The Saints operated this offseason like they are a contender. Sounds overly optimistic behind QB Jameis Winston and with questions at WR and LT.
21. Pittsburgh Steelers
QBs Mitch Trubisky and Kenny Pickett have big shoes to fill after Ben Roethlisberger’s alleged forced retirement. Shaky offensive tackle spots won’t make it any easier. Don’t be surprised if the Steelers, who haven’t had a losing record since 2003, are 8-8 entering Week 18. OLB T.J. Watt is worth the price of admission.
22. Minnesota Vikings
After a disappointing 2021 season, the Vikings essentially decided to change the coach and general manager but run it back with a similar team. The 10-pick draft class started off by addressing a glaring need in the secondary, but too many trade-backs are regretful when landing a defensive stud was the way to go.
23. Washington Commanders
They are the new Broncos, who make you say, “Strong defense, promising young offensive playmakers and … (wistfully) if only they had the right quarterback.” Carson Wentz has worn out his welcome in two cities over the past two years. The defensive line is elite. The offensive line is not.
24. New York Jets
A strong case can be made that no team had a better offseason, after wise free-agent spending and acing the draft. But the schedule is a murderer’s row — just four games against inferior opponents, all after Thanksgiving. Coach Robert Saleh can’t get away with overseeing the worst-ranked defense again.
25. Seattle Seahawks
Life after Russell Wilson looks bleak unless QB Drew Lock develops fast. The Seahawks are headed back to the ground-and-pound and defense-first style that coach Pete Carroll prefers — but without Marshawn Lynch to do the heavy lifting. The NFC West is a bear.
26. Carolina Panthers
The Panthers have invested a lot of assets in quarterback and running back to still have questions at both spots. QB Sam Darnold will get a last shot to salvage his career unless a surprise trade is made. But RB Christian McCaffrey’s health is the real X factor.
27. Jacksonville Jaguars
A $265 million free-agent spending spree plus back-to-back years drafting No. 1 overall has to be worth more than a few wins. New coach Doug Pederson should work wonders for QB Trevor Lawrence’s potential. Ownership showed it’s all-in to erase a mostly embarrassing decade.
28. Detroit Lions
December results can be fool’s gold. But the Lions played hard to finish 3-3 after a 0-10-1 start. Signing D.J. Chark and drafting Jameson Williams addressed a dearth of WRs. The arrow is pointing up — and it’s not crazy to chase second place in the NFC North.
29. Chicago Bears
Second-year QB Justin Fields’ development is headed down a scary path — after his coach was fired, his No. 1 receiver left in free agency and a defense-heavy draft. The days of counting on a vaunted defense are over, too.
30. New York Giants
Finally, after a decade of whiffs, there is reason to believe the offensive line is fixed. It came at the cost of tearing down a good secondary, however. QB Daniel Jones, RB Saquon Barkley, LB Blake Martinez, and WRs Kenny Golladay, Kadarius Toney and Sterling Shepard all are major “ifs,” with injury histories attached.
31. Atlanta Falcons
A flirtation with trading for Deshaun Watson came up empty but expedited QB Matt Ryan’s departure, leaving a big hole. The best-case scenario is TE Kyle Pitts and WR Drake London develop as the Falcons eat their $63 million in dead cap.
32. Houston Texans
The offseason started with a botched coaching search ending in Plan “Z” Lovie Smith, but the Texans look smart for waiting out the market in a Deshaun Watson trade. The haul of future draft picks should eventually replenish the NFL’s least-talented roster.