2023 NFL Season Preview Part 1: AFC
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After half a year without football, the time has finally come… the NFL is back. From now until February, all 32 teams will compete to become the 2024 Super Bowl Champions. Though last year’s standings can be a good reference for each team’s strength in this upcoming season, a slew of free-agent signings, trades, draft picks, and retirements have shaken up the NFL, providing us with a more exciting season to follow. Here is The Spectator’s 2023 NFL Preview Part 1—AFC Edition.
As a division that is usually lopsided, the 2022 AFC North was the most competitive it has been in a while. The Cincinnati Bengals are now coming off of a season that almost took them to the Super Bowl, the Baltimore Ravens were a playoff team despite quarterback Lamar Jackson’s injury problems, the Pittsburgh Steelers finished over .500 despite their rookie quarterback and overall lack of star power, and the Cleveland Browns had seven wins despite not having their starting quarterback until Week 13.
Though one would expect at least one of these teams to regress in the offseason, that is not the case. The entire division seems to have gotten stronger. The Bengals signed star tackle Orlando Brown Jr., which filled one of their biggest holes, while only losing a few players in free agency, such as safeties Vonn Bell and Jessie Bates, tight end Hayden Hurst, and internet-favorite cornerback Eli Apple. The Ravens had a very eventful offseason, with the highlight being the franchise’s standoff with Jackson over his contract that eventually made him the third highest-paid quarterback of all time. Then, they would solve the lack-of-weapons issue with the signings of receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Nelson Aghlor and the drafting of wide receiver Zay Flowers. The Browns and Steelers both had rather uneventful offseasons, but both added some strong players; Browns added defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson and the Steelers added some secondary strength with cornerback Patrick Peterson and safety Keanu Neal.
For the 2023 season, each team in the AFC North has the potential to be a playoff contender. The Bengals are still the strong team they were last season but with another year of growth and development. However, with quarterback Joe Burrow reaching the final year of his rookie deal, a huge contract is in store after this season, possibly making this season the team’s best chance to go far. The Ravens solved their biggest problems with Jackson and his weapons, so the team is now overall incredibly solid, with their success riding on whether or not their star quarterback can stay healthy. The Browns are finally settled with a team full of stars, so this is their—and, more importantly, quarterback Deshaun Watson’s—make-or-break year. The Steelers are still rebuilding, but if quarterback Kenny Pickett can show up, the Steelers have a squad that can be successful this season and in the future.
The AFC East is another division that is historically one-sided (courtesy of the Patriots Dynasty), but last season was newly competitive. The Buffalo Bills sat at a strong 13-3 in the regular season and made it to the divisional round; the Miami Dolphins would have a solid 9-8 season, even almost beating the Bills in their wild-card game despite Tua Tagovailoa’s concussion struggles; the New England Patriots fought for a playoff spot despite their lack of star power and an underperforming quarterback in Mac Jones; and the New York Jets had a surprising year as their rookies performed well.
To add to the drama of last season, everyone in the division had a busy offseason. Despite the Bills’ loss of star linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, they added a lot of depth through the free agency as well as the draft. The Dolphins had a few losses this offseason, including tight end Mike Gesicki, but were able to add star cornerback Jalen Ramsey as well as significant young talent through the draft. The Jets had the biggest offseason of the conference though, as they were able to fill their biggest gaps with the trade for Aaron Rodgers, wide receiver Mecole Hardman, running back Dalvin Cook, and ex-Rodgers teammates in receivers Allen Lazard and Randall Cobb. The Patriots lost some players in the offseason, such as receiver Jakobi Meyers and tackle Isaiah Wynn, but quickly signed replacements in wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and Gesicki. They also had a strong draft with the additions of cornerback Christian Gonzales and defensive end Keion White.
For the 2023 season, the AFC East will be even more competitive than last year. The Bills have had a good offseason and should be as strong as last season, but quarterback Josh Allen and the team need to show that they can win in the playoffs—something that they haven’t been able to prove. The Dolphins have also had a solid offseason and have the star power to be Super Bowl contenders, as long as Tagovailoa can stay healthy. The Jets have finally assembled the talent to go far; they just need to play to their full potential. The Patriots are still a young team that has talent, but they have to develop, and Jones needs to show that he isn’t a bust.
Before the 2022 season, the AFC West appeared to be the most competitive division in the AFC. However, it did not live up to expectations. The obvious exception was the Kansas City Chiefs, who went 14-3 and won the Super Bowl despite quarterback Patrick Mahomes’s injury in the playoffs. The Los Angeles Chargers went 10-7 and choked their wild-card game, the Las Vegas Raiders had another season of disorder, and, worst of all, the Denver Broncos stood a miserable 5-12 despite their trade for quarterback Russell Wilson.
These teams all had very different types of offseasons. The Chiefs didn’t have a great offseason, losing key players Brown Jr., Smith-Schuster, and Hardman in free agency, but they were able to find some replacements in tackle Jawaan Taylor and receiver Richie James. Apart from this, they added overall depth to their stacked roster with 10 draft picks. The Chargers had a quiet but good offseason, adding some young talent in the draft and signing veteran linebacker Eric Kendricks while maintaining their core players. The Raiders had a very eventful offseason as they made plenty of changes all around their roster. They lost quarterback Derick Carr, tight end Darren Waller, wide receiver Mack Hollins, and a few other players, but added quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, rookie tight end Michael Mayer, and Jakobi Meyers. The Broncos’ big move was the addition of head coach Sean Payton, but apart from this and some offensive line additions, the team had a quiet offseason.
The AFC West is the most unpredictable division for the upcoming season. The Chiefs are coming off of a Super Bowl win but have lost a lot of weapons and are starting to age. Though the Chargers were solid last season despite injuries, they didn’t show that they can be competitive in the playoffs, so this is the year to prove that they are contenders. Though the Raiders were very active in the offseason, they didn’t make any major upgrades at any position, so it seems like they are going to have another difficult season. While the Denver Broncos’ replacement of coach Nathaniel Hackett is a good change for the team, they didn’t make many roster changes from the squad that just went 5-12, leaving the future unclear.
The AFC South was one of the weakest divisions in the NFL last season. The Jacksonville Jaguars won the division with a relatively weak 9-8 record but had a surprisingly strong playoff campaign, boasting a comeback win against the Chargers and a competitive game against the Chiefs. However, apart from the Jaguars and their playoff success, the AFC South had the Titans go 7-10, the Colts go 4-12-1, and the Texans go a miserable 3-13-1.
Other than the Jaguars, the teams of the AFC South spent the offseason rebuilding. Jacksonville had a quiet offseason, but last season’s trade for receiver Calvin Ridley will finally pay off this season as he is reinstated. The Titans had a few good off-season signings, especially on the defensive side, but their biggest off-season play was their second-round steal of quarterback Will Levis—a quarterback who was initially projected to go in the top five picks of the draft. While the Colts lost cornerback Stephon Gilmore and receiver Paris Campbell, they exceeded these with their additions. Most notably, they drafted quarterback Anthony Richardson with the fourth pick, then added additional strength through the draft and signed players like linebacker Sam Ebukam and receiver Isaiah McKenzie. The Texans had a very active offseason with a huge amount of signings and few losses. They notably traded up to draft both quarterback CJ Stroud and linebacker Will Anderson Jr., securing two of the best players in the draft. On top of this, they signed countless big-name veterans.
With the way last season turned out and the results of the offseason, the Jaguars seem the most obvious option to win the AFC South, with their young squad only growing from last season. Trevor Lawrence has grown into a star, but the other teams in the division need to start developing their quarterbacks this season. The Titans need to figure out their quarterback situation as they now have an aging Ryan Tannehill, an undeveloped Malik Willis, and rookie Will Levis. The Colts are also in a rebuilding year, with an unpolished Richardson and the need to grow as a team. The same goes for the Texans but with a slightly different approach, demonstrated by their signing of veterans to help Stroud and running back Dameon Pierce foster a successful team.
The AFC is clearly strong this year and should produce some exciting storylines throughout the season. Highlight matchups will be playoff rematches between the Chiefs and Jaguars in Week 2, Bills and Bengals in Week 9, and Chiefs and Bengals in Week 17. Stay tuned for the second part of The Spectator’s 2023 NFL preview to see what the NFC will look like this season.