And while the balance of power in the AFC won’t dramatically shift on what happens in Frankfurt, Germany, the winner is assured of at least a share of the top seed at the halfway point of the season.
This marks the first time in 12 years that four teams are tied for the best record in the AFC through Week 8 or later, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
All four teams are known for their playmaking quarterbacks, including the Dolphins’ MVP favorite Tua Tagovailoa, and opportunistic defenses. Jacksonville is the hottest team in the AFC, winning its past five games, while Baltimore has the most favorable path going forward, playing six of its final nine games at M&T Bank Stadium.
According to ESPN Analytics, the Chiefs (29.3%) and Dolphins (28.9%) are the front-runners to win the top seed in the AFC and a first-round bye. Caesars Sportsbook also has the Chiefs as the favorite to win the AFC, followed by the Dolphins, Ravens and Jaguars. The Buffalo Bills — at 5-3 — are just behind the Jags.
“Nobody’s crowned after eight games. There’s a lot of football to be played,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “The season is long for a reason, and it does weed out the best. If we want to be the best or considered the best, we’re going to have to do it over the long haul.”
Here is a look at each of the teams’ prospects by Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher, Dolphins reporter Marcel Louis-Jacques, Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley and Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco:
Why the Chiefs have a legitimate shot at the top seed: This is contrary to how things have been since Patrick Mahomes became the starting quarterback in 2018, but the Chiefs’ reason for optimism is their defense. They have the NFL’s second-ranked scoring defense at 16.1 points a game, and if that keeps up, the team will stay in just about any game. And there’s reason to believe it will continue. The pass rush has surged in the past two games, giving the Chiefs 28 sacks for the season, tied for second most with the Bills, three behind the league-leading Ravens. Even in Sunday’s otherwise hideous loss to the Denver Broncos, the defense gave the Chiefs some hope into the fourth quarter.
Why they might be vulnerable: The offense hasn’t been as good as in previous years, and at times it has been awful. Wide receiver production outside of rookie Rashee Rice has been disappointing. Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Skyy Moore and Kadarius Toney were expected to be major contributors but have mostly been no-shows through half a season, combining for 45 catches, 504 yards and three touchdowns. Moore dropped a perfectly placed touchdown pass in the loss to the Broncos that could have sparked a comeback. Mahomes hasn’t been up to the task of lifting the passing game. He is headed toward a career-worst statistical season. He has his lowest passer rating (95.8) and is on pace for 17 interceptions, which would easily surpass the most in his career (13 in 2021). He’s on pace for a TD-to-interception ratio of less than 2:1, which would also be a career worst. — Teicher
ESPN BET : The Chiefs are the +250 betting favorite to win the AFC and +500 favorite to win the Super Bowl.
Why the Dolphins have a legitimate shot at the top seed: Simply put, offensive firepower. The Dolphins haven’t cracked 100 rushing yards in three straight games, and they lead the NFL in rushing at 151.8 yards per game. While their ground game has come back to earth without De’Von Achane, the Dolphins continue to lead the league in passing (301.5) and scoring (33.9 points per game). There are four players on this offense — Tyreek Hill, Raheem Mostert, Jaylen Waddle and Achane — who can score from anywhere on the field. Miami’s defense also got a shot in the arm with the return of Jalen Ramsey, which should boost a unit that has been middle-of-the-pack through eight games. Ramsey had an interception and forced fumble in his season debut Sunday.
Why might they be vulnerable: Miami’s offensive line, while markedly improved from the past two seasons, has suffered injuries to four starters. Terron Armstead, Connor Williams and Rob Hunt should return sooner rather than later, but this unit has often been challenged by injuries in the past. A three-game stretch against the Cowboys, Ravens and Bills to end the season might also prove difficult during a time of year when playoff seeding is typically determined — although two of those games are at home, where the Dolphins have not lost since Dec. 25, 2022. Miami has been criticized this season for losing the only two games it has played against teams with a winning record, and while that won’t matter much in terms of qualifying for the playoffs, those are the type of matchups the team has to win to clinch the AFC’s top seed. — Louis-Jacques
ESPN BET: The Dolphins are +400 to win the AFC and +850 to win the Super Bowl.
Why the Jaguars have a legitimate shot at the top seed: You wouldn’t have expected defense to be the top reason, but that’s the case. The Jaguars lead the league in takeaways (18) and interceptions (11), are second in pass breakups (33), and fourth in rush defense (79.3 yards per game). LB Josh Allen (9 sacks) and CB Darious Williams (NFL-high 8 pass breakups) are having the best seasons of their careers. Second-year LB Devin Lloyd has taken a major step forward, and LB Foyesade Oluokun is second in the league in tackles (92). The offense has had its moments but hasn’t consistently functioned on a high level, due in part to injuries along the line and to WR Zay Jones (knee). However, QB Trevor Lawrence has posted a career-best five consecutive games with a passer rating over 90, and RB Travis Etienne Jr. is third in the NFL in rushing (583 yards) and fourth in yards from scrimmage (839). There’s a feeling in the building that the offense will eventually come together the way it did at the end of last season, and then the Jaguars could be tough to handle.
Why they’re vulnerable: The pass rush is an issue. The Jaguars rank 26th in QB pressure percentage (32.4%), and their 16 sacks are the third fewest in the league. Allen is having the best season of his career (9 sacks) but the rest of the team has combined for just seven. LB Travon Walker, the No. 1 overall pick in 2022, has 3.5, which ties his rookie total, but nobody else has more than two sacks. The Jaguars have been able to overcome that with the turnovers, but it’s hard to count on them producing those at the same pace they have in the first eight games. Another issue is the offensive lulls in the second half: 42.9% of their drives result in no first downs, which ranks 29th. The Jaguars have made clutch plays when needed — WR Christian Kirk‘s 44-yard TD catch against New Orleans and Etienne’s 56-yard TD catch against Pittsburgh, for example — so that has helped, but the offense has yet to consistently function at the high level the team expected. — DiRocco
ESPN BET: The Jaguars are +900 to win the AFC and +1800 to win the Super Bowl.
Why the Ravens have a legitimate shot at the top seed: The Ravens have proved they can soundly beat anyone when they’re at their best. Case in point: a 39-6 rout of the Detroit Lions two weeks ago. Lamar Jackson has shown flashes of his 2019 NFL MVP form with his efficient passing and elusive scrambling. He has completed a career-best 70.5% of his throws and has produced 16 runs of 10 yards or more, which is tied for most in the league. The strength of this team has been the defense, which has proved to be championship-caliber since the acquisition of Pro Bowl middle linebacker Roquan Smith a year ago. Baltimore leads the league in fewest points allowed at 15.1 per game, as well as sacks with 31. The Ravens have a big advantage in the schedule with only three road games remaining. Jackson is 15-2 (.882) when playing at home in November, December and January.
Why they’re vulnerable: The obvious reason is Jackson’s track record in terms of health. He has not finished the past two seasons, and the Ravens are 2-7 without him in December and January. Last season, Baltimore’s offense sputtered in Jackson’s absence, averaging 13 points. The other concern is the consistency of the offense in the first season under new coordinator Todd Monken. The Ravens rank 29th in the NFL in total yards in the second half (134.9) and have scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter (only three teams have fewer). Baltimore lacks an explosive running back since the season-ending Achilles injury to J.K. Dobbins, and it doesn’t have a legitimate No. 3 option in the passing game after wide receiver Zay Flowers and tight end Mark Andrews. This is why the Ravens need Jackson at full strength if they want to earn the second No. 1 seed in franchise history. — Hensley
ESPN BET: The Ravens are +650 to win the AFC and +1300 to win the Super Bowl.