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Who are the Bengals' Biggest Competitors in the AFC?

With June right around the corner, teams around the NFL are underway with Organized Team Activities (OTAs), setting the stage for another exciting season of football in 2022. After reaching the Super Bowl for the first time since 1988 and just missing out on their first-ever championship, the Cincinnati Bengals are looking to follow up last year’s magical season with another. Unfortunately for the Queen City’s finest, the conference seems to be much improved this time around.

Simply put, the quarterback talent in the AFC is outrageous. If we combined all the starting-AFC QBs into one mega-QB, we’d get a 30-time Pro Bowler, a six-time All-Pro, a three-time MVP, a two-time Offensive Rookie of the Year, a two-time Comeback Player of the Year, a two-time Super Bowl Champion, a one-time Offensive Player of the Year, and a one-time Super Bowl MVP. Of course, Tom Brady alone accounts for 15 Pro Bowls, six All-Pros, five MVPs, five Super Bowl MVPs, and, oh yeah seven-freaking Super Bowl rings and maybe I just wasted my time with this whole exercise…

On the other hand, while maybe our AFC mega-QB doesn’t even measure up to Tom Terrific himself, it’s still a pretty darn good collection of young quarterbacks in the American Conference, headlined by the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes, the Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen, the Baltimore Ravens’ Lamar Jackson, and of course, Joey Brrr, Joey Franchise, Joe Schiesty - our guy - Joe Burrow.

It doesn’t stop there, though. The Denver Broncos went out and added Super Bowl champion and nine-time Pro Bowler Russell Wilson. The Indianapolis Colts added former MVP Matt Ryan. The Los Angeles Chargers have the tremendously talented Justin Herbert, and the Jacksonville Jaguars, New England Patriots, New York Jets and Houston Texans will all begin the season with their second year QBs in Trevor Lawrence, Mac Jones, Zach Wilson and Davis Mills, respectively. I haven’t even mentioned Pro Bowlers like David Carr or Ryan Tannehill yet, either.

There’s already a lot of proven talent in this conference, but there’s so much more potential. Burrow is 25 years old. So is Lamar. Allen and Mahomes are 26. Herbert is 24. You could make an argument that none of these players is even in their prime.

Still, even in a conference this talented, the Bengals remain a top threat, bringing back the most explosive offense in the NFL. This offense had a fatal flaw, though.

If the 2021 Bengals’ offense was a fighter jet, it ruled the skies with speed and precision strikes, not with brute strength and power. In 2022, it's like the Bengals’ fighter jet just got all new titanium-reinforced armor.

The 2021 Bengals were ultimately held back by a severely undermanned offensive line. In 2022, the team will feature three new starters from free agency and potentially another from the incoming draft class. The unit is much improved, and with the Bengals returning all of their top skill position players on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball, they look like the team to beat in the AFC.

With that said, there will be serious competition. Here’s my ranking on the top competitors to the Bengals in the AFC in 2022:

Tier One - Buffalo Bills, Kansas City Chiefs

If I had to put one ahead of the other, I’ll go with the Bills as the more likely team to supplant the Bengals as the AFC’s representative in the Super Bowl, even though they lost to the Chiefs in the AFC Divisional Round. Outside of Cincinnati, the Bills might have the most complete, and youth-filled, roster in the NFL.

It all starts with the big man under center for the Bills: QB Josh Allen. The 6’5’’, 237-pound freight-train combines a cannon of an arm with almost-Cam Newton-like running ability - making him perhaps the most dangerous player in the NFL at the QB position. In 2021, the fifth-year pro passed for 4,407 yards and 35 touchdowns and rushed for 763 yards, 6 rushing touchdowns and led the league at 6.3 yards per carry. Somehow, this guy wasn’t voted into the Pro Bowl last year - but hey, I guess that means he and Joe Burrow have something in common!

The Bills’ offense isn’t just a one-man show, however. Veteran wide receiver Stephon Diggs went to the Pro Bowl last year. Third-year receiver Gabriel Davis had a career high 201 receiving yards against the Chiefs in the playoffs. Throw in consistent tight end target Dawson Knox and a stable of versatile running backs, and Allen finds himself with an exceptional skill position group.

If you can believe it, though, the Bills’ defense was actually the stronger of the two units, at least on paper. The Bills’ D finished the year ranked #1 in total defense, total yards allowed per play, passing yards, passing yards per play, first downs allowed per game, third down conversion rate and points per game. Tre’Davious White, the former two-time All-Pro selection at cornerback, returns after suffering a torn ACL in November. He will team with 2022 first-round pick Kaiir Elam, giving the Bills a solid one-two punch at the CB position.

At safety, the Bills feature probably the best duo in the NFL, even better than Cincinnati’s tandem of Jessie Bates III and Von Bell. The Bills’ strong safety, Micah Hyde, joined the team in 2017 and has been voted Second Team All-Pro twice in that span, including the 2021 season. Free safety Jordan Poyer, who also signed with the team in 2017, was just named First Team All-Pro in 2021, making the Bills the only team in the NFL with multiple All-Pros in their secondary.

But wait, if you have the top ranked, all-world defense, and two All-Pros as your last line of defense, then how in the world did it take Mahomes and the Chiefs just 13 seconds to drive into field goal range and kick a game-tying field goal as time was expiring to send the AFC Divisional Round matchup to overtime? And better yet, how does this top ranked, all-world defense put up no resistance and watch that very same Mahomes-led Chiefs’ offense complete five of five pass attempts and go the length of the field for a game-sealing touchdown, huh? What am I missing here?

It just goes to show you, stats don’t always tell you the full story - and this Bills’ defense wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Furthermore, defense in the NFL is typically subject to regression from season to season. It’s likely that the Bills’ defense, at least statistically, will not be as dominant as they were in 2021. Still, as the Bengals’ defense demonstrated in the playoffs last year, you don’t have to be a top ranked unit to make game-changing plays - just ask Germaine Pratt, Eli Apple and Von Bell.

There’s still lots of potential here, though. Allen gives the Bills a Get Out of Jail Free card on offense with his dual-threat running and passing. Diggs is just about as good as it gets at the WR position and Davis is a big-time up-and-comer. If White returns from his ACL injury in good order, and Elam can handle NFL wideouts like he did at Florida, they should combine with Hyde and Poyer to form the very best secondary in the NFL. The Bills are scary, and they will be in the mix at the end of the year.

The Chiefs are the other top threat to the Bengals in the conference, although I would put them just behind the Bills. Now, my instinct was actually to put the Chiefs in the tier below the Bills, but the institutional knowledge and excellence in Kansas City was just too strong to ignore.

While this team went through significant changes in the offseason, there are still two familiar faces clad in red and gold: head coach Andy Reid and QB Patrick Mahomes.

Reid returns for his twenty-fourth season as a head coach in the NFL, Mahomes for his sixth season as signal-caller for the Chiefs. Since taking over as the full-time QB in 2018, all Mahomes and Reid have done is combined for 50 regular season wins, eight playoffs wins, two Super Bowl appearances and a championship. If you ask me, they’ve had more than enough success. It’s time to move aside, Chiefs.

Yeah, right. That’ll do it, Ian. Just ask them nicely.

If I’m being honest, I expect the Chiefs, like the Bills, to be right there at the very end. Still though, this team did go through significant changes in the offseason, and none was bigger than the trade of former top WR Tyreek Hill to the Miami Dolphins in exchange for draft capital.

Hill, along with TE Travis Kelce, who remains with the Chiefs, was one of Mahomes’ top targets. The three-time First Team All-Pro selection earned the nickname “Cheetah” for a reason, and it isn’t because he’s got spots. Since entering the NFL in 2016, Hill has over 6,000 receiving yards and scored 62 total touchdowns. He’s led the NFL in yards per touch from scrimmage twice in his career. He’s undoubtedly one of the most dangerous players in the NFL with the ball in his hands. The Chiefs are going to miss him.

But it’s not like the Chiefs stood pat. They went out and signed two wide outs in free agency: JuJu Smith-Schuster from the Pittsburgh Steelers and Marquez Valdes-Scantling from the Green Bay Packers. However, neither of these players brings anywhere close to the ceiling of Hill, and both have been somewhat disappointing over the last few seasons.

Smith-Schuster, a sixth-year pro out of the University of Southern California, burst onto the scene in 2017, combining with Antonio Brown to give Pittsburgh one of the best WR units in the NFL. Smith-Schuster caught 58 passes that season for 917 yards, helping the Steelers to a 13 - 3 record and a first-place finish in the AFC North. He followed up his impressive freshman campaign with an even better year in 2018, catching 111 passes for 1,426 yards and seven TDs. It looked like Smith-Schuster was well on his way to being the next great Steelers’ WR.

It wasn’t meant to be. At the start of the 2019 season, the Steelers traded Brown to the Las Vegas Raiders, promoting Smith-Schuster to #1 on the depth chart. Things, uh… didn’t go well for the third-year pro. Smith-Schuster would go on to have his worst season as a pro up to that point, catching a career-low 42 passes for just 552 yards.

While he would rebound slightly in 2020, Smith-Schuster’s career decline continued in 2021, as he struggled with a shoulder injury that kept him out of 12 regular season games. He would return for the Steelers postseason matchup versus the Chiefs, but he was a non-factor with just 26 yards receiving in the game.

Valdes-Scantling, meanwhile, has yet to put together a solid and consistent season, despite catching passes from All-Universe QB Aaron Rodgers while with the Packers. Valdes-Scantling brings an intriguing combination of size (6’4’’) and speed (4.37 in the 40-yard-dash) to the WR-position, but in his four years in the NFL, he has yet to record more than 38 catches or 690 receiving yards in a single season. 2021 was possibly his worst season to date, as he tied a career-low with 26 receptions, had a career-low 460 receiving yards, and only three touchdowns.

Still, there might not be a QB more suited to getting the best out of Valdes-Scantling than the rocket-armed Mahomes. The 2018 MVP has made a name for himself by finding the streaking downfield target and hitting him with an absolute laser. If anyone can turn Valdes-Scantling into a suitable starting-caliber WR, it's Mahomes. Otherwise, it could be curtains for Valdes-Scantling’s career after KC.

In the NFL draft, the Chiefs spent much of the draft capital they received in the Hill trade to replenish their depleted defense. They spent two first round picks on defenders who will be expected to make an impact in 2022, CB Trent McDuffie out of Washington and DE George Karlaftis out of Purdue. While neither project to be a superstar, they both bring toughness and competitiveness to their positions, and will undoubtedly raise the floor of the unit. How high they can raise this unit’s ceiling, however, remains to be seen.

On the bright-side for Chiefs’ fans, the team finally let go of perpetually out-of-position safety Daniel Sorensen, who was single-handedly responsible for Ja’Marr Chase’s 69-yard touchdown reception in the Chiefs’ Week 17 matchup versus the Bengals. As a replacement, the Chiefs brought in fourth-year pro Justin Reid from the Houston Texans. It’s too bad, really. I could have watched Ja’Marr run past a bewildered Sorensen for the next five year easily.

Tier Two - Los Angeles Chargers, Tennessee Titans

Talk about two teams on opposite trajectories. The Chargers are led by one of the most exciting young QBs in the NFL in Justin Herbert. The Titans have…Ryan Tannehill. The Chargers play in sunny Los Angeles. The Titans play in Nashville, which in so many ways is exactly like a discount, Midwest/Southern, country-music leaning version of Los Angeles.

Basically what I’m trying to say is the Chargers look like a team on the rise this year. The Titans look like the team on a bit of a downward slide. Still though, these are two teams I expect to be in the mix come playoff time, although I find them to be slightly less complete than the Chiefs, Bills or Bengals.

With Herbert at the helm, second-year head coach Brandon Staley on the sidelines, and a host of new additions on defense, the Chargers have been tabbed as a potential threat to the top teams in the AFC. Many expect this team to finally dethrone the Chiefs as kings in the AFC West. We’re still a long way off from seeing how valid these claims are, but on the surface, it’s hard to ignore all the talent on this Chargers’ team.

It all starts, like so many top NFL teams, with the QB. Herbert, like Mahomes and Allen, brings tremendous physical gifts to the position. The #6 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft and 2020 Offensive Rookie of the Year built on his inaugural season by following it up with a Pro Bowl selection in 2021. You hear that Joe Burrow? A QB in your draft class was voted Rookie of the Year over you and has been voted to a Pro Bowl before you. I’m sure he’s aware.

Like the other top AFC teams, the Chargers’ offense doesn’t begin and end with the QB. Herbert is flanked by two excellent WRs in five-time Pro Bowler Keenan Allen and sixth-year pro Mike Williams, who is fresh off signing a 3-year, $60 million contract-extension in the offseason. Add in the pass-catching dynamo at running back Austin Eckler and second-year stud at left tackle Rashawn Slater, and you have an offense that can get downfield in a hurry.

While the offense provided a lot of fireworks for the Chargers in 2021, the defense couldn’t hold up. The run defense, in particular, was atrocious, ranking in the bottom five in total rushing yards allowed, rushing yards allowed per game, rushing yards allowed per carry, rushing touchdowns allowed, and first downs allowed by run plays. In other words, they couldn’t stop a nosebleed.

To remedy this, the Chargers were extremely active in free agency and on the trade market. They went out and signed defensive tackles Sebastian Joseph-Day and Austin Johnson to plug up holes and linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Troy Reader to chase after ball carriers. They traded with the Chicago Bears for four-time All-Pro outside linebacker Khalil Mack to give them some more juice in the pass rush department. Finally, the team signed former New England Patriots’ stud CB J.C. Jackson, who has totaled 17 interceptions over the past two seasons, more than any other player in the NFL and, for reference, more interceptions in two seasons than even “Prime Time” Deion Sanders ever had.

The Jackson signing, in particular, stands out to me for the “boom or bust” potential. On the surface, Jackson seems like a no-brainer - a 26-year-old CB with ball skills, coached by Bill Belichick and with Super Bowl experience to boot. But why would Belichick allow an undrafted player he developed into a ballhawking, Pro Bowl-caliber player to walk out the door for nothing?

This is nagging at me. Belichick is renowned for letting players go a year too early instead of a year too late. Is it Jackson’s frame? He’s not a particularly imposing player, standing at just 5’10’’ and weighing just under 200 pounds. Was he lucky to get all those interceptions? Maybe some of them, but you don’t just luck into 17 over a two-year span.

I can’t shake the feeling that we’ve already seen the peak of J.C. Jackson. Now, he’ll be expected to replicate that production in a new defensive system, in a new city across the country, all while dealing with the pressure of being handed a brand-new five-year, $82.5 million contract, making him one of the best-compensated CBs in the NFL.

That said, the Cleveland Browns just made CB Denzel Ward the highest paid corner in the NFL this offseason, giving him a 5-year, $100.5 million contract extension with $71.25 guaranteed. Ward, who also entered the NFL in 2018, has 10 interceptions in his entire career, so maybe the Chargers are actually geniuses. On the other hand, maybe the Browns are just incompetent. I’m leaning towards the latter.

The Tennessee Titans are still reeling from their disappointing performance versus the Bengals in the AFC Divisional Round. QB Ryan Tannehill has talked about having to go to therapy and being in a “dark place” following the teams’ playoff exit. I have to wonder why this loss affected him so severely, though. Is it because he never, not in a million years, expected to lose to the lowly-Bengals? That’d be my guess.

At the same time, I can’t discount the Titans completely, given their track record over the last few seasons and the dominance of their run game, featuring Derrick Henry, the 6’3’’ 247-pound freight-train at running back. Although he missed nine regular season games with a Jones fracture in his foot, Henry still managed to ninth in the NFL with 937 rushing yards and tied for fifth with 10 rushing touchdowns. The two-time All-Pro and 2020 NFL Offensive Player of the Year remains, along with the Indianapolis Colts’ Jonathan Taylor, one of the two best RBs in the NFL.

The Titans did, however, experience one significant departure. During the 2022 NFL Draft, the Titans traded Pro Bowl WR A.J. Brown to the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for draft capital. Brown, who was the Titans’ second round pick in 2019, has blossomed into one of the more dynamic WRs in the NFL, a player equally adept at hauling in difficult downfield passes as he is taking short throws the distance with his combination of speed, strength and quickness.

The Titans, and Tannehill in particular, will miss him dearly. As a replacement, the Titans used the 18th pick, which they received as part of the Brown deal, to select Arkansas WR Treylon Burkes, who many draft analysts compared to Brown, himself. But it’s hard to imagine that Burkes will step in right where Brown left off, especially in his first season in the NFL. Burkes might turn out to be a solid player, but at least in the short-term, the Titan’s WR-unit is diminished.

Later in the draft, the Titans made the decision to trade up for QB Malik Willis in the third round. The 23-year-old QB out of Liberty was projected by many to be a first-round pick, if not approaching the top ten. Instead, he fell all the way to pick #86, where the Titans made their move to secure their QB of the future. This put Tannehill, who as I mentioned previously was already going through it in the offseason, in a very precarious position.

Tannehill inadvertently added fuel to the fire when he told reporters at a Titans’ press conference that he didn’t believe it was his job to mentor Willis. Talking heads around the NFL objected - things like “bad teammate” and “selfish” were tossed around in Tannehill’s direction. But come on. It’s not the dude’s job to coach up a rookie QB. That’s the coach's job, duh. At the same time, it wasn’t exactly the warm welcome Willis or the Titans probably hoped for and expected. We will see if Tannehill is mentally strong enough to overcome last year’s disastrous ending and the sudden lack of confidence the Titans are showing in the 2019 Comeback Player of the Year.

Tier Three - Baltimore Ravens, Oakland Raiders, Denver Broncos, Indianapolis Colts

Four teams reside in tier three of the top AFC competitors to the Cincinnati Bengals. While they all have some flaws in their rosters, each starts with a solid signal-caller under center. For the Ravens, that’s the 2019 NFL MVP Lamar Jackson.

While he had his first injury-riddled season in 2021, Jackson still remains one of the most dangerous QBs in the NFL, especially when running the ball. Despite missing five games, Jackson still combined for 3,649 rushing and passing yards and 18 total touchdowns. On the flip side, Jackson struggled with turnovers in 2021, throwing a career high 13 interceptions and losing three fumbles. If the Ravens are going to compete with the Bengals in 2022, they will need the best version of Lamar, not the inconsistent, banged-up 2021 version.

Banged-up doesn’t just describe Jackson this past season - you could say the same thing about darn near the whole roster. The Ravens finished the season with a league-high 19 players on injured reserve, including both starting corners in Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, starting safety DeShon Elliott, starting left tackle Ronnie Stanley, and running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards. Each of these players is expected to return to full strength with the Ravens in 2022.

The Raiders, meanwhile, put together one of the more memorable runs of the 2021 season, overcoming tragedy and embarrassment in equal measure. In October of 2021, emails surfaced from ex-head coach Jon Gruden, where the former Super Bowl champion used racist and misogynistic language when corresponding with then-Washington Redskins General Manager Bruce Allen. Gruden resigned shortly after the story surfaced, but remains in the NFL spotlight as he moves forward with a defamation lawsuit against the NFL.

The worst moment of the season for the Raiders, and the entire NFL, for that matter, was when second year WR Henry Ruggs III crashed his Corvette while going over 125 mph into the back of a stationary Toyota RAV4. Tina Tintor, a 23-year-old Las Vegas resident and driver of the RAV4, was killed in the crash, along with her dog. Ruggs, who was drunk, is facing multiple felony charges and could spend more than twenty years in prison.

It was a dark time for the Raiders, but instead of crumbling, they united together to finish with a wild card spot in the playoffs. They would, of course, go on to lose to the Bengals in heartbreaking fashion, as Bengals’ linebacker Germaine Pratt intercepted QB Derek Carr at the goal line to seal the victory. Still, it was an incredible achievement for the Raiders to have made the playoffs, let alone nearly knock off the eventual AFC representatives in the Super Bowl.

In the offseason, the Raiders made two huge splashes, signing free agent defensive end Chandler Jones from the Arizona Cardinals to pair with 2021 All-Pro DE Maxx Crosby, and trading with the Green Bay Packers for All-Pro WR and former college teammate of Carr’s, Davante Adams.

Jones, a First Team All-Pro in 2017 and 2019, has been one of the most consistent sack-artists in the NFL over the last 10 years, recording at least 10.5 sacks in seven seasons, including 2021. At the same time, there is some cause for concern. Those 10.5 sacks Jones picked up in 2021? He had five in Week 1. Now, don’t get me wrong, anyone who can collect five sacks in a single game isn’t someone to be trifled with, but the fact that he could only muster five and a half in the 14 remaining games he played…well, I have my doubts, especially as Jones, who turned 32 in February, goes into his 11th season as a pro.

Adams, meanwhile, seems like a perfect fit with the Raiders, as they’ve needed a #1 wideout for some time now. If Carr and Adams can recapture their college magic, the Raiders will be the team to beat in the AFC West - not KC, not the Chargers and not Denver. Back in 2017, their final season together at Fresno State, Carr threw for 5,083 yards, 50 TDs and 8 INTs while Adams finished the year with 131 receptions for 1,718 yards and 24 TDs. Talk about a serious connection.

At the same time, it’s hard to believe that any QB-WR connection could be any better than Aaron Rodgers to Davante Adams. In their time together, Rodgers and Adams combined for five First Team All-Pro selections, 12 Pro Bowl appearances, and boatloads of yards and touchdowns. Carr isn’t Rodgers. Carr and Adams might have had an elite college connection, but Rodgers and Adams had an elite professional connection. We will see if Carr is up to the task.

The final member of the AFC West to be mentioned is the Denver Broncos, who went out and traded for nine-time Pro Bowl QB Russell Wilson to replace the disappointing combination of Teddy Bridgewater and Drew Lock. Wilson, who helped lead the Seattle Seahawks to a Super Bowl victory in 2014, is one of the better QBs in the NFL and a massive upgrade for the Broncos from 2021.

As I’ve written before, though, I’m skeptical about how strong the Broncos’ skill position players are, especially compared to the players Wilson is leaving in Seattle. Here’s some of the projected skill position players for the Broncos in 2022: WR Jerry Jeudy, WR Courtland Sutton, WR Tim Patrick, WR K.J. Hamler, RB Javonte Williams, RB Melvin Gordon, TE Albert Okwuegbunam. Solid, but not spectacular. Here’s some of the projected skill position players for the Seahawks: WR D.K. Metcalf, WR Tyler Lockett, TE Noah Fant, RB Rashaad Penny, rookie RB Kenneth Walker III. That’s a more appealing bunch to me, at least on paper, and especially Seattle’s top two wideouts, Metcalf and Lockett. In fact, I’d rather have Metcalf and Lockett than any combination of two Bronco skill position players.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Broncos are, again, maybe not as stout as many expect. While the team did finish eighth in the NFL in total yards allowed, they finished a disappointing 14th in NFL in yards allowed per offensive play and 21st in the NFL in takeaways with 19. Longtime DE Von Miller was traded midseason, and head coach Vic Fangio, a defensive guru, was replaced by former Green Bay Packers’ offensive coordinator Nathanial Hackett. Given that defensive performance is notoriously hard to replicate from year to year, I expect Denver’s defense to regress somewhat in 2022.

Lastly, we have the Indianapolis Colts, who, along with the Chargers, did not reach the playoffs in 2021. It looked like the Colts had a playoff appearance in the bag by Week 18, as all they had to do to punch their ticket was to defeat the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars, who were 2 - 14 going into the matchup. The Jaguars won a shocking 26 - 11 victory over the Colts, where the Jags controlled the game from the get-go, taking a 13 - 3 lead at halftime and a 23 - 3 lead going into the fourth quarter.

After the dust had settled, Colts’ owner Jim Irsay had seen enough of QB Carson Wentz, and shipped him to the newly minted Washington Commanders. Using some of the draft capital they received in the Wentz-trade, the Colts then traded for longtime Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan. While no longer in his MVP form of 2016, Ryan is still a consistent and accurate QB. He may not have Wentz’s arm strength or athleticism, but Ryan’s decision-making is miles ahead of the former Eagles and Colts QB.

The Colts also return the 2021 First Team All-Pro at running back Jonathan Taylor. The third-year pro paced the NFL with 1,811 rushing yards on a whopping 332 carries - the next closest competitor was the Browns’ Nick Chubb, who finished the year with 1,259 rushing yards. Taylor has an outstanding mix of long-speed, agility, and power, which he uses to befuddle defensive coordinators, linebackers and anyone else who even thinks about stopping the 226 lbs. beast of a RB.

The Colts’ talent doesn't stop at RB, though. For a team that missed the playoffs, they were well represented on the All-Pro and Pro Bowl rosters, with five players being named First or Second Team All Pro, and seven players being voted to the Pro Bowl. Linebacker Darius Leonard earned his third First Team All-Pro nomination of his short career, while guard Quenton Nelson earned his first Second Team All-Pro nomination, after being named to the First Team the three years prior.

Still, it’s hard to overlook the fact that this team had a playoff opportunity in their grasp, and they let it slip right out of their fingertips. Irsay can put the blame on Wentz, but he wasn’t the only culprit who led to the Colts’ Week 18 downfall. The Colts’ defense, which finished 10th in the NFL in points allowed per game at 21.5, was pitiful against an anemic Jaguars offense, which finished with the fewest points scored in the entire NFL. Taylor, who at times looked unstoppable against even the stoutest defenses, was held to just 77 yards rushing.

After going through the different competitors, I still feel strongly that the Bengals are the best team in the AFC, with only the Bills as a true peer. Kansas City will still be strong, I have no doubt, but last year’s early-season hiccup was an indication that their position as undisputed kings of the conference is over. The AFC West looks like a gauntlet. The AFC North is no picnic either, although I think the Steelers take a step back in 2022 and I’ve made my feelings about the Browns well known at this point.

All signs point to another strong season from the Bengals. As long as Joe Burrow is throwing passes to Ja’Marr Chase, I like their chances. Who Dey!

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