Every team’s goal should be to win the Super Bowl. That’s why they play the game.
But some teams’ paths are a little more complicated than that. Some aren’t looking to win now, per se — if only because the current makeup of their roster won’t facilitate that goal. Others, though, know they have the means to make a championship run and will do whatever is necessary to give themselves the best shot to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
Here, we’ll break down all 16 AFC teams heading into the 2023 season into four categories: win-now, ascending, transition or rebuilding.
Win-now: Throwing all chips into the middle of the table with a short-term mindset.
Ascending: Building steam with a solid core of players, but not mortgaging the future yet.
Transition: A plan is in place and moves have been made but they’re not but not there yet
Rebuilding: Complete teardown — typically with rookie QB and a roster devoid of top-level talent.
As soon as the Ravens paid Lamar Jackson, the clock on their Super Bowl contention sped up. Baltimore went full speed ahead with the acquisition of Odell Beckham Jr. and the selection of fellow wide receiver Zay Flowers in the first round of the draft. While the Ravens may have a hard time winning the AFC North with the Bengals also in hot pursuit, this is a team who made moves to return to the playoffs.
The Bills will continue to be a Super Bowl contender unless something dramatic happens. But for now, Buffalo is heavily invested in competing for championships with its core of Stefon Diggs and Josh Allen on offense and stars like Von Miller and Tre’Davious White on defense. It’s also likely the main reason they added a pass-catching tight end in Dalton Kincaid with their first-round pick. They will make moves accordingly to keep their title hopes alive as long as possible.
Kansas City Chiefs
The trio of Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and head coach Andy Reid is enough to keep the Chiefs in win-now mode for a very long time. It’s all they really need to build playoff-caliber rosters and they’ve successfully done so since 2018. Kansas City made some prudent moves this offseason after a few key contributors left in free agency, but the Chiefs will also be the cream of the crop in the AFC until proven otherwise.
The Bengals haven’t re-signed Joe Burrow yet, but they will. For now, Cincinnati remains focused on a roster that sent them to back-to-back AFC championship games. The offensive line even improved after the addition of tackle Orlando Brown Jr. The window to win will stay wide open so long as Burrow and receivers Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins play on rookie deals. Once that ends, though, the Bengals will have some tough questions to answer.
Los Angeles Chargers
Four big offseason moves solidified the Chargers as a win-now team: The massive contract extension for Justin Herbert, the selection of receiver Quentin Johnston in the first round, the decision not to trade away running back Austin Ekeler and offensive coordinator swap of Joe Lombardi for Kellen Moore. The Chargers locked down and upgraded their offense to compete with the rest of the AFC and added defenders in free agency and the draft as well.
Last year’s blockbuster trade for wide receiver Tyreek Hill vaulted the Dolphins into this tier. And if not for Tua Tagovailoa’s concussions, Miami could be in the conversation for one of the best teams in the AFC with the Chiefs, Bengals and Bills. They very well might be in 2023, too. The offense remains pretty much the same as in 2022, as Miami reportedly failed to strike a deal for disgruntled Colts RB Jonathan Taylor, and the defense could look different schematically with Vic Fangio running the show.
New York Jets
You don’t acquire an almost 40-year-old quarterback and sign all his friends if you aren’t trying to win. It’s what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Los Angeles Rams did the year before they won their Super Bowls. The Jets looked like an ascending team this past season with a young core of Garrett Wilson, Breece Hall and Sauce Gardner but faltered with poor quarterback play and a bad running game when Hall tore his ACL. Add Aaron Rodgers and Dalvin Cook to the mix, and this is a team that has its sights set on January and February football.
Jacksonville showed at the end of the 2022 season it could hang with the rest of the AFC. A 5-0 finish, a comeback win in the wild-card round and one-score loss to the eventual Super Bowl-winning Chiefs in the playoffs is enough to keep them in the conversation. But the Jaguars haven’t made moves that would indicate they’re looking to take advantage of their situation with Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne on rookie deals. The Christian Kirk and Brandon Scherff deals as well as the Calvin Ridley trade all point to Jacksonville’s trust in its core team, though.
The Deshaun Watson trade and mega-extension is a sign the Browns are thinking big, but they looked small in Watson’s limited time with the team in 2022. Cleveland opened up a lot of salary cap space this offseason and could be poised to make big moves the rest of the year or next year if 2023 doesn’t begin the way it wants. The Browns will also be in a fight for the AFC North with the Bengals, Ravens and youthful Pittsburgh Steelers.
Speaking of the Steelers, it’s hard to gauge what they hope to accomplish in 2023. Is it simply to grow the chemistry between second-year QB Kenny Pickett and the rest of his offensive weapons? Or perhaps push for a playoff berth? This isn’t a team that’s in a position to shoot for the stars … yet. But this season should give Pittsburgh a glimpse at its future and what it’s missing.
The Broncos are a desperate team. After the Nathaniel Hackett-Russell Wilson partnership failure last year, Denver pivoted to a trade for ex-New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton. It’s hard to say if that decision will work, either, given the multitude of injuries in the Broncos’ offense. But if Year 1 in the Payton system works, the Broncos should be a team on the rise and could make a big splash to compete with the rest of the conference.
New England Patriots
This team will always be relevant with Bill Belichick at the helm, and the return of offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien means the Patriots aren’t finished yet. But there will be some growing pains for quarterback Mac Jones, who’ll be on his third offensive system since New England drafted him in 2021. The running game and defense should still be good, too. The competition, though, will be stiff in the division.
Las Vegas Raiders
The Raiders’ decision to sign quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is a sign general manager Dave Ziegler and head coach Josh McDaniels aren’t ready to tear down the team in only their second year together. And there is talent across the roster, with receiver Davante Adams and running back Josh Jacobs on offense and pass rushers Maxx Crosby and Chandler Jones on defense. The issue will be how Las Vegas bounces back from a 6-11 finish in 2022 with only a new quarterback and rookie edge rusher to show for it. The Raiders also traded away tight end Darren Waller in the process in lieu of veteran Austin Hooper and second-round rookie Michael Mayer.
There’s a chance this is the last go-around for the Ryan Tannehill-Derrick Henry era of the Titans. Both are aging players basically in the final seasons of their contracts (both have void years in 2024 and 2025, per Over The Cap). The addition of 31-year-old wideout DeAndre Hopkins could stall a rebuild for at least another season, but first-year general manager Ran Carthon could complete the fire sale if the Titans can’t make it back to the postseason.
A first-year, first-time head coach, DeMeco Ryans, with a rookie quarterback is the surest sign a team is rebuilding. Houston’s offense is chock-full of youth as well: QB C.J. Stroud, RB Dameon Pierce, and WRs Nico Collins, Tank Dell and John Metchie III are all in the first, second or third years and will all be major contributors this season. The defense is also a work in progress despite an aggressive decision to trade back up to No. 3 to take edge rusher Will Anderson after selecting Stroud No. 2 overall.
Similar to the Texans, the Colts will pair a rookie head coach with a rookie quarterback after Indianapolis hired former Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Shane Steichen and drafted Anthony Richardson with the No. 4 pick. The Colts opted not to trade away Taylor for now, so it’s not a full-scale rebuild just yet.