At the start of the season, it would have been hard to envision any team but the Kansas City Chiefs as the top seed in the AFC Playoff bracket. They were obvious AFC and Super Bowl favorites heading into the season. However, the Chiefs’ Super Bowl chances have dwindled over the course of the season to the point that they are no longer the best team in the AFC.
Who is the New Leader of the AFC Playoff Bracket?
But if the Chiefs aren’t going to sit atop the AFC Playoff bracket and be the team to beat, who is? How about the Baltimore Ravens? The Ravens Super Bowl chances have grown considerably since the start of the season when they weren’t even the favorites in their own division. But how did the fortunes of each team change and why are the Ravens now the best team in the AFC?
Kansas City’s Collapse
Of course, it would be unfair to call what the Chiefs have done this season a collapse. However, at 8-4, they aren’t steamrolling the league the way many expected. They also haven’t won back-to-back games since Week 7.
The most puzzling part is the Chiefs have one of the best defenses in the league, conceding just 17.3 points per game. Typically, the weak side of the ball for Kansas City, the Chiefs are playing well defensively but not dominating the rest of the league.
What’s the Matter with Mahomes?
While he’s used to looking superhuman, Patrick Mahomes has been downright ordinary this year. He has the lowest quarterback rating, yards per game average, and yards per attempt average of his career. Mahomes is also on track to set a new career high in interceptions and rushing yards. These trends indicate that he’s forcing things and being asked to improvise and pick up more yards with his legs.
Outside of Travis Kelce, the Chiefs haven’t been able to provide Mahomes with much help at receiver. Despite the emergence of rookie Rashee Rice, Kansas City’s wide receivers haven’t been good enough. After overcoming similar shortcomings last season, Mahomes hasn’t been able to do so this year, even with the Kansas City defense stepping up and pulling its weight for once.
Jackson At His Best
Meanwhile, Mahomes’ worst season is conceding with the best season of Lamar Jackson’s career in Baltimore. As a former MVP himself, Jackson has set a high bar.
However, he’s on pace to set a new career high for passing yards while also setting a career-high for completion percentage. That means Jackson is being more productive and more efficient as a passer while also throwing fewer interceptions than almost every other starting quarterback in the league. As usual, Jackson is helping to lead the best rushing attack in the NFL. But he’s simultaneously taken a big step forward as a passer.
Same Baltimore Defense
While Jackson is having the best season of his career, the Ravens have also gotten back to the top of the league defensively. For years, Baltimore has been a force defensively, and those days are back.
The Ravens have allowed the fewest points and the second-fewest yards in the NFL while accumulating the most sacks. In 12 games, they’ve held five opponents to 10 points or less, including several teams in the playoff hunt. This leaves no question that the Baltimore defense is for real.
Setting the Standard
Of course, the AFC playoff race is far from settled with the Jaguars and Dolphins joining the Chiefs and Ravens in the hunt for the top seed. But heading down the stretch, the Chiefs have been replaced by the Ravens as the top team in the conference. While the Chiefs are struggling to find themselves, the Ravens have won six of their last seven games and have the best point differential in the conference.
More importantly, Mahomes is not at his best right now, which means the Chiefs aren’t either. With a former MVP like Jackson having his best season and being supported by the NFL’s best defense, there should be no question the Ravens have surpassed Kansas City as the best team in the AFC.