It seemed on a frenzied January night in Kansas City as though the AFC title would be decided by the toss of a coin.
That the Chiefs were stunned by the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC Championship Game said a great deal for the strength in depth of the conference.
The NFC may still have the defending Super Bowl champions, but there are no shortage of contenders here – including as many as four in one wild division out west.
The Chiefs and the Bills would both have been hugely disheartened by the manner in which their seasons ended. Kansas City had the fortune that deserted Buffalo but were unable to make the most of their reprieve against the Bengals.
But that will merely make Mahomes and Josh Allen two of the more motivated superstars heading into the new season.
Mahomes is now without Tyreek Hill, yet the Chiefs' offensive line went from strength to strength as last season wore on, ranking third in pass protection win percentage by the year's end. Stats Perform AI data projects a 26.0 per cent likelihood Kansas City make the Super Bowl – the most probable outcome in the AFC.
Meanwhile, Allen showed in that playoff blockbuster he can be every bit a match for Mahomes at his best. He threw nine touchdown passes across his two playoff games; no player had previously thrown more than seven while playing two games or fewer in a single postseason.
Allen will hope not to get the chance to better that record, this year targeting a run that goes far beyond the Divisional Round. The Bills have an AFC-leading 88.7 per cent chance of making the playoffs and trail only the Chiefs in terms of their potential for a run to the Super Bowl (18.7 per cent).
In the mix
The Bengals of course have to be considered after pushing the Los Angeles Rams all the way, while the Tennessee Titans actually matched the Chiefs for the best regular season record in the AFC despite Derrick Henry being limited to eight games, although the trade of receiver A.J. Brown to the Philadelphia Eagles may restrict their ceiling on offense and their ability to compete this year. Stats Perform AI gives the Titans just a 30.7 per cent hope of reaching the postseason.
Deshaun Watson's suspension will give the Cleveland Browns work to do just to make the playoffs, but they may well be a serious threat if they get there – hence their 13.3 per cent shot at coming out of the AFC as conference champions.
A conference packed with quarterback talent also includes former MVP Lamar Jackson, who is fit again and looking to set the Baltimore Ravens back on course after a difficult 2021 in which they finished bottom of the AFC North.
But if the Chiefs are the team to beat, perhaps one of their division rivals can cause an upset. Each of the Los Angeles Chargers, the Denver Broncos and the Las Vegas Raiders have reasons to be optimistic.
Four contenders in the wild, wild AFC West
The Chiefs have won the AFC West six years in a row, but there is no guarantee that will become seven. The scale of the challenge before Kansas City represents a big boost to their AFC rivals – and to the neutrals, licking their lips at a must-watch season-long tussle.
Justin Herbert has long looked like making the Chargers contenders, with just the 14th 5,000-yard passing season in league history helping his offense finish fourth in the league in yards per game (390.2) and fifth in total points scored (747) last season. Crucially, the Chargers have added defensive help in the form of Khalil Mack and J.C. Jackson now, too.
Yet their offseason work perhaps pales next to that of the Broncos and the Raiders.
Wilson left the Seattle Seahawks for Denver, who promptly handed him a huge contract, clearly feeling he and Nathaniel Hackett can be the QB-coach combo they have been missing to return them to the postseason.
Support for that belief comes from Wilson's performance in quarterback Efficiency Versus Expected (EVE), which measures a signal-caller's performance in expected passing situations against the league average. Despite playing only 14 games on a Seahawks team who finished in the NFC West cellar, Wilson was still 13th in EVE, just behind Tom Brady.
Meanwhile, Adams has reunited with former Fresno State team-mate Derek Carr on the Raiders, with Stats Perform's positional rankings subsequently considering Las Vegas to have the most talented skill players in the NFL.
The Chiefs will undoubtedly now be made to work for the division after years of dominance. Of the seven AFC teams considered most likely to make the Super Bowl, four come from the AFC West.
Lamar out to right last year's wrongs
With half of the conference potentially in contention for a Super Bowl run, there is perhaps no true sleeper pick, but the Ravens will expect to go from worst to first in their division, and only the Chiefs and the Bills have more realistic hopes of a meeting with the best the NFC has to offer next February (16.0 per cent).
Much will depend on a return to form for dual-threat superstar Jackson.
Baltimore were firmly on course for the playoffs at the time of the ankle injury that kept Jackson out of the run-in in 2021, collapsing thereafter. However, it had already been by far the QB's worst season as a regular starter.
After 3,127 passing yards and 36 passing TDs and 1,206 rushing yards and seven rushing TDs in his MVP season of 2019, Jackson had regressed slightly in 2020 and struggled further last year both through the air and on the ground.
In 12 games, Jackson threw just 16 TDs to 13 interceptions, while his 767 rushing yards saw him finish second among QBs to Jalen Hurts – a category he had dominated in the previous two campaigns.
Everything the Ravens do when they are good goes through Jackson, so his performance level will make or break their season.
Can Tua turn his fortunes around?
With the wealth of talent at the top of the AFC, there must also be some dregs at the bottom. The Miami Dolphins might fear they belong instead to that category, given only the New York Jets (6.9) and the Houston Texans (4.8) are projected for fewer wins (7.0).
The Dolphins made their own big move this offseason, taking elite receiver Hill out of the AFC West to give Tua Tagovailoa little excuse in his third season.
Hill got open on 82.7 per cent of his targets last season, with those skills of separation sure to come in useful when attempting to link up with a passer in Tagovailoa who threw to an open target just 73.8 per cent of the time.
The Dolphins are not expecting Tagovailoa to be Mahomes, but they need him to be much better than he has been thus far for this project to work.