Over the past two seasons, the Kansas City Chiefs have placed themselves firmly atop the AFC throne, overlooking the rest of the conference with the smug confidence of a king – and rightfully so. Hosting three straight AFC Championship games at Arrowhead Stadium, winning the past two, and lifting a Lombardi Trophy earns them that right. The lead-up to this season mirrors that of the past two, with media and fans alike across the country claiming their favorite AFC team has was it takes to overtake the Chiefs and claim the crown.
Since the beginning of the 2019 season, fans have gushed about their team’s chances to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, only to have their souls crushed by Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs – literally crushed. What the rest of the AFC seems to forget every year is how badly each and every one of those contenders was slain by the sword that is Mahomes’ right arm. To quote Cersei Lannister, “When you play the game of thrones, you win, or you die,” and the past two seasons, the Chiefs have won the game of thrones every time.
In 2019, the Baltimore Ravens and Houston Texans were touted as the teams who could challenge the Chiefs. In Week 3 of that year, Lamar Jackson and Baltimore marched to Arrowhead only to find themselves down 30-14 entering the fourth quarter before scoring two garbage-time touchdowns at the end. In the divisional round of the playoffs, Houston brought in their own young field general in quarterback Deshaun Watson but still gave up 51 points and lost by 20.
Last year, it was again Houston and Baltimore who were billed as preseason darlings. Kansas City disposed of them by identical 34-20 scores in the first three weeks of the season. As the season progressed, the excitement around up-and-coming young teams like the Cleveland Browns and the Buffalo Bills took form and peaked come playoff time. In the divisional round, Cleveland found themselves down 22-10 in the third quarter when Mahomes was knocked out of the game with an apparent concussion and still lost to his replacement, 35-year-old Chad Henne-Thing-Is-Possible.
The following week in the AFC Championship Game, the Bills came to Kansas City, and there weren’t enough broken folding tables in the world to help ease the pain of the 38-24 defeat that ensued – it was a bloodbath, to say the least.
Watching your team play the Chiefs the past two seasons must have been akin to watching the red wedding episode over and over again, and each time always hoping, wishing, that Robb Stark had a chance to survive this time.
The build-up to this season looks no different when debating how the AFC might shake out. Sure, the Chiefs remain the heavy favorite, with Vegas Insider placing them at +200 to lift the Lamar Hunt trophy for a third consecutive season. But with a new year brings renewed hope for the rest of the AFC, and the three teams with the best odds to de-throne the Chiefs – the Bills, Ravens, and Browns – each have a chance to prove themselves early this season. All three find themselves on Kansas City’s schedule within the first five weeks of the season. All three are lurking in the shadows… but is winter really coming?
The Bills mostly return the same lineup from a year ago, mostly adding a few depth players via free agency. The only real splash they made was signing Emmanuel Sanders, which was simply a replacement for the departing John Brown. After losing by 14 points to Kansas City in last year’s AFC Championship Game, the lack of significant additions should be deflating for Bills fans as they wonder how to bridge the gap of a 14-point defeat through simple improvement of the current roster.
The same can be said for the Baltimore Ravens, who have been a trendy pick to knock off the Chiefs because of their strong defense and the dual-threat Jackson at quarterback. However, they’ve possessed those same weapons the past two seasons and still haven’t come close to threatening for the AFC crown. Moreover, their biggest addition this off-season was perhaps the oft-injured Sammy Watkins. With a rash of season-ending injuries already impacting their starting lineup before the season has even begun, it’s hard to imagine Kansas City not being heavy favorites again as they march into Baltimore in Week 2.
Some credit can be given to Cleveland, as they completely revamped their defense following their playoff loss to Kansas City last season after being sliced and diced by the Chiefs offense through three and a half quarters. Only three starters from that divisional-round game return for Cleveland heading into this Sunday’s season opener at Arrowhead. They’ve added impact defenders such as Jadeveon Clowney on the edge and Josh Johnson III at safety and spent over half their draft picks on the defensive side of the ball, including with their top two picks.
But is that enough? Are the Browns simply adding men to their army only to realize on Sunday the other team still has a fire-breathing dragon at quarterback in Mahomes? The Chiefs boast a significantly improved offensive line, along with more depth on defense than ever before during the Mahomes era.
Sure, it’s a new season, and anything can happen, but until one of the other contenders beats Kansas City, or for that matter simply keeps a game close with them, the crown sits firmly upon the collective heads of Chiefs Kingdom. In the words of Daenerys Targaryen, “My Reign Has Just Begun.”
On Sunday, the Game of Thrones continues.