Five biggest questions in AFC entering 2019 NFL season

The tremors resulting from Andrew Luck's stunning retirement are going to be felt throughout the AFC in 2019. Before the four-time Pro Bowl quarterback's decision to quit the game became known on Aug. 24, the Indianapolis Colts were widely considered a legitimate threat to return to the Super Bowl. Now that he's gone, it might be that the Colts are just a middling team, one hoping new QB1 Jacoby Brissett can be productive while they try to figure out whether he or someone else will be their long-term solution for the position. This much is certain: Luck's retirement was the kind of unexpected news that left every other contender in the conference feeling much better about its chances.

While it likely is hard right now for even the most optimistic Colts fans to think this year will be a rewarding one, that doesn't mean there aren't other teams with major issues to deal with as the regular season nears. In fact, here are five of the most compelling questions that linger in the AFC with the NFL's annual Thursday Night Kickoff right around the corner. Don't worry -- we have the answers to five big NFC questions, too.

1) Is this the year when Tom Brady finally falls apart?

Skeptics have been asking that question for quite a while now, and it's still dangerous to doubt him now that he's 42 years old and coming off his sixth Super Bowl win. Yes, he is getting older. Yes, his life will be harder with four-time All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski now retired. Those are facts, but it doesn't mean that Brady has reached a point where he can't lead the Patriots to another championship. He still takes incredible care of his body, and he's also playing in an era when quarterbacks are more protected than ever.

What's gained even less notoriety outside of New England is how shrewdly head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels have adjusted as Brady has aged. The team that beat the Rams in Super Bowl LIII bore a striking resemblance to the ones that Brady led in his younger years, when he was known more as a promising game manager than a future first-ballot Hall of Famer. New England ran the ball more, relied more on its defense and depended on Brady to make the necessary plays when it mattered most. If the Patriots keep doing that, Brady will be just fine.

2) Do the Chiefs have enough on defense?

It's best to wait and see on this one. On one hand, the Chiefs have made significant changes. They hired Steve Spagnuolo to replace Bob Sutton as defensive coordinator. They switched from a 3-4 to a 4-3 as their base defense. They also have seven new starters compared to Week 1 from last season, based on the depth chart posted to the team website. What all this means is that there is new energy and optimism surrounding a unit that ranked 31st in the league last season and deserves the most blame for Kansas City losing to New England in the AFC Championship Game.

The Chiefs are hoping that new defensive end Frank Clark brings a vital intensity up front while new safety Tyrann Mathieu offers critical leadership on the back end. There are still major question marks at linebacker and cornerback, but Kansas City also doesn't need a top-10 defense to succeed. If that unit can just avoid the major issues of the past -- shoddy tackling, lousy coverage and back-breaking mental errors -- the Chiefs should ride the league's best offense to the Super Bowl.

3) Who is the best team in the AFC North?

The Cleveland Browns have big names (Baker Mayfield and Odell Beckham Jr. among them) and plenty of buzz surrounding their franchise for the first time in decades. They also have head coach Freddie Kitchens, who is in his first year on the job. He impressed as the interim offensive coordinator during the second half of last season, but he still must prove he can handle all those big personalities. That's why the smart money in this division remains on the Steelers.

Head coach Mike Tomlin has dealt with plenty of drama over the last 12 months. Now he gets to coach a team that is still good enough to contend, even after parting with a couple of those highly talented sources of drama. Running back James Conner isn't as dynamic as Le'Veon Bell but proved he could do some nice things behind a talented offensive line last season, earning a Pro Bowl nod. JuJu Smith-Schuster isn't Antonio Brown, but he had 111 receptions in 2018 (tied for sixth-most in the league), and second-year receiver James Washington has looked like a man poised for a breakout season during training camp. As for the defense, the Steelers have an assortment of athletic playmakers -- including rookie middle linebacker Devin Bush, the team's first-round pick -- who are itching to make their mark. In other words, take the Steelers for the division title and the Browns for a wild-card spot.

I haven't even mentioned the reigning AFC North champion Ravens. They have a lot to like, too, starting with second-year QB Lamar Jackson, but I foresee the team's losses on defense (Terrell Suggs, Za'Darius Smith and C.J. Mosley among them) keeping Baltimore from repeating.

4) Which under-the-radar team could surprise?

The AFC South is officially up for grabs now that Luck has retired, which means the Jacksonville Jaguars, a trendy Super Bowl pick a year ago, should be pretty excited about their chances this fall. The Jaguars were so disappointing in 2018 -- when they finished 5-11 -- that it's easy to forget how good they looked in reaching the AFC title game in 2017. A lot of key pieces from that playoff squad are still on this roster. The defense still has plenty of playmakers, even with the loss of linebacker Telvin Smith. The offense will have more talent under center now that marquee offseason addition Nick Foles has replaced Blake Bortles.

If this team can rediscover the edge and focus that drove it in '17, it's not hard to see them flourishing again. Remember, teams that thrive on running the football and playing good defense -- like Jacksonville did in '17 -- may not be as sexy as squads with high-flying passing games, but they often are built to wear the competition down, especially late in the season. The Jaguars simply need to remind themselves of what they once were.

5) Who is going to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl?

It's hard to pick against New England as long as Brady and Belichick are still working together. After all, the Patriots have played in four of the last five Super Bowls and won three of those. They also won one of those Super Bowls without Gronkowski (Super Bowl LI), so that absence might not be as difficult to overcome as some predict. They're certainly going to have plenty of competition from Kansas City and a handful of other AFC contenders. It's just hard to see them not being the most logical pick at this stage of the season.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.

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