Analysis

One thing each AFC team can do to earn spot in Super Bowl LIV

Super Bowl LIII's nearly upon us, but 30 teams already have begun the effort to reach Miami next February for Super Bowl LIV. Here's one thing each AFC team can do to finally supplant the New England Patriots as conference champions.

Baltimore Ravens: Rebuild their defense on the fly.Ascendant general manager Eric DeCosta is taking over the franchise at a challenging time. While attention will naturally be focused on quarterback Lamar Jackson's development, maintaining the team's top-flight defense without allowing it to get too old will be a bigger challenge. A valuable chunk of the front seven -- Terrell Suggs (36 years old), C.J. Mosley (26), Za'Darius Smith (26) and Brent Urban (27) -- is set to hit free agency. Most of their veteran starting secondary -- cornerbacks Jimmy Smith (30) and Brandon Carr (32), along with safeties Tony Jefferson (27) and Eric Weddle (34) -- have contracts that could put them at risk to be released. One way or another, this defense is going to look a lot different next season.

Buffalo Bills: Give Josh Allen a chance. This is not the space to debate Allen's ultimate landing spot in the football cosmos. Coach Sean McDermott and GM Brandon Beane are tied to the seventh overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, just like previous regimes were tied to quarterbacks EJ Manuel and J.P. Losman. For Allen to succeed, every position group on the Bills offense needs to get better. With huge holes on the offensive line and at wide receiver, Beane should invest free-agent dollars and draft picks in finding talent that fits with Allen. Buffalo has already announced that veteran RB LeSean McCoy, Allen's biggest supporter, will be back.

Cincinnati Bengals: Make Andy Dalton better by doing the same to his surroundings.Andy Dalton remains superior to the alternatives at quarterback, in part because of a low-cost contract and an uninspiring free-agent market and draft class at the position. Would Joe Flacco really be an improvement? Even if the Bengals use a draft pick on someone to eventually challenge Dalton, the Red Rifle is very likely to be the Week 1 starter in 2019. That means it's up to expected head coach Zac Taylor and new coordinator Brian Callahan to make Dalton better. Both bring offensive mindsets, and the expected arrival of Callahan's father, Bill, to coach the offensive line may be the best news yet. Putting an improved offensive line out there with A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd and Joe Mixon gives Dalton a chance.

Cleveland Browns: Refrain from buying their own hype.A year ago in this space, I wrote that "Everyone knows" what the Browns needed to do. They did it, by drafting the right franchise quarterback in Baker Mayfield. Elevating offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens to head coach makes it easier to carry the good vibes from December -- when Cleveland went 3-2, with Mayfield throwing for 296.6 yards and two touchdowns per game -- into an offseason where the Browns have oodles of cap space and not too many screaming roster needs. (Although Mayfield could use another wideout.) This sounds crazy for a team that won just seven games in 2018, but the Browns' next hurdle is to show they can handle expectations.

Denver Broncos: Assemble another home-run draft class to get younger on defense. The 2018 season was a frustrating one for Broncos executive John Elway, but the excellent work he did in the draft (and after the draft, signing rookie running back Phillip Lindsay) could turn the team's fortunes around. Putting together a stellar group of rookies after years of misses is nice. Stringing two strong groups in a row would create a core to build around. Elway signaled that he's leaning on defense in an offense-first league by hiring Vic Fangio -- who brings 32 seasons of experience as a defensive assistant in the NFL, most recently as the Bears' coordinator -- to be head coach, and now the team needs to replenish the side of the ball that has typically been its strength with youth, a process that began with the selection of edge rusher Bradley Chubb in the first round a year ago. The offensive-line and quarterback problems that have plagued Elway for years will look better if the defense is dominant again.

Houston Texans: Fix the offensive line (yes, still). I could write "offensive line" for a number of teams this year, as is true of most years. But the Texans' problems are so systemic that the blame has to start with coach Bill O'Brien. He has been unable to find the right coaches or players to solve an issue that has plagued his entire five-season tenure in Houston thus far, an issue that accelerated after the trade of left tackle Duane Brown in 2017. This remains a top-heavy offense with a big drop-off in reliability after quarterback Deshaun Watson and receiver DeAndre Hopkins, but building a competent line still remains more important than supplementing the skill-position talent.

Indianapolis Colts: Draft and sign pass rushers. GM Chris Ballard checked a lot of boxes in 2018. He found his forever head coach, even if Frank Reich wasn't his first choice. Andrew Luck is healthy again. Ballard's draft unearthed core stars, like linebacker Darius Leonard, and all but fixed the team's offensive line. The defense was greater than the sum of its parts all season, so now it's time to improve those parts. The Colts had a lot of valuable, try-hard rotational pieces on the defensive line, but not one single pass rusher who consistently won on the edge. It's just Ballard's luck that their need matches up with the strength of this free agent class and draft.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Acquire Nick Foles. One year after the Jaguarschose to re-up with Blake Bortles rather than pursue Kirk Cousins, they figure to be going after this season's most attractive quarterback acquisition. Nick Foles would be a far riskier signing if not for the presence of new Jaguars offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, who worked with Foles in Philadelphia. It remains to be seen whether the Jaguars will have to give up a draft pick in addition to committing to a big contract to nab Foles, but this is an organization that has boxed itself into a corner. The Jags have a defense that is ready to win now. They just need the quarterback to match.

Kansas City Chiefs: Build out the back seven. Andy Reid took the first necessary step toward improving an underperforming Chiefs defense by firing longtime coordinator Bob Sutton. The results haven't matched the talent on the defense for years, but it's fair to say the talent beyond the defensive line needs a lot of work. The Chiefs should use the franchise tag on free-agent-to-beDee Ford, then invest in pieces throughout the secondary and in off-ball linebackers. With Reid's play-calling and Patrick Mahomes' talent driving the Chiefs' offense, their defense only needs to be good enough. It wasn't in the AFC Championship Game loss to the Patriots.

Los Angeles Chargers: Get tougher on the interior. Coach Anthony Lynn wants a team that is rugged in the running game and tough to run against. The Chargers went 12-4 despite not being strong in either area by the end of the season. All three members of the defensive tackle rotation of Darius Philon, Brandon Mebane and Damion Square are set for free agency. So is inside linebacker Denzel Perryman, who has struggled to stay healthy, appearing in just 42 of 64 possible games. Combine that with a sagging interior offensive line that couldn't convert short-yardage situations late in the season, and this is a squad that needs beef on both sides of the ball.

Miami Dolphins: Take multiple swings at quarterback, including Teddy Bridgewater. Bringing this Dolphins team to the Super Bowl in expected head coach Brian Flores' first season at the helm would top what his mentor Bill Belichick accomplished with the Patriots back in 2001, Belichick's second season in Foxborough. It's hard to imagine Flores getting that far that fast, because the team should be starting over at quarterback. It's the right time to cut the cord with Ryan Tannehill, seven years after Miami picked him eighth overall, and the best way to replace him is to try everything. Sign Teddy Bridgewater to a short-term deal and draft someone to develop. Unless that combination immediately outperforms Dan Marino's "Ace Ventura" cameo, the Dolphins should search for a quarterback each offseason until they find someone who sticks.

New York Jets: Supply Sam Darnold with assets. Wide receiver Quincy Enunwa is a keeper, and restricted free agent Robby Anderson is worth retaining. Tight end Chris Herndon, drafted in the fourth round last year, is promising. After that, nearly everyone on offense besides Darnold is replaceable. While it's tough to make wholesale changes in one offseason, the Rams and Bears have shown in recent offseasons that it's possible. The Jets smartly bet on offense by hiring coach Adam Gase, and now it's time to double down by focusing on making Darnold's life easier. Offensive linemen count as assets, too.

Oakland Raiders: Avoid contracts that cripple the Las Vegas Raiders. In a win-now league, I hesitate to say any team is a few years away. But with a surplus of draft picks, plenty of cap space and a roster that's unquestionably worse than it was when Jon Gruden arrived last January, the Oakland Raiders are extremely unlikely to wrap up their Bay Area days in style. They are, however, set up to build their roster for the long haul if they make smart decisions and stick to a patient plan. They could end up in no man's land if the pain from a 4-12 season makes Gruden direct new GM Mike Mayock to unload all of owner Mark Davis' money on free-agency mediocrities in an effort to win seven games, creating new contractual burdens that will travel with this team to Las Vegas in 2020. They should try to pack light.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Keep Antonio Brown unless offered a first-round pick, plus more. The same Twitter lemmings who insist Brown has no trade value said the same about Amari Cooper, then mocked the Cowboys for giving Oakland a first-round pick for Cooper in a trade that directly led Dallas to win the NFC East anda playoff game. Brown is still playing at a Hall of Fame level and has significant value, regardless of the drama that's sprung up. Any attitude concerns would be lessened in a new environment. With that said, it makes more sense for the Steelers to work out their differences with Brown than it does to trade him elsewhere for pennies on the dollar. Pittsburgh may have to wait until draft weekend to find the right deal, but if I were the Steelers, I wouldn't make the move unless I got a first-round pick back, ideally with a little extra. The team's Week 17 game against the Bengals -- with Brown out, no single Steeler topped 64 receiving yards -- was a reminder of how difficult he'd be to replace.

Tennessee Titans: Hope that Arthur Smith is the one. Yes, quarterback Marcus Mariota needs more weapons on the outside. But what he needs even more is a play-caller with a clear idea of how to maximize his strengths. Heading into his fifth NFL season, Mariota is already on his third head coach and fourth offensive coordinator. Former Titans tight ends coach Arthur Smith is next at the plate, following Matt LaFleur's departure for Green Bay. Mariota has some defined weaknesses to his game, and the organization has to decide whether it can win with him as he enters the fifth-year option campaign of his rookie contract.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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