If Buffalo wins at Kansas City on Sunday night, the Bills will almost certainly be regarded by oddsmakers as the AFC favorites. That’s a status they haven’t enjoyed since the early 1990s, when they went to four straight Super Bowls. Of course, Buffalo infamously lost all those games and has never won a Super Bowl, an organizational shortfall that can also be unhappily attributed to 11 other teams.
As it happens, Sunday will see six of those squads attempt to better their chances in head-to-head matchups: the Cleveland Browns vs. the Los Angeles Chargers, the Detroit Lions vs. the Minnesota Vikings, and the Jacksonville Jaguars vs. the Tennessee Titans.
Win or lose in Week 5, the Bills deserve strong recognition as a contender to lift the Lombardi Trophy in February, but what about the rest of the drought-stricken dozen? Here is a ranking of the likelihood of each member of that group to emerge as 2021 NFL champions.
1. Buffalo Bills (3-1)
Closest call — Can be summed up in two heartbreaking words: Wide right! Scott Norwood’s 47-yard miss to end Super Bowl XXV left the New York Giants jubilant and fans in Western New York crestfallen but perhaps, in some cases, hopeful that their talent-laden team would get it done in the near future. No such luck.
Outlook — A potent, forward-thinking offense led by quarterback Josh Allen and coordinator Brian Daboll is only part of the equation. In already pitching two shutouts, the Bills’ defense has been the stronger unit, making its team arguably the most complete in the league.
2. Arizona Cardinals (4-0)
Closest call — The owners of the NFL’s longest championship drought after last winning it all in 1947, the Cardinals suffered a painful near miss in 2009 when Larry Fitzgerald’s late-game touchdown looked like it might win them a Super Bowl, only to see it all snatched away by the Pittsburgh Steelers’ remarkable last-minute play.
Outlook — After a resounding road win over the Los Angeles Rams put Arizona atop the NFC West, nothing should be considered beyond this team’s reach if it can go on to take the ultracompetitive division.
3. Cleveland Browns (3-1)
Closest call — Of the Browns’ two notorious AFC championship game losses in the late 1980s, “The Drive” is rougher if one considers that Cleveland was leading late in the game, whereas it was trying to forge a tie when “The Fumble” occurred.
Outlook — One of just two teams that have existed for the entirety of the Super Bowl era but have never managed so much as an appearance (Detroit, listed below, is the other), the Browns look like a franchise very much on the upswing after a mostly horrendous couple of decades.
4. Los Angeles Chargers (3-1)
Closest call — After one quarter in Super Bowl XXIX, the Chargers were only down by seven points to the San Francisco 49ers. The Bolts ended up getting blown out in their only turn on that stage.
Outlook — The Chiefs were a fairly luckless outfit until Patrick Mahomes led them to a championship in his second season as a starter, so why can’t fellow strong-armed AFC West quarterback Justin Herbert do the same?
5. Carolina Panthers (3-1)
Closest call — A back-and-forth battle with the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII wasn’t settled until New England’s Adam Vinatieri booted a game-winning field goal in the final seconds.
Outlook — Liberated from the clutches of former New York Jets coach Adam Gase, Sam Darnold looks much more like the quarterback prospect many thought should have gone No. 1 overall in 2018, and Carolina’s extensive investments in defense over the past two years are starting to pay off.
6. Tennessee Titans (2-2)
Closest call — The name “Mike Jones” may not mean much to many NFL fans, but it induces agita in Nashville after the St. Louis Rams linebacker tackled Kevin Dyson one yard short of the goal line in Super Bowl XXXIV.
Outlook — It helps to win the Super Bowl if you win your division, and apart from Derrick Henry one thing the otherwise underwhelming Titans have going for them is membership in the bedraggled AFC South.
7. Cincinnati Bengals (3-1)
Closest call — The second of two narrow Super Bowl losses to the 49ers wasn’t sealed until Joe Montana hit John Taylor with 34 seconds left in 1989.
Outlook — Now Cincinnati has its own “Joe Cool” in Joe Burrow, plus plenty of firepower at wide receiver. Is Coach Zac Taylor, though, up to the task?
8. Minnesota Vikings (1-3)
Closest call — In one of their four Super Bowl losses, the Vikings held Pittsburgh to just 16 points in 1975 but managed just six of their own while being throttled to the tune of a record-low 119 total net yards.
Outlook — If Aaron Rodgers gets hurt or just decides to part ways with the Green Bay Packers ahead of schedule, then the NFC North would be very winnable for Minnesota.
9. Atlanta Falcons (1-3)
Closest call — 28-3. Possibly the most brutal loss in NFL history.
Outlook — Matt Ryan has brought Atlanta to the doorstep before, but the 36-year-old quarterback is showing distinct signs of decline this season.
10-12. Detroit Lions (0-4); Houston Texans (1-3); Jacksonville Jaguars (0-4)
Closest call — Of these three teams, none of which have been to a Super Bowl (in fairness, the Texans have only been around since 2002 and the Jaguars since 1995), Jacksonville had the best chance but blew a fourth-quarter lead in the AFC championship game after the 2017 season.
Outlook — It only seemed appropriate to group this trio together, because their combined percentage chance of reaching the Super Bowl this season is roughly equivalent to the number of times they have gotten there in the past.