For the 16th time in the past 18 seasons, the AFC will be represented in the Super Bowl by a team led by Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Ben Roethlisberger.
The grip held over the conference by those top quarterbacks — Brady for the past three seasons — will eventually loosen. Manning is retired, Brady will turn 42 before next season and Roethlisberger will be 37. Brady’s foe in the AFC divisional playoffs this season, Philip Rivers, is also 37.
What was true a year ago remains in effect: There soon will be an opportunity in the AFC for a team with a younger quarterback to take charge.
The Kansas City Chiefs, with 23-year-old Patrick Mahomes, and the Indianapolis Colts, with 29-year-old Andrew Luck, are best positioned to challenge Brady in the short term and potentially replace the Patriots at the top of the conference in the long term. Deshaun Watson, 23, has put the Houston Texans on track to do the same.
The next group of AFC teams that could make a similar run to the top are the four that drafted quarterbacks in the first round in 2018: the Cleveland Browns (Baker Mayfield), New York Jets (Sam Darnold), Buffalo Bills (Josh Allen) and Baltimore Ravens (Lamar Jackson).
In Allen, the Bills believe they have a building block who can allow the club to focus on other areas of need this offseason. Allen finished the 2018 season with a 52.0 Total QBR, second best to Mayfield among rookies and 12th best among rookie quarterbacks since ESPN began tracking Total QBR in 2006.
“It’s definitely different than 12 months ago,” Bills general manager Brandon Beane told the team’s official radio program Wednesday. “You sleep easier at night.”
No longer wandering the desert in search of their next quarterback, the task for Beane and his AFC counterparts in similar situations — the Jets included — will be finding the right pieces to pair with their potential franchise signal-callers.
The Bills have assets to help Allen but are not alone in that category. With a projected $83 million in salary-cap space, the Bills will rival the Colts ($117 million), Jets ($93 million) and Browns ($82 million) in spending power this offseason. At No. 9, Buffalo will draft behind the Jets (No. 3) but ahead of the Browns (No. 17) and Colts (No. 26).
Unlike the Jets, who changed coaches, the Bills have spent January as one of the NFL’s quietest teams. After making the playoffs in his first season, coach Sean McDermott’s job was never in jeopardy despite Buffalo finishing 6-10 in 2018. The Bills did not need to tweak their staff of their second-ranked defense, and Buffalo’s 30th-ranked offense showed some late-season promise, especially given its limited resources for first-year coordinator Brian Daboll.
Offensive line coach Juan Castillo, wide receivers coach Terry Robiskie and special-teams coordinator Danny Crossman were the only position coaches whom McDermott chose not to retain for 2019. Castillo was replaced by former Colts assistant offensive line coach Bobby Johnson, and McDermott hired Carolina Panthers assistant special-teams coach Heath Farwell to fill Crossman’s role. No replacement for Robiskie has been named.
The Bills’ won four of their final seven games after beginning the season with a 2-7 record, and that created a sense of optimism around the organization that could shape the offseason. Instead of digging down in the coming months, expect the Bills to build up and around Allen.