The AFC West has been San Diego’s division the past few years. Kansas City and Oakland have both found nice resting places at the bottom, while Denver has struggled to finish what they’ve started, falling apart at the end of two straight seasons now. While San Diego’s focus is finally reaching that elusive Super Bowl, for the rest of the division focus must be on improvement moreso than catching the Chargers.
Denver Broncos [Last season: 8-8, 2nd]
The Broncos are a very interesting team. A team that had little expectations going into last season, but surprised many by starting 6-0 only to falter and finish the year 2-8. Despite this, Kyle Orton proved to be a very solid quarterback and their receiving corp, although having lost Brandon Marshall to Miami, also seems to be primed for another strong year behind Eddie Royal and rookie Demaryius Thomas.
Speaking of rookies, Tim Tebow does not seem to be an option at quarterback any time soon. Though it is very possible he’ll beat out the fading Brady Quinn for the backup spot, Kyle Orton’s consistency and Tebow’s inexperience will leave him on the bench for most of this season barring injury to Orton. Tebow has brought his must-win attitude to Denver, displaying it in a gutsy touchdown run in a recent preseason game to Cincinnati. Though, after getting his ribs bruised on the play, he should hopefully be aware that not even the vaunted SEC defenses in college hold a candle to a typical NFL defense.
On the defensive side, one of Denver’s biggest weaknesses was in their rush defense, near the bottom third of the league in yards allowed in rushing. To make matters worse, Elvis Dumervil, who led the league in sacks last year, is out for most if not all of this season due to a chest injury. The secondary isn’t getting any younger either; though Champ Bailey and Brian Dawkins seem to not know of the word “age” with their stellar play, the concern is still there.
Overall, the Broncos seem to be another middle of the road team. They aren’t particularly terrible at anything, aside from run defense, yet they aren’t very spectacular at anything either. Perhaps second year coach Josh McDaniels has something up his sleeve, or maybe Tim Tebow will bring a positive influence to the team even if he doesn’t do it on the field. The Broncos will be competing for a wild card spot especially given the division they are in but it will be tough for them to catch up to San Diego.
Kansas City Chiefs [Last season: 4-12, 4th]
The Chiefs have been in the tank for a few years now and it doesn’t seem like they’re poised to jump out of it. One reason is that their offensive line, which was once a sturdy wall that carried the team to multiple playoff appearances, have all since retired or moved on, and the men in their place have just not gotten the job done. Recent Chiefs acquisitions to improve the offense, including possible one-year wonder QB Matt Cassel last season, former Jet running back Thomas Jones and San Diego dropoff Chris Chambers, should improve an offense that struggled last year, especially in the air.
Another reason for their struggles is their defense, which had been less than adequate even during their decent campaigns years ago. Multiple attempts to solidify the defense have yet to take off, and hopes are that recently drafted Eric Berry can provide a missing piece out at Safety which can stabilize a defense that as a whole is still very young. This could be a breakthrough year for this defense, but then again they have a long way to go given last year’s performance.
That said, Kansas City should be a team to keep at least part of an eye on. San Diego’s had hiccups in the past, Denver should be alright but then again they might not be and you can’t really trust Oakland to do anything. That’s not to say Kansas City should be considered a contender for the division or even a dark horse, but they should fare better than most expect of them especially if that defense does come around.
Oakland Raiders [Last season: 5-11, 3rd]
It is highly believed that the main reason the Raiders struggled as much as they did was that their offense stagnated behind the awful play of JaMarcus Russell, their 2007 #1 pick. Other Raider quarterbacks last season did relatively well, going 3-5 in games when Russell wasn’t their leading passer. So, with Russell gone and Washington castoff Jason Campbell now behind center, does that make Oakland suddenly hopeful for the playoffs?
Their offense, as mentioned, was terrible last year. Blame is often put on Russell for that, but the other parts can not be ignored. Their best receiver is arguably Tight End Zach Miller, though Louis Murphy had flashes of brilliance last season as well. Darren McFadden has been disappointing since being drafted a few years ago, and even their line, which one Robert Gallery was drafted to improve, has not gotten the job done. The offense has been one hugh disappointment. Jason Campbell is sure to be an improvement over Russell, but Campbell himself had been a disappointment in Washington, throwing 15 Interceptions last year and only 20 TDs, compelling the Redskins to believe an aging Donovan McNabb is better suited for the job in Washington than a young Campbell. So, even with him throwing passes this entire offense remains one giant sigh of disappointment.
The defense has been Oakland’s saving grace these past few years, led by the secondary and Nnamdi Asomugha who is one of the NFL’s premier cornerbacks. Richard Seymour, once a top lineman in New England, had a tough 2009 with Oakland but he should fare better this year. Rolando McClain, just drafted out of Alabama looks to bolster their stagnant run defense out at linebacker.
Oakland has the potential to compete for a playoff spot this year. Of course, when talking about Oakland, maxing out potential is hardly ever possible. It is much more likely for Campbell to put up, dare I say, Russell-like numbers than Pro Bowl numbers given what’s around him. Still, coach Tom Cable and Raider fans are hopeful this season and if this team can execute, those hopes could be realized.
San Diego Chargers [Last season: 13-3, 1st; lost to NYJ in DIV RD]
Another season, another early playoff exit for the Chargers, this time due to the antics of who is usually their dependable kicker Nate Kaeding. Of course, all Kaeding aside the Chargers were shut down in the passing game by Revis and the Jets last year while their running game had become perhaps too sluggish, something which has been happening ever since Norv Turner became Charger coach.
Of course, at the same time, the Chargers’ passing offense has become all the more threatening (except to the Jets), finishing 5th in passing yards last year. Philip Rivers has become a Pro Bowl quarterback and Antonio Gates remains a Pro Bowl Tight End. Malcom Floyd leads what is perhaps a weak receiving corps but with Rivers and Gates, the jobs of the receivers becomes much easier: don’t drop the ball.
That said, the Chargers parted ways with their most prolific player this offseason, saying goodbye to LaDanian Tomlinson. Tomlinson had become less and less active in Turner’s offense, though part of it could be attributed to age as Darren Sproles had less trouble in the same offense. In Tomlinson’s place is Ryan Mathews, an upstart out of Fresno State, who San Diego hopes will rejuvenate the fallen running game in San Diego. If they can do that, combined with that passing game and a mostly decent defense, San Diego can continue to be one of the top offenses in the league.
The Chargers, who most successful playoff run recently ironically came in a year when the team went 8-8, need to fare much better in the postseason. Nobody really expects Denver, Kansas City or Oakland to surpass them in the AFC West but at the same time nobody really expects them to reach the Super Bowl either aside from a few bolder predictors. If their running game does improve, then so do their chances at reaching their first Super Bowl since 1995.
Division Prediction: The Chargers should still win this division easily. In a bold move, I think Kansas City will start to get it together and take 2nd but not compete for a Wild Card. Denver continues its second half slide from last season, and Oakland will struggle as always.
1. San Diego
2. Kansas City