The AFC West promises to be one of the most tightly contested division races in the league this year. No one team of this group is head and shoulders above the rest of the pack, and each squad has both their share of questions and reasons for optimism. The Broncos have ditched the smoke-and-mirror act known as Tebowmania in favor of a future Hall Of Famer, Kansas City has a new head coach and a healthy roster, the Raiders have their first full year of Carson Palmer, and the Chargers still have Phillip Rivers.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs are going to be counting on a number of surgically repaired ACLs to help them improve in 2012. They played the majority of the 2011 campaign without key contributors like Jamaal Charles, Eric Berry, and Tony Moeaki. All three of these players were lost early in the season with torn ACLs, and quarterback Matt Cassel also missed nine games with a broken hand. In spite of all of those injuries, the Chiefs still finished at 7-9 a year ago.
Along with the return of their injured starters, the Chiefs added some nice depth to their offense in free agency, signing a quality offensive tackle in Eric Winston (who had been a solid starter for the Texans), Kevin Boss, and Peyton Hillis. However, the team did a lose a major piece of their defense with cornerback Brandon Carr signing with the Dallas Cowboys.
Jamaal Charles’ ability to regain his 2010 form will be the biggest key for this team. They badly missed his explosive play, and were forced to go with an anemic running back by committee approach last year that just didn’t work. Receiver Dwayne Bowe is currently in a holdout with the team, but is a force to be reckoned with once on the field.
Defensively, new head coach Romeo Crennel is a sound defensive mind that should be able to help cover for the loss of Carr and put his players in a good position to succeed. He still has an exceptionally talented group of linebackers to work with, featuring a pair of tackling machines in Derrick Johnson and Jovan Belcher, as well as a couple of quality pass rushers in Tamba Hali and Justin Houston.
The Chiefs have some good talent to work with, and while their clean bill of health also works in their favor, they haven’t improved their roster on paper as much as the other teams in the division. They won’t be a pushover, but Kansas City just isn’t built outlast the other teams in the division over a full season.
Projected Finish: 6-10, 4th place
San Diego Chargers
Each of the last three years, when I look at the San Diego Chargers, I always ask myself why Norv Turner is still the head coach of this underachieving football team? San Diego always looks good on paper, and every year they seem to stumble out of the gate, only to go on a run late in the season to finish with eight or nine wins and just miss the playoffs. They’re the Philadelphia Eagles of the west coast in my eyes.
I’m not sure what to expect from quarterback Phillip Rivers. Conventional wisdom says that he’s still among the game’s elite quarterbacks, and should bounce back from a turnover-prone season in which he threw 20 interceptions. However, there are some serious questions regarding his supporting cast.
Star receiver Vincent Jackson has finally left the team after spending the last few years bickering with the front office over his contract. Fragile running back Ryan Matthews has already broken his clavicle, and the team lost his top backup from a year ago (Mike Tolbert, who scored eight touchdowns) to free agency. Tight end Antonio Gates is still solid when healthy, but his foot is constantly a concern.
With so many questions about his skill position players, I could easily see Rivers pressing himself and committing turnovers as he did a year ago by trying to do too much.
Rivers also won’t get much help from his defense. The San Diego defensive unit isn’t anything special, and their leaders (Takeo Spikes and Quentin Jammer) are in the twilight stages of their careers.
I look at the Chargers, and I just don’t see a lot of reason for optimism. Under Norv Turner, this is a team that always let down and underachieved even when they had the most talent in the division. As long as Rivers is in the lineup, he’s enough to keep the Chargers from falling into the basement of the NFL, but he can’t get them back to the playoffs without some serious help.
Projected Finish: 7-9, 3rd place
Formerly one of the laughing stocks of the league, the Raiders have quietly been taking steps forward in the last couple of years, finishing with two straight 8-8 seasons.
Carson Palmer should be in a much better position to succeed with a full off-season to adapt to his teammates and learn the system. The former top draft pick gets a pass for his poor performance last season since he joined the team at the trade deadline after spending the first half of the season away from the game with no football activities after refusing to report to the Bengals.
Palmer has a couple of quality weapons around him with star running back Darren McFadden and receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey (who broke out with a 64-catch 975 yards season in 2011). The team also hopes to see improvements from second-year receiver Denarius Moore, who caught 33 balls for 618 yards and five scores as a rookie.
The Raider have a strong defensive line (anchored by Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly), but the back seven are major concerns. The linebackers are lead by a couple of former top draft picks (Rolando McClain and Aaron Curry) that haven’t realized their potential, and the secondary is littered with question marks.
New coach Dennis Allen is also a concern, as he’s never been a head coach at any level.
The Raiders have some pretty big issues, but their offense has some real upside that can make them a force if Carson Palmer can play at a high level again. Issues with the coaching staff and defense will prevent them from becoming a playoff team. I see them finishing ahead of the Chiefs and Chargers, but not by much.
Projected Finish: 7-9, 2nd place
I have to applaud the Broncos for pulling the plug on Tebowmania. While I’m not a Tebow-hater by any means (in fact I actually root for him), his style of play just doesn’t translate into long-term success in this league. John Elway agreed with that line of thinking, and jumped at the opportunity to sign Peyton Manning after he was released by the Colts.
While Manning makes Denver better than they were a year ago, I’m not sure just how far he can take them. He doesn’t have many weapons around him, with Eric Decker as the team’s best receiver.The Broncos have tried to make life a little easier for the All-Pro by bringing in a couple of familiar targets from Indianapolis in tight end Jacob Tamme and receiver Brandon Stokley, but neither player is a difference maker.
Running back Willis McGahee surpassed expectations a year ago by rushing for nearly 1,200 yards, but I don’t expect him to repeat that performance.
Denver’s biggest strength (and the secret behind Tebowmania’s success) is their defense. They’ve got a couple of strong pass rushers in Elvis Dumervil and last year’s top draft pick, linebacker Von Miller. They hope to improve their defensive line with the return of veteran Ty Warren (who spent last year on injured reserve) and rookie Derek Wolfe.
Fomer Eagle Joe Mays has a firm grasp on the middle linebacker job, and was rewarded with a three-year extension in the off-season.
The secondary lost Brian Dawkins to retirement, but is still lead by another future Hall-of-Famer, Champ Bailey.
To me, the Broncos are the most complete team in the division. The addition of Manning makes their offense much more formidable than it was a year ago, even though they may lack elite talent at the skill positions. I don’t think they can contend with the elite teams in the AFC, but as long as Manning can stay healthy, the Broncos will take the division and return to the playoffs.
Projected Finish: 9-7, 1st place