NFL Divisional Preview: AFC West

The AFC West is home to the defending Super Bowl champions, but that doesn’t really carry a ton of weight. The division is interesting, to say the least. In my opinion, you could make an argument for three separate teams taking home the divisional crown. I think the AFC West is about to go through a change in leadership based on all of the movement this offseason.

Denver Broncos

 I’m still a little surprised the Broncos ended up winning the Super Bowl. I get I’m a Patriots fan, and to answer to your thought, I’m absolutely still bitter. I understand (and agree with the theory that) defense does win championships, and Denver’s was far and away the best in football last season. Offensively speaking, however, I thought they were unimpressive. They had weapons, but they either could start effectively a rookie, in Brock Osweiler, or a washed-up version of Peyton Manning. But hey, they won, so it looks like someone over there knows more than me.

This year, Manning has obviously retired, and Osweiler, who looked really good at separate points last year, ended up leaving for Houston. The Broncos spent their first round pick on Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch, who is as talented as he is raw – he needs time. If he is starting this season, the Broncos are in trouble. Their best veteran option is Mark Sanchez… yeah, Mark Sanchez. To be fair, it’s not like Denver doesn’t have weapons, in Demariyus Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, CJ Anderson and so forth. It’s not like they don’t have an offensive line. But Sanchez has a reputation for losing games; he will be the sole reason of a Denver loss at least three times this season. That’s a problem for Denver.

Their defense returns almost all of their key pieces, but to replicate last season’s success would be a ridiculously high expectation. Denver’s defense was an all-time unit last year, and they stole games right from underneath other teams. As great as Von Miller and Chris Harris Jr. are, two pieces that I deem as the keys to their defense, DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib (will he be in jail? The hospital? Who knows) are another year older. Barring a multitude of injuries, this will again be the strength of the team, and again will rank among the NFL’s best.

When he was with the J-E-T-S, Sanchez made two AFC Championship games by simply not making mistakes – he wasn’t exceptional or anything, he just didn’t turn the ball over an obnoxious amount of times. He needs to be able to do that again this year for Denver to replicate its success last year. I don’t see that happening, but the rest of their talent will save them.

Kansas City Chiefs

There was a point in time last year that the hottest team in all of football was the Chiefs of Kansas City, who looked like they were never going to lose again. And even in their season-ending loss to the Patriots in Foxborough, they were in a position to win. The only reason they didn’t is because Andy Reid doesn’t know that football is played with a clock, and you have to manage your time late in games if you want to win. And he didn’t. Because he’s Andy Reid, and Andy Reid doesn’t do those things.

Offensively, Kansas City has been the best place for Alex Smith’s career. He’s not one of the best quarterbacks in the game, but he’s one of my favorites. Good game or bad, he’s consistently going to put his team in a position to win the game. He doesn’t turn the ball over, he can move the chains with his feet, and he’s a good leader. I wouldn’t necessarily want him as my fantasy quarterback, but I want him as my real-life quarterback in most scenarios. He’s joined by Jamaal Charles, who is a top-3 back if he’s on the field. That’s the catch though – his ACLs don’t really like him, as his season ended last year due to an ACL tear. I typically don’t really get worried about those injuries because of modern medical technology, but several ACL tears for a running back who relies on cuts in the open field is worrisome. It’s especially worrisome because, despite the team’s success last season, they don’t have any other scary offensive pieces. The Chiefs don’t believe in wide receivers, I guess, since they consistently rank in the bottom of the NFL in terms of production from the position. Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware did well last year, but they’re still unproven, and you can’t really expect anything out of them.

Defensively the Chiefs are still a tough unit, led by cancer survivor and national fan favorite, Eric Berry. Berry is a game-changing safety who is as good as it gets. As a rookie, Marcus Peters stole the show, but I think he led the league in picks because teams were more willing to throw towards a rookie than Sean Smith on the other side. That’s not to say that Peters isn’t an excellent player, because he is, it’s just that Smith was proven. Now, Peters is the unquestioned #1 corner in KC, after Smith moved out to Oakland.

Ultimately, I think the Chiefs stayed relatively stagnant, while their competitors for the division each made moves this offseason that could shake up their teams. Whether that was confidence in their team now or an inability to definitively improve, they’re going to battle with the same troops.

Oakland Raiders

I think this is the year that the Raiders finally make it back to the playoffs. They were one of the organizations that won the most this past offseason, as they made excellent moves and draft picks. That, coupled with the Broncos regressing, puts them in a position to win the AFC West.

Offensively, Derek Carr is the guy for them. Patience is a virtue, and while he’s not the sexiest of the guys playing quarterback, you can see a clear difference in the team when he’s under center compared to anyone else. I’m high on his tools, especially when you consider he’s throwing to Amari Cooper, who proved he is as good as advertised, and Michael Crabtree, who is much better suited for a #2 role. Latavius Murray isn’t going to blow you away out of the backfield, but you know he’s a reliable guy who will get you quality yards and won’t turn the ball over. For the Raiders to take the next step, they need Carr to continue to blossom into the franchise quarterback that he will be, and they will need another receiver/tight end to step up and give Carr another option. They’re kind of thin after Crabtree.

Defensively, Khalil Mack is going to grab all of the attention, and with good meaning. Save JJ Watt and Richard Sherman, the University of Buffalo product is the best of the best in terms of defensive talent in the NFL. But it isn’t just him. The Raiders drafted Karl Joseph out of West Virginia in the first round, and no one in the entire draft screams ‘Oakland Raiders safety’ more than him. They also signed Bruce Irvin from Seattle, who is still an excellent linebacker with a winning mentality. Irvin knows what it’s like to be on a young team with expectations, he knows what it takes to win in a difficult division, and he is a capable leader. Oh by the way, they signed Sean Smith, who makes their secondary better while making Kansas City’s worse.

I’m high on the Raiders this season, and while I don’t think they have what it takes to win a Super Bowl (yet), they’re in the right direction. And hey, who knows, training camp brings a ton of surprises. Maybe someone does step up.

San Diego Chargers

So, the Chargers… they play in the AFC West, too. San Diego seems to be blowing it up, which really sucks for some of the vets they still have on their team. With everything concerning their team in doubt, from where they will be playing in a few years to who they will be playing with, the Chargers have officially entered rebuild mode.

I kind of feel bad for Philip Rivers, who is a huge jerk but one of, if not the best quarterbacks the franchise has had. While he was never great in the playoffs, it’s not like he truly had enough with him to go win a title. Either way, he’s in his mid-30s, and it would be beneficial to both him and the Chargers if they could move him for draft picks. It would be hard, but I’m sure a team like the Jets or the Broncos would take his services with a smile. Him and Antonio Gates are two of the last members of the old guard for the Chargers. Gates is about 76 years old and still playing, but he’s not even close to what he once was. Keenan Allen is a receptions machine, but he basically destroyed his spleen last year, so we’ll see how he does upon return. Other than that? I can’t really tell you much about the Chargers’ offense.

Defensively they took Joey Bosa in the first round. Bosa has been compared to JJ Watt, which is pretty high praise. I think, at worse, he’s a quality pass rusher, and at best, he’s a cornerstone to one’s defense. However, the Chargers need to keep improving, because they basically have nothing else. The only other name they had was Eric Weddle, who now hates San Diego and has moved on to the Ravens.

The Chargers will probably be one of the worst teams in football this year. Boo hoo Chargers fans, boo hoo.

 

My AFC West Standings Prediction

Raiders (11-5), 3

Broncos (9-7), 6

Chiefs (8-8)

Chargers (2-14)

***Italicized numbers indicate predicted playoff seeding.

Cover photo from Bleacher Report.

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