The AFC West was a wild division a year ago. The Kansas City Chiefs went from four wins to division champions. The Raiders went undefeated against its division mates, yet still ended up in third place. Philip Rivers was a one-man gang in San Diego much of the year, while the Broncos slipped to their worst finish in franchise history, and recalled John Elway and Tim Tebow to save them by the end of it all. It was a weird go around.
What the division returns as is a highly competitive mix, that will be one of the most exciting divisions in football. The Raiders and Broncos are rebuilding with defenses that have as much risk and they do promise. However, the real drama is at the top of the division, where two of the most balanced and explosive teams in the entire NFL will face off for top honors.
The Chiefs and the Chargers are getting ready for sixteen weeks of war, and the West will be won with nothing less than blood, guts and a ton of hatred by the end of it all. Can the Chiefs keep holding the throne they so aggressively snatched a year ago, or will the Chargers show they have what it takes to come from behind in the West as well as they worked ahead for so long?
QB: Philip Rivers RB: Jamaal Charles, Darren McFadden FB: LeRon McClain WR: Dwayne Bowe, Vincent Jackson, Brandon Lloyd TE: Antonio Gates OT: Ryan Clady, Marcus McNeil OG: Kris Dielman, Ryan Lilja C: Nick Hardwick
DE: Elvis Dumervil, Tyson Jackson DT: Richard Seymour, Tommy Kelly OLB: Tamba Hali, Shawn Phillips MLB: Derrick Johnson, Rolando McClain CB: Champ Bailey, Brandon Flowers S: Eric Berry, Eric Weddle
K: Nate Kaeding P: Shane Lechler Returner: Jacoby Ford
DENVER BRONCOS (4-12 in 2010)
Offense: B. Lloyd-WR, K. Orton-QB, K. Moreno-RB, R. Clady-OT (C+)
Defense: E. Dumervil-DE, C. Bailey-CB, B. Dawkins-S, V. Miller-OLB (C)
The Good: New coach John Fox will bring a gritty approach that includes an emphasis on the run that could get the best out of Knowshon Moreno finally, as well as redzone star Willis McGahee. On defense, after a year of being ran at and passed over, the return of Elvis Dumervil and selection of Von Miller will give a unit that could put no pressure on the passer two blazing rushers capable of double digit sacks. This will help save the secondary from being tested non-stop.
The Bad: They got better at a number places, but still are shaky at defensive tackle and middle linebacker. They are undersized along the defensive front, and it shows in how bad they stand up to the run. They gave up the second most rushing yards in the League last year at just over 154 yards per game, and this is a plague that will follow them into this year.
X-Factor-Elvis Dumervil: The NFL’s 2009 sack leader’s absence last season was felt early and often. No one stepped up to fill the void created after he tore his pectoral muscle and had season ending surgery. This season Dumervil will return to his most comfortable position of defensive end after beginning his career as a stand up rusher, and the result across the entire defense will be clear.
Fearless Prediction: Oak (W), CIN (W), @TEN (L), @GB (L), SD (L), @MIA (L), DET (L), @OAK (L), @KC (L), NYJ (W), @SD (W), @MIN (L), CHI (W), NE (L), @BUF (W), KC (L)
In The End: Even with a number of positive steps forward, there is still a good amount of work to be done in rebuilding this club. There could still be more drama to come surrounding the quarterback spot, as well as still holes in the defense. Even a vast improvement this season still lands them on the bottom half of the division. Record: 6-10
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (10-6 in 2010; Division Champs)
Offense: J. Charles-RB, D. Bowe-WR, M. Cassel-QB, S. Breaston-WR (B)
Defense: E. Berry-S, T. Hali-OLB, B. Flowers-CB, T. Jackson-DE (B+)
The Good: The offense has expanded. Last season, they employed a pretty basic, yet successful approach: let either Jamaal Charles or Dwayne Bowe score and just find a way to work it other otherwise. This worked well, with Bowe leading the league in touchdown catches and Charles eating up yards at a staggering rate. However, they understood they had to make changes to go to the next level as a team, and the additions of Steve Breaston, Jonathan Baldwin and LeRon McClain represent that.
The Bad: Is Matt Cassel able to guide them over the hump? He made the Pro Bowl a year ago, but the Chiefs still ranked 30th passing yards a game. He manages the game well, but there is still an air of restraint around how much he can shoulder on his own, as well as being injury prone. The Chiefs as a team are in great shape over the long-term, but in the end, having a quarterback that can win games over manage them is essential.
X-Factor-Dexter McCluster: Charles gets the headlines as the biggest game breaker on the club, but the team really took a step forward when McCluster was effectively deployed. He can eat yards like few in the NFL; from anywhere on the field plus on special teams. Using him more often in a style similar to Darren Sproles would give this offense another real terror to account for.
Fearless Prediction: BUF (W), @DET (W), @SD (L), MIN (L), @IND (W), @OAK (L), SD (W), MIA (W), DEN (W), @NE (L), PIT (W), @CHI (L), @NYJ (L), GB (L), OAK (W), @DEN
In The End: The Chiefs are better than they were a year ago. They’ll feature more Jamaal Charles than ever before, and the defense should be among the most aggressive in the league. However, they have a five week run unlike any other team, visiting New England, Chicago and the Jets, as well as hosting the Patriots and Steelers. It will be a better team, but one that is victim to a nightmare scenario, and it will cost them a repeat run as champs. Record: 9-7
OAKLAND RAIDERS (8-8 in 2010)
Offense: D. McFadden-RB, J. Campbell-QB, J. Ford-WR, S. Janikowski-K (C-)
Defense: R. Seymour-DT, K. Wimberly-OLB, R. McClain-MLB, S. Routt-CB (B)
The Good: McFadden finally lived up to his billing, consistently. After seemingly being doomed to being a glorified platoon back his first two seasons, he put it all together, got tougher and became the centerpiece of the Oakland effort. He ran the ball over 200 times and also was second in receptions as well. Having an encore season is a must for an offense that will need him even more this time around.
The Bad: They lost a lot at the wrong time. Nnamdi Asomugha, Zack Miller and Robert Gallery were all important pieces of the resurgence of the Raiders last season, and they looked to be on the right track as a unit. Now they have big issues in the absence of each. There is no clear target on offense, the o-line is vulnerable again and the entire defense will have to change their approach without Nnamdi putting fear in opposing QBs.
X-Factor-Kevin Boss: Zack Miller long represented the only dependable chain mover out the receiving group, and his departure makes an already weak receiving group look even worse. Enter the former Giant Boss, who will be targeted more than he ever was in New York. While there’s no expectation of his becoming his predecessor, he is a big key to keeping the entire offense on balance.
Fearless Prediction: @DEN (L), @BUF (L), NYJ (L), NE (L), @HOU (L), CLE (W), KC (W), DEN (W), SD (L), @MIN (W), CHI (L), @MIA (W), @GB (L), DET (L), @KC (L), SD
In The End: They will take a step backwards after going undefeated in the West a year ago. There will be a big struggle to overcome their losses, but they will be a tough matchup each week on defense. The defense will still be tough, but the offense will continue to struggle due to no legit playmaker in the passing game. Record: 6-10
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (9-7 in 2010)
Offense: P. Rivers-QB, A. Gates-TE, V. Jackson-WR, M. Tolbert-RB (A-)
Defense: S. Phillips-OLB, Q. Jammer-CB, E. Weddle-S, L. Castillo-DE (B+)
The Good: The offense around Philip Rivers is running at full capacity again. Last season, they never played at full strength until it was far too late. Vincent Jackson, Antonio Gates, Malcom Floyd and Marcus McNeil are periods in the mix instead of question marks. Mike Tolbert and Ryan Mathews are both running well, and in harmony. A year ago, Rivers had his finest year with his worst cast; the potential for a perfect storm with all of them back could have the Chargers atop the NFL in total offense.
The Bad: Can the defense do it again? A year ago, they surprisingly gave up the fewest yards in the league and got after the quarterback frequently. However, they still don’t have an elite edge rusher, and the linebackers group is thin as well. They got it done as a complete unit a year ago, but there is still a need for an individual to step up to be accounted for.
X-Factor-Vincent Jackson: An ugly contract dispute held him out of the mix for all but four games last season, but what a four games they were. In limited use, he brought in 14 catches at averaged 17 yards a grab, and caught three touchdowns in one contest. A full, focused season awaits him, and he stands to join the elite pass catchers in the league in a major way.
Fearless Prediction: MIN (W), @NE (L), KC (W), MIA (W), @DEN (W), @NYJ (L), @KC (L), GB (L), OAK (W), @CHI (L), DEN (W), @JAX (W), BUF (W), BAL (W), @DET (W), @OAK
In The End: The Chargers have looked good on paper forever, but it hasn’t paid out. For much of last season, they didn’t even look good there. At the end of the year however, they became the best team in West down the stretch, winning six of eight and showing flashes what they could be at close to full strength. The team that ended last year instead of started it returns now, and they’ll return to the top of the division at the end as well. Record: 11-5
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