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The AFC West, by most Football analyst’s opinions, is supposed to be one of the tougher divisions in the NFL this season. After all, San Diego remains an extremely talented team while upgrades in Kansas City have left the team from Missouri a viable contender.
Oakland remains a dark horse in the race for the AFC West title. New head coach Dennis Allen will look to keep the better offenses from running out to huge leads in Oakland.
But, as good as San Diego remains, and as improved as both Oakland and Kansas City might be, the division comes down to Denver. If the Broncos can navigate an extremely difficult schedule, the Denver Broncos should not only win the AFC West, but they should also challenge for a Super Bowl berth.
NFL: AFC West Preview
AFC Divisional Finish: 1st at +150
Broncos’ Offense – - There wasn’t a bigger pick up during the offseason than the Denver Broncos’ signing future hall of fame quarterback Peyton Manning. The older Manning, who had been the Colts’ starter for a number of years, was looking for a new home after Indy’s management let him know that they intended to draft Stanford star signal caller Andrew Luck with the first pick of the draft.
Manning became available and Denver pushed hard for his services going as far as signing two tight ends, Joel Dreessen from Houston and Jacob Tamme from the Colts. Manning has a couple of stars in the making at wide out in the highly regarded Demaryius Thomas and the sure handed and route running specialist Eric Decker. Decker and Manning have already built a rapport in the passing game. Decker and Manning should be a serious force in the air this season.
About the only issue that has come up due to the Manning signing is the fact that Tebow fans, who had rushed to buy the Gator quarterback’s jersey when he became the starter in Denver last season, will now have to trade up for a Peyton jersey. Manning was brilliant against San Francisco in the preseason obliterating the best defense in the NFL with a 10 out of 22 for 122 and 2 TD performance. Peyton finished the game with a 148.6 QB rating. Decker had 4 catches for 28 yards and caught the 2 touchdowns.
A deep running back contingent led by veterans Willis McGahee and Lance Ball and bolstered by rookie Ronnie Hillman and talented Knowshon Moreno should give Broncos’ fans plenty to cheer about this season. Denver led the NFL in rushing yards on average per game last season at 164.5.
Broncos’ Defense – - Although the 2011 stats don’t really bear it out, 231.5 yards per game through the air and 126.3 yards per game on the ground per game last season, the reality is that Denver’s defensive unit is easily one of the best in the NFL.
The defense sort of fell apart towards the end of the season, yielding 41 points to New England in Week 15 and 40 points to Buffalo in Week 16, but there was a three game stretch during the season where the Broncos’ D gave up 13 points or less. When the unit his healthy, pressure is assured with blitzing linebacker Von Miller running off the edge and working with must be double-teamed DE Elvis Dumervil to get to the QB. MLB Joe Mays in the middle and WLB D.J. Williams are both exceptional. Williams will miss the fist six games of the season, though, for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. That will have a detrimental affect on the defense.
Signing cornerback Tracey Porter away from New Orleans is huge because it allows the team to be more creative with Champ Bailey who is considered one of the best corners to ever play in the NFL. Safeties Mike Adamas and Raheem Moore are solid.
Kansas City Chiefs
AFC Divisional Finish: 2nd at +300
Chiefs’ Offense – - The unit could be a huge surprise in 2011. Fresh off of the EA Madden curse, RB Peyton Hillis will be looking for a return to the glory year of 2010 when he dominated defenses as a Cleveland Brown. Hillis has looked very good in the preseason and should complement the lightning quick feet of RB Jamal Charles who will get a breather often in 2012 as he continues to recover from a terrible 2011 injury.
With Charles and Hillis, QB Matt Cassel finally gets the running back tandem that could help him take the next step as an NFL quarterback. Cassel has a good target in WR Dwayne Bowe, who is as talented as any wide out in the league. Both Hillis and Charles can catch the ball out of the backfield. If Cassel fails to impress early, coach Romeo Crennel won’t hesitate to pull him for former Bears’ signal caller Kyle Orton who is capable of leading an offense.
If the Chiefs’ use Hillis and Charles correctly in 2012, then no matter who plays quarterback, whether it’s Cassell or Orton, should flourish. Hillis and Charles will keep the pressure off the QB and that should open things up for Bowe.
Chiefs’ Defense – - Kansas City plays a 3-4 defense making it exceptionally important coach Crennel get pressure on the QB with creative blitzing schemes. Those creative blitzing schemes will revolve around linebacker Derrick Johnson who will be counted on to stutter step his way to opposing teams’ running backs and quarterbacks.
So far, at least during the preseason, things haven’t looked as promising for Kansas City’s D as fans might have hoped. The Chiefs yielded 34 points to St. Louis 44 to Seattle and 24 to Green Bay in their final three preseason games. The unit gave up an alarming 367 yards to the Seahawks and 304 yards to the Packers in those two preseason contests.
It will be interesting to see how the Chiefs’ fare against a very good Atlanta Falcons’ squad in Week 1.
San Diego Chargers
AFC Divisional Finish: 3rd at +350
Chargers’ Offense – - How many games the San Diego Chargers win or lose will be determined by the play of quarterback Phillip Rivers. Rivers took a decided step back in 2011 after a fantastic 2010. Last season, the man who replaced Drew Brees in San Diego threw 20 interceptions to only 27 touchdowns and finished with an 88.7 QB rating.
If Rivers plays as badly in 2012, both he and coach Norv Turner will likely be gone after the season. The Chargers’ offense did pick up Saints’ wide receiver Robert Meachem to replace former star Vincent Jackson, who high-tailed it to Tampa Bay, but Meachem isn’t nearly as savvy as Jackson and it’s going to take time for Meachem and Rivers to develop a rapport. That didn’t happen during the preseason meaning that the pair will have to work on their timing during the regular season.
RB Ryan Mathews is hurt with a broken collarbone and will be on the bench in Week 1 and possibly longer depending on how the collarbone heals. Mathews is injury prone. Luckily for the Chargers, they’ve got a decent RB2 in Ronnie Brown, but Brown isn’t nearly as good as Mathews.
Chargers’ Defense – - The base 3-4 defense might have trouble keeping opposing teams’ out of the end zone this season. Cornerback Antoine Cason and free safety Eric Weddle are good, but the front seven will have to provide pressure up front if Cason is going to provide magic in the backfield.
Outside of Cason and Weddle there isn’t much to like about the Chargers’ D. Linebacker Donald Butler had 96 tackles in 2011, and he’s definitely solid, but Butler, no doubt, will be on the receiving end of a number of double-teams this season because offenses know that they can push around 15 year veteran Takeo Spikes and 9 year veteran Shaun Phillips.
AFC Divisional Finish: 4th at +150
Raiders’ Offense – - Although Raiders’ fans went gaga over backup quarterback Terrelle Pryor after his scintillating performance versus the Detroit Lions in the preseason, Pryor went 3 for 5 for 137 yards and 2 touchdowns and ran for 90 yards and a TD on 5 carries, TP is no better than third on the Raiders’ depth chart.
Matt Leinart is the backup while Carson Palmer is the starter. Poor Carson has nobody to throw the ball too, though, so his stats are going to be horrible in 2012. Darius Heyward-Bey has talent and Denarius Moore is a hard worker, but neither guy has developed into a legitimate WR1 in the NFL. The rushing game is a Darren McFadden injury away from being an absolute disaster. McFadden has played only a single season without injury in the NFL and he goes into this season with more on his shoulders than there was last season.
Michael Bush isn’t on the bench to take pressure off of McFadden meaning that if Darren goes down, the Raiders could be in a world of hurt at the RB position.
Raiders’ Defense – - Coach Dennis Allen was brought in to fix a unit that yielded 251.4 passing yards per game on average and 136.1 yards per game on the ground per game. Allen believes in a bend but don’t break philosophy that probably won’t work with the Raiders’ personnel.
There isn’t a defensive player that can be considered one of the tops in the league in the first unit. That, by itself, means that the Raiders are going to give up 30 points to the Broncos in the two games against Peyton and Co. That’s not good. Not only will the Broncos’ put a beating on the Raiders, but the Chiefs, if they’re smart, will do so as well. Defensive philosophies can be debated until the cows come home, but there is no debate regarding the fact that the Raiders just don’t have great players, accept maybe outside of LB Rolando McClain, on defense.
AFC West Analysis: Denver is easily the best team in this division. Yes, the schedule is difficult, but if the Broncos can go 3 and 3 in their first 6 games of the season, where they play Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Houston, Oakland, New England and San Diego, they should be able to coast to an AFC West Divisional Championship.
Kansas City finishes second by default because its defense, although still having problems, is much better than either Oakland’s or San Diego’s and the running back tandem of Peyton Hillis and Jamal Charles should help raise the play of either Cassel or Orton.
San Diego is already having injury issues while QB Phillip Rivers looks disinterested. The defense won’t be very good. Oakland is just a bad team all around. Carson Palmer might be forced into retirement at the end of this season.