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AFC West Preview

by Photo of Andrew Lontos

Will San Diego be able to regain their position atop the division?

AFC West Preview

The Chargers have been the team to beat in the AFC West for a good part of the decade. Going into last year, they won the division five out of the last six years. Despite this, the Chiefs were able to take the West last season, going 10-6 before losing in the opening round of the playoffs to the Ravens. San Diego excelled on offense and defense; their 119 Net Points was best in the division by far. It'll be interesting to see if their talent on both sides of the ball will translate into more than the disappointing 9 wins they put together in 2010. It'll be up to Kansas City to prevent them from doing so, as it's unlikely the Raiders or the Broncos will be in a position to compete at a high level.

The Chiefs have their doubters, who believe an easy schedule was the key to their success, rather than their top rushing attack in the league. It'll be up to Matt Cassel to build on his 2010 season and give Kansas City a balanced offense. The Raiders did go 6-0 in the division, which is certainly a positive. Unfortunately, they only had 2 wins outside of the division and will have to deal with a new head coach and the mediocrity of Jason Campbell. In Denver, their problems start at the quarterback position, where they have three underwhelming options that will hinder the franchise's progress.

Here's a look at our preseason rankings for the AFC West:

San Diego Chargers

Record Last Season: 9-7

Key Additions: Bob Sanders, Takeo Spikes, Vincent Brown, Laurent Robinson

Key Losses: Darren Sproles, Legedu Naanee

The Skinny: Last year was the first time in four years that the Chargers did not finish first in the AFC West. Despite that, they finished first in the NFL in both overall offense and defense; it was their special teams that let them down. This should be less of a problem for San Diego for two reasons. First, they hired a new special teams coach. Secondly, kickoffs have been moved from the 30 to the 35 yard line. We've already seen in the preseason that touchbacks will increase and returns will decrease. Therefore, there will be less opportunities for teams to exploit the Chargers' biggest weakness.

Philip Rivers is the main reason that the Chargers' offense is so productive. The most impressive part of Rivers' success last year is that stud wide receiver Vincent Jackson held out for the majority of the season and only played in the last five games. With Jackson back, along with Malcolm Floyd and Antonio Gates, Rivers has a plethora of big, skilled targets to choose from. Darren Sproles is gone and second year running back Ryan Matthews will need to step up to supplement the passing game with Mike Tolbert.

Defensively, the Charges added veterans Bob Sanders and Takeo Spikes to an already talented group. Spikes is a solid addition that should provide some leadership to a group that was undisciplined at times in 2010. The Chargers, however, would be smart not to count on Sanders. He's a great talent that simply can't stay healthy; he's played 9 games in the last 3 seasons combined. Look for him to make a few big plays in a few games, but anything else should be considered a bonus.

During Norv Turner's tenure in San Diego, the Chargers have alternated between great seasons and mediocre ones. The last four years:

2007: 11-5, 2008: 8-8, 2009: 13-3, 2010: 9-7

If the pattern continues, the Chargers could be due for a big 2011.

Player to Watch: Ryan Matthews. Drafted 12th overall out of Fresno State last year, Matthews had a disappointing rookie season. But the Chargers showed that they have faith in the young, talented running back by letting Sproles head to New Orleans. The 1st round pick will have plenty of opportunities to prove himself. With their great passing attack, Matthews just needs to be good enough to prevent San Diego from having a one dimensional offense. If he breaks out, the number one offense in football could be significantly better. That's a scary thought for the rest of the AFC.

Over/Under Regular Season Wins: 11.5. The Chargers are talented and deep. With four games against the Broncos and Raiders, they shouldn't have much of a problem within their division. However, they do have some tough road games against the Patriots, Jets, Bears, and division rival Chiefs. Home games against the Packers and Ravens make their schedule difficult, but San Diego has enough talent to re-establish themselves as the class of the AFC West.

Kansas City Chiefs

Record Last Season: 10-6

Key Additions: Steve Breaston, Jonathan Baldwin, Le'Ron McClain

Key Losses: Chris Chambers

The Skinny: The Chiefs surprised many last year by making the playoffs for the first time since 2006 and dethroning the San Diego Chargers. They had an easy schedule last year and have a much tougher one on paper in 2011. Many cite this as a significant reason why they will take a step back after a successful 2010. While this is usually a weak argument due to the unpredictability of the NFL, it's hard to ignore the facts. Via Kansas City.com:

One NFL personnel man calls the Chiefs’ division championship “a mirage.” They faced only two playoff teams, and one of them was the 7-9 Seahawks. They went 2-4 in the division and, counting a limp effort against the Ravens in a home playoff game, 2-5 against teams that finished .500 or better.

The bottom line is that the Chiefs do have talent in a weak division. They were the best rushing team in the NFL, led by the electric Jamaal Charles who rushed for 6.4 yards per carry. The team also has depth at the position with veteran Thomas Jones, second year hybrid Dexter McCluster, and newly acquired beast Le'Ron McClain. If the Chiefs stay true to themselves and continue to establish the run, Matt Cassel should be good enough in a limited role. Cassel had a good year in 2010, throwing for 27 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. Dwayne Bowe finally broke out as a touchdown machine and Steve Breaston should complement him nicely. The main concern is the loss of Charlie Weis, who is now the offensive coordinator at the University of Florida. It's challenging for any quarterback to mesh with a new coordinator, especially when he's replacing a talented one like Weis. Was Cassel's success due to Weis' system, or will he continue to improve without him?

Defensively, the Chiefs are big up front with some young, exciting playmakers behind them. Young linemen Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson will need to improve to clear the way for Derrick Johnson and (overpaid) Tamba Hali to get to the ball. Kansas City's secondary is led by cornerback Brandon Flowers and second year safety Eric Berry. The Chiefs defense ranked in the middle of the pack in 2010; their young players have the potential to make this a feared unit that would fit nicely with a solid running attack on offense.

Player to Watch: Matt Cassel. Will Cassel be able to build on his successful 2010 season? How much of an impact will the loss of Charlie Weis have on him? Either way, Cassel will need to step up against elite defenses in big games if the Chiefs want to repeat as division champs. In the Wild Card round against the Ravens last year at home, Cassel was brutal, going 9/18 for 70 yards, 0 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. In fairness, the whole team looked overmatched; but the quarterback needs to set the tone.

Over/Under Regular Season Wins: 8.5. The Chiefs have the talent and youth to build on last year's division title. Their presence in an overall weak division and a great home field advantage leaves plenty of room for optimism. But Philip Rivers and slew of tough opponents will likely prevent Kansas City from repeating as champs of the AFC West.

Oakland Raiders

Record Last Season: 8-8

Key Additions: Kevin Boss, Taiwan Jones, Terrelle Pryor

Key Losses: Nnamdi Asomugha, Zach Miller, Robert Gallery

The Skinny: The Raiders finished .500 last year for the first time since 2002. Tom Cable was fired after putting together an interesting 17-27 record from 2008-2010. Hue Jackson takes over a team that had the 10th ranked offense and 11th ranked defense in 2010. Darren McFadden finally had a breakout year, rushing for 1157 yards and 7 touchdowns while averaging 5.2 yards per carry in 13 games. Unfortunately, their best option at quarterback is Jason Campbell. Campbell threw 13 touchdowns and 8 interceptions for Oakland in 2010; his QB Rating was 84.5, right on par with his last two years in Washington. The former first round back will turn 30 before the season ends, and it's clear at this point that he's not the answer for a team looking to win a division. The Raiders took Terrelle Pryor in the third round of the supplemental draft, but between his suspension and lack of experience, he won't be a factor this year.

Oakland's defense was solid in 2010, but they lost arguably the best corner in football and haven't replaced him at all. Richard Seymour, Kamerion Wimbley, and second year linebacker from Alabama Rolando McClain make up a talented defensive core. But they won't be able to make up for the loss of Asomugha or the mediocrity at the quarterback position. Add a brand new head coach and the same crazy ownership situation, and I am not a believer in the 2011 Oakland Raiders.

Player to Watch: Darrius Heyward-Bey. His success will depend a great deal on Campbell, which isn't a good start. Oakland took Heyward-Bey 7th overall in 2009 and he's been a huge bust thus far. Entering his third season at age 24, the speedster is looking to break out. He got mixed reviews in training camp, but if he can live up to his potential, maybe Campbell and the Raiders can make some noise in the West.

Over/Under Regular Season Wins: 6. The Raiders have a few talented players on both sides of the ball, but not enough to end their decade-long struggle. Between the roster he inherited and San Diego's talent, Hue Jackson will have a tough time in Oakland.

Denver Broncos

Record Last Season: 4-12

Key Additions: Willis McGahee, Von Miller, Virgil Green

Key Losses: Jabar Gaffney, Correll Buckhalter

The Skinny: The Broncos are in disarray as the 2011 season gets underway. Coming off a miserable 4-12 season, Denver had a quarterback controversy between Kyle Orton, Tim Tebow, and Brady Quinn. Orton eventually won the starting job, but that shows how little they like their other quarterbacks. Sure, Tebow, and to a lesser extent Quinn, are young, but the Broncos showed how much they loved Orton by almost trading him to the Dolphins at the end of July. In fact, the front office has such little faith in their quarterbacks that they would consider drafting another one in 2012. 2009 first round pick Knowshon Moreno has been disappointing running the ball in his first two years and soon-to-be 30 Willis McGahee is not a great insurance option. At receiver, their best option is Brandon Lloyd, who eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark for the first time last year in his 8th season. That's certainly not enough talent for Orton, Tebow, or Quinn.

The Broncos will need big production from Elvis Dumervil, who had 17 sacks in 2009 before missing all of last year with an injury. Linebacker Von Miller, the second overall pick in this year's draft, will be a nice addition next to solid veteran D.J. Williams. Unfortunately, Denver will be relying too heavily on 33 year old Champ Bailey and 37 year old Brian Dawkins.

Player to Watch: Von Miller. Miller won the Butkus Award for Best Linebacker in the NCAA last year. As the second overall pick, individual expectations are high while the team's are low. The rookie could be one of the few reasons to make Broncos' fans smile this year.

Over/Under Regular Season Wins: 4. If Orton keeps the starting quarterback job all year, he'll be doing something right and they can win a few games. But if he gets off to a bad start, one of the young quarterbacks will have to play and it will be an ugly season. John Elway will be (is already?) dreaming about Andrew Luck by November.

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