Chargers Still the Class of the West (AFC West Preview)

The AFC West has been dominated by one team for years as the An Diego Chargers are favorites to win every year. The Chargers have been the class of the division for many years but have never been able to do anything in the playoffs. Last year ended their rein when a surprising Kansas City club took home the division title. They did this with pure speed as they left other teams in the dust for the majority of the season. The Oakland Raiders remained at the bottom of the division but were able to beat out the Broncos. The Denver Broncos were stuck with a controversy at QB when many fans demanded the young Tim Tebow as their starter but were not given their wish. The Broncos ended their disappointing season leading to more questions than answers for 2011. The AFC West is a tough division but full of underachievers when it comes to the playoffs. The last time a team from the AFC West won the Super Bowl was in the late 90s when the Denver Broncos won two in a row. Since then the AFC West has been a stepping stone in the postseason. This year the hype remains as every year but the teams in the teams in the West will need to prove that they can manage the pressure of the postseason.

Denver Broncos

The Denver Broncos have tasted success in 1997 and in 1998 when they won back-to-back Super Bowls. This was in large part due to their Hall of Fame QB John Elway who led them to these Super Bowls. Since Elway the Broncos have suffered a QB hangover like many teams as they had not been able to find a true #1 starter. In 2010 many thought that they had done this when they drafted highly touted Florida QB Tim Tebow in the second round. Tebow was thought to be the QB of the future as Kyle Orton ran the offence. With Orton at the helm the Broncos got off to a bad start leading many to demand that Tebow take control but it never happened. Then they suffered a blow when WR Kenny McKinley was found dead at his home that was an emotional blow to the team. The Broncos then suffered a professional blow to the team when they were accused of videotaping opposing team’s practices. This was a big blow to the team and they continued to lose leading to the eventual firing of head coach Josh McDaniels. The Broncos finished 2010 with a 4-12 record and landed them last in the AFC West where they were faced with more than just execution problems. This year the Broncos will be looking to turn things around as they try to get back to a winning record.

The Broncos made their biggest move in the front office as they hired former QB John Elway as the VP of Football Operations. He will now act as the overseer for all things football and assist the GM in the management of the team. With this came the offseason controversy on whether or not Tim Tebow will be handed the reins. Elway has come out publicly and stated that he does not believe they have a good #1 starting QB on the team. Throughout the offseason Tim Tebow has slowly moved down the depth chart to the 3rd string behind Kyle Orton and Brady Quinn. This will be a big source of controversy for the entire season as Kyle Orton has not been very consistent and when things get bad there will be a demand for a change at QB. The rest of the offence has remained essentially unchanged but that was not the biggest problem last year. The offence will have to overcome the QB controversy and a lack of big playmakers. They will hope that Knowshon Moreno finds his stride but if not then they will go to their offseason signing in Willis McGahee, RB. If the running game can gain some traction it might help out a passing game that needs another big receiver to be feared. The defence will need to be the most improved this year as they struggled last year and need a big improvement to keep up with an improving division. The defence may not be the best but they will be building a foundation for the future. The Broncos will be looking to two rookie defenders including first round pick Von Miller, LB and second round pick Rahim Moore, S. The big positive will be the return of Elvis Dumervil, DE who will return from an injury that kept him out for the season last year. The Broncos hope that Dumervil will return to his 2009 form when he earned 17 sacks and led the team. This year the Broncos will need a better defence as their rookies will need to play like veterans in order to give the Broncos a chance. If the Broncos can get past their off the field woes then there will be hope in Denver but I believe there are too many obstacles to overcome for the Broncos to be competitive this year.

Kansas City Chiefs

The Kansas City Chiefs surprised everyone last year as they dethroned the kings of the AFC West by winning the division. The Chiefs took out the San Diego Chargers who had been the top of the division for many years. Last year the Chiefs used a simple strategy to beat teams as they simply outran everyone that faced them. They had one of the fastest teams in the NFL led by speedy RB Jamaal Charles. They also made big changes in the coaching staff as they hired former Cleveland Browns head coach Romeo Crennel as their defensive coordinator and former Notre Dame Head Coach and New England Patriots Offensive Coordinator Charlie Weis as their offensive coordinator. This allowed them to take a new philosophy to their team that was full of young talent. They took this new philosophy into the new season that began with a three game winning streak. They ended the season with a 10-6 record, the AFC West title, and a playoff berth. They went into the playoffs against a very tough team that was able to shut down their speed before it could get going. The 30-7 loss in the wild card playoff against the Baltimore Ravens ended a great season that had many very surprised. This year the Chiefs will hope that this new attitude will allow them to repeat as AFC West champions and get past their first playoff game.

The Chiefs have made some essential changes this year as their former offensive coordinator Charlie Weis has left to become the offensive coordinator of the Florida Gators in the NCAA. In his place will be the former offensive line coach Bill Muir who will work closely with new QB coach Jim Zorn who last year coached Joe Flacco with the Baltimore Ravens. The Chiefs hope that Zorn will be able to improve the performance of their starting QB Matt Cassel who led the passing game last year to a decent outing. This year they hope to improve as WR Dwayne Bowe will get some coverage relief with the signing of Steve Breaston. They will look to improve the passing game with these parts in order to give some more balance to their offence. The Chiefs offence needs this balance as they will need to take away focus from their running game that was the best in the NFL last year. Jamaal Charles will have a new blocker up front with the signing of Le’Ron McClain who will hope to make a powerful run offence even better. Defensively the Chiefs have a solid returning corps including second year safety Eric Berry will look to improve. They will also be hoping that their new nose tackle Kelly Gregg will be able to shore up their defensive front. They won’t have an easy go of it as they will need to get through the beginning of their schedule that sees them playing four of their first six games away. Although the teams they will be playing are not the toughest. Then the second half of their season will feature New England, Pittsburgh, Chicago, New York Jets, and the Green Bay Packers. If they can get through the toughest schedule in the NFL the Chiefs may be able to repeat their performance but it will be a tough road.

Oakland Raiders

The Oakland Raiders have repeatedly been in the bottom of the NFL and have had a number of strange decisions by management. The biggest problem has been the ownership of Al Davis who seems like he cannot stay out of the management side of his football team. Davis has had many issues over the years with his coaches and 2010 was no different. Davis and head coach Tom Cable had it out many times throughout the season and it may have been a distraction from the season. Meanwhile the Raiders were hoping to recover from the failed JaMarcus Russell experiment by signing Jason Campbell to lead their offence under centre. They did have some hope as they were very successful running the ball with Darren McFadden leading the rushing game to allow the offence to be successful. Their defence was led by cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha as the Raiders were very successful against the run. The only successes that had happened were really limited to the AFC West as they limited the West’s rushing games with 85.3 yards a game but allowed 162.6 yards per game for teams outside of the division. This caused a middle of the road season as the Raiders finished with an 8-8 record and 3rd place in the division. This year the Raisers will look to finally get back on the winning track as they try to extend their success to beyond the AFC West division.

The Raiders will go into 2011 with a new head coach after Tom Cable was fired after he finished his first year as head coach. Cable and Davis did not get along but the hope is that new head coach Hugh Jackson will be able to withstand his nosey owner. Jackson was the team’s offensive coordinator last year when they ranked 6th in points scored per game. They will also hope that Jason Campbell can emerge as an elite QB and lead the Raiders to a winning record. If Campbell cannot do this the Raiders have drafted a backup plan in the supplemental draft when they took former Ohio State QB Terrell Pryor. Pryor decided not to return to Ohio State later than most forcing him into the supplemental draft where the Raiders took him. Campbell will have some time to prove himself as Pryor will be suspended for the first five games of the season. Campbell will have the same receiving corps to throw to as Darius Heyward-Bey will try to get over his bad hands to become an elite receiver. On defence the biggest question will be can they play against the rest of the NFL outside of their division. They will also need to overcome the biggest signing of the offseason as their star cornerback was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles. In his place will be Stanford Routt who will be under a microscope all season as he will replace Asomugha. The Raiders have been good against the division but they will need to improve against the rest of the NFL if they hope to win the division.

San Diego Chargers

The Chargers have been a strong team in the division as they have continued to be the best team in the division for the last few years. They make the playoffs almost every year but the biggest knock against them is they cannot win in the playoffs. They have been Super Bowl favorites for many years but have yet to show their talent in the postseason. Last year they did not even get the chance to show if they could manage playoffs as they finished in second place behind the Kansas City Chiefs. A big reason for this may have been the hold out of their star WR Vincent Jackson who sat out the first month and a half of the season. He ended his lockout on October but was still required to serve six games of suspension, 3 games for going on the roster exempt list and 3 for pleading guilty to drunk driving. With Jackson gone the Chargers were able to use their running game with Darren Sproles and Ryan Matthews to give Philip Rivers enough room to throw the ball. Their defence was also good giving the offence a chance to win the game every time. The biggest problem was that they had the weakest Special Teams play in the NFL. It may not seem like a lot but when you allow four returns for TDs and four punt blocks you are dealing with quick momentum shifts and bad field position. The Chargers will look to improve on their special teams play and get back to the top of the division.

This year the Chargers made their biggest and possibly riskiest moves on defence signing two veteran defenders. First the Chargers signed Takeo Spikes to give some more veteran presence to the linebacking corps. The risk with Spikes is that he is not getting any younger and so there is a threat of having Spikes not perform up to his potential. The second signing was their new Strong Safety Bob Sanders. Sanders has regularly been one of the best safeties in the NFL but has rarely played a full season. These two additions will make a very good defence if they play to their potential and stay healthy all season. They will also have some help on the defensive line with the return of Luis Castillo and the addition of their first round pick Corey Liuget. The defence will be good enough to give the offence a chance to win games. With Vincent Jackson back as Philip Rivers’ main weapon in an offence that looks to be very balanced this year. With the loss of Darren Sproles one player that will need to step up will be their second year RB Ryan Matthews. Matthews will now take the majority of the handoffs in San Diego and will need to show that he can manage the bigger workload. The defence will be the Chargers strength but their offence is nothing to overlook as they will have two good aspects. They will be facing some improved teams in their division but it seems that they have what it takes to be at the top again in 2011.

Prediction:

1. San Diego Chargers (12-4)

2. Kansas City Chiefs (10-6)

3. Oakland Raiders (8-8)

4. Denver Broncos (5-11)

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