2015 NFL Preview: AFC West

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The AFC West has always been a division where dominant teams have ruled for at least a few years.

Sometimes it is because of their defence and other times it is simply a great player that has led teams to the top multiple times.

In the current form of the division both the Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers have taken their time at the top with big streaks of dominance.

The Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs are another story though has they have rarely had any long periods of taking the division title.

Both have won the division multiple times but neither have taken the title more than two times in a row.

That is until now as the Broncos have now taken the last four division titles with one very big move taking the majority of the credit for their new time atop the west.

Although the first of the four title came after an 8-8 season with Tim Tebow leading the way into the playoffs the new dominance is largely thanks to Peyton Manning.

AS soon as Manning was released by the Colts the entire league went to work trying to convince the future hall of famer that they had the right mix for him.

He clearly wanted to go to a contender and a team that could find their way to the Super Bowl that would ultimately pad his stats.

In his biggest move at the helm of the Broncos, John Elway convinced Manning that the Broncos were the right team.

Manning has proven them right as his presence as changed the team and has changed the division.

With Manning under centre the Broncos have taking three convincing division titles and have gone to the Super Bowl once.

Now Manning looks to do the same and continue to the domination of the division for the Broncos while he is still in the league.football-sidebar

Then again every dominant era has to end at some point as many of these teams knows all too well.

The Kansas City Chiefs will try to repair an anemic offence will continue to lean on their defence to take out the Broncos.

The Oakland Raiders will try to find their way to the top of the division as their rebuild continues and now actually shows some promise.

The San Diego Chargers are looking to get back to the top as their team continues to see their window to compete close.

The AFC West has changed since the Manning signing and everybody is now in the middle of the Manning era.

The Broncos are the team to beat and every that Manning plays for the team he makes them the target to win a division.

It is a familiar position for him though as he led the Indianapolis Colts to multiple division titles and was constantly the best player on the best team in the division.

It seems like little has changed except for the colour of his jersey as once again he is the best player on the best team in the division.

One way or another his Broncos are going to compete for the title year in and year out as he leaves it to the rest of the division to sort themselves out.

Whether or not that can continue will be the big question this year as other teams in the division are improved.

The Broncos have one focus though as they are a Super Bowl or bust team and hope to get their star quarterback to the big game another time.

After all, this may very well be the last year for Manning as his career is starting to wind down with nothing left to prove.

If it is the work done by the other teams will be well worth it as the Broncos attempt to move on from Manning.

That is a decision for later in the year though as the Broncos remain one of the top teams in the league while the rest of the division tries to find their way to the playoffs.

They have done it before bringing two wild card teams to the playoffs in 2013 and if they can’t win the division this year they hope to repeat that performance in 2015.

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The Peyton Manning era is alive and well in Denver as the future hall of fame quarterback has brought three division titles and a Super Bowl appearance to the Broncos. He has been the best quarterback the team has had since the current GM John Elway and he hopes to add another Super Bowl to his collection of awards. Manning hopes to change that but he will need to make some adjustments to do it as the close but no cigar seasons have caused Elway to make some major changes. John Fox was a great coach for the Broncos but after two bad exits in the playoffs his tenure as head coach came to an end. Gary Kubiak will take over this year as an offensive minded coach who created a potent attack in Houston with less at quarterback. Manning will enjoy the new focus on offence but will need to do work without one of his favourite targets. Julius Thomas left the team for Jacksonville this off-season taking away one of the favourite targets. He will still have his biggest receivers though as Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, both 1,000+ yard receivers. They also looked to replace Julius Thomas with Owen Daniels who will do enough to replace the hole even if he is not as big a touchdown threat. The running game is led by C.J. Anderson while Ronnie Hillman provides a good change of pace back to provide balance. The defence will get a bit of a new look as well this year with new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. He will bring in his 3-4 scheme that has been so successful in past years including with Kubiak in Houston. An adjustment will be needed for the Broncos but they luckily have guys that have gone through it before. The defensive line will be led by Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson on the ends but they won’t need to be the main rushers. That will come with a great pair of rushing linebackers in Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware who both have a knack for getting to the quarterback. Ware’s move to the outside is a familiar one as he has played under Phillips’ system in Dallas while Miller will take on a bigger pass rush role moving into the new system. In the secondary the focus will once again be on a good trio of Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr., and Bradley Roby, who all performed well last year while Phillips hopes to let safeties T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart be more aggressive. The Broncos are a changed team but unlike most coaching changes Kubiak and his group have all of the talent to compete and make a deep run into the playoffs. Expect a fifth straight division title while a deep run into the playoffs could mean the end for Manning.

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The Kansas City Chiefs have been a team that is used to change over the last decade but that is all coming to an end. The Chiefs have hired and fired six head coaches since 1999 but the Chiefs believe they have found their man in Andy Reid who enters his third season as the head coach. Over the last few years this has been the make or break season for coaches but in Reid’s case it seems like the leash is a lot longer. After making the playoffs in his first year last year was disappointing as they missed out on the wild card despite a winning season. Alex Smith looks to change that and prove that he is more than a game manager. He will have some help this year as the Chiefs added a number of lineman to fix their biggest issue while they also added a major upgrade in the receiving corps. Jeremy Maclin will join the Chiefs and immediately becomes the best receiver in the group that lacked any real gamebreakers last year. The backfield will once again be led by Charles who provides more options as a pass catcher and great rusher. The defence has been a solid aspect of the team since the arrival of Reid as they have made the best of a team lacking in major stars. They do have a few although they may have to do without one of them as their run game leader in Dontari Poe had back surgery in the off-season and has yet to participate in practice for the Chiefs. They hope to see him return this year but will go with Jaye Howard for now while Mike DeVito returns from his injury to provide more pressure alongside Allen Bailey. At linebacker the defensive leader Tamba Hali is back while last year’s NFL sack leader Justin Houston will be needed to continue his production after becoming the highest paid linebacker in the NFL this off-season. The secondary was the worst part of the defence last year with only three interceptions from the entire group. They added a number of defensive backs to create some competition but their bigger concern is the secondary leader. Eric Berry underwent treatment for Hodgkins Lymphoma last year and his contribution is questioned as he continues treatment and may not be back to an every down player yet. Husain Abdullah will try to fill that role and likely will split with Berry. The rest of the secondary will be a mix of veterans like Sean Smith and young players like Phillip Gaines and rookie Marcus Peters. The Chiefs did a great job in the off-season of filling their holes and for that they could be headed back to the playoffs. The only way there for them though is the wild card as a division title is still out of reach with Manning in the division.

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The Oakland Raiders are one of the most inconsistent teams over the last decade as they came off of their 2002 Super Bowl appearance and into a dark hole. After winning the division three years in a row the Raiders began to sink to the bottom and have not been to the playoffs since. They have attempted multiple rebuilds but none have been successful as the changes have continued throughout the last decade. The Raiders looked better than they did in the past but it didn’t result in many wins for the team. As a result they fired their coaching staff and brought in a veteran head coach in Jack Del Rio who takes over a team with a lot more talent than even just a year ago. One of the biggest reasons for optimism on this team has been Derek Carr who proved to be a good pick in the draft as their next quarterback. Carr tries to continue his development and become the leader that the Raiders need on offence. He will go to work with a young receiver group that will be led by Michael Crabtree who will be the most experienced receiver on the team. The group will see plenty of action out of two of their draft picks in Seth Roberts and last year’s Biletnikoff Award winner as the NCAA’s best receiver, Amari Cooper. The big change will come at running back where long-time Raider and pillar of the offence Darren McFadden is gone leaving Latavius Murray to lead the way after splitting time last year while new addition Roy Helu could see some time. The Raiders defence will be a concentration this year as the defensive minded Del Rio tries to make them a defensive powerhouse. They went to work trying to do that with plenty of additions including picking up a prized free agent in defensive tackle Dan Williams will hope to plug the running game alongside Justin Ellis. That should help a new tandem of Justin Tuck and Khalil Mack, who moves from linebacker to end, rush the passer more effectively this year. At linebacker the Raiders will welcome Curtis Lofton who is one of the best tacklers in the game along with Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith to a group that sill shift slightly with Mack now playing on the line. The secondary will be a little younger this year as D.J. Hayden and T.J. Carrie take over at corner. Meanwhile Charles Woodson continues to play far young than his age suggests as safety and the addition of Nate Allen brings some experience despite the fact that he is not a premier safety. The Raiders have made improvements this year and have some very promising young talent as their rebuild finally seems to be going right for a change. They will likely get more than three wins this year but the playoffs are out of reach for another year.

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The San Diego Padres are used to winning this division but ever since Manning came in they have struggled to find their way to the playoffs. The Padres have been one of the stranger teams in recent years with talent that looks like it could win a super Bowl and yet no finish to get there. This year they are trying to correct that after a tumultuous off-season where rumours provided a lot of distraction. It seems almost certain that this year may be one of the last for the Chargers in San Diego as the move to Los Angeles has been a major story. The other major distraction was at quarterback where Philip Rivers was due a new contract and the Chargers reportedly began shopping him around. That included talks with Tennessee to take the second pick for Rivers and essentially find their future quarterback in Marcus Mariota. The Chargers did not pull the trigger on that trade though as they signed Rivers to a new deal in the hopes that he can continue to lead the team. Despite the knocks against him, like he can’t win the big games, Rivers is one of the top QBs in the league. He will go to work again with some good receivers at his disposal. Although neither Malcolm Floyd nor Kennan Allen had a great year last year, neither reached 1,000 yards, they are deep threats at any point in the game while Antonio Gates is still a touchdown machine. The running game received the biggest boost as the Chargers may have found their best back since LaDainian Tomlinson. Melvin Gordon was lights out for Wisconsin last year and in his rookie season they will see what he can do at the next level. On defence the Chargers had a good year but they would like to get to the quarterback a lot more in 2015. Corey Liuget is the only real pass rusher on the line while Kendall Reyes has shown no signs that he can get to the quarterback. At linebacker Melvin Ingram will be given the opportunity to prove what he can do in the pass rush with the departure of Dwight Freeney. Patrolling the inside to stop the run will once again be Manti Te’o and Donald Butler who need to improve on the league’s 26th ranked rushing defence. The secondary was impressive last year even without a pass rush to help them and they hope to be the same this year. Brandon Flowers returns as the unquestioned leader while Jason Verrette tries to prove that he was worth the 2014 pick. Eric Weddle and Jahleel Addae form a good pair in the middle. The Chargers are much the same team as last year and that is not necessarily a good thing for the Chargers. They have a slightly better offence but not much better on defence and as a result they won’t find the playoffs again this year with much the same season.

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Prediction:
The AFC West is a division that continues to see one team dominant for the time being and that has no end in sight for this year. The Denver Broncos are just simply too well-rounded of a team and have the best quarterback in the division behind them. The battle comes behind them as the other teams all look to find the wild card in the AFC and the Chiefs may have the best shot. They are the most improved team from a year ago as they look ready to take the wild car behind the Broncos. The Chargers are just not improved at all and that will likely result in the same type of season where they miss the playoffs. The Raiders are an improved team but won’t be improved enough to find their way out of the basement although a few surprises could be on the way.

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