The San Diego Chargers fell off the horse with a lousy 8-8 record last season, but I definitely see them getting back in the saddle and winning the AFC West in 2012.
Once again predicted as a Super Bowl favorite, the Chargers started off the season 5-1 before heading into their bye week, and then all hell broke loose. The Bolts dropped six straight, and the AFC West became a dogfight between the Chargers, Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos.
The AFC West won't be so easy to dominate next season now that Oakland and Denver have improved, but the Chargers will escape as division champions for the following five reasons.
The Tim Tebow-led Broncos were football's feel-good story of the year, but I just can't see them repeating the success they had last season.
I'll admit the Broncos did improve in 201,1 but that style of offense can't be a winning formula anymore now that teams have seen how it works. Running the ball is the foundation of an offense, but there has to be an equal amount of passing to prevent predictability.
Assuming Denver struggles in next season, it should clear the way for a California battle between the Raiders and Chargers for the AFC West.
We already know what Darren McFadden can do on the ground, but people are forgetting about Michael Bush and his big contributions to their rushing attack. With Bush presumably testing the free-agent market this season, San Diego could benefit from Oakland's loss.
Bushed rushed for 977 yards and seven touchdowns in 2011, and his favorite team to run all over was the Chargers. In two meetings against San Diego, Bush racked up 223 yards rushing and 98 yards receiving. His big body gives him that bruiser mentality as a running back and makes it very hard hard to bring him down.
With Bush out of the picture in Oakland, the Chargers will have the sole challenge of stopping McFadden in their conference showdowns.
Fans can say what they want about head coach Norv Turner and general manager A.J. Smith, but they will undoubtedly spend most of 2012 on the hot seat, and that could call for desperation out of this Chargers team.
Smith will face his challenges in the draft and free agency as he attempts to keep players and make moves that will help the outcome of this team next season. Turner, on the other hand, will be focusing on getting the Chargers into the playoffs.
Both jobs are on the line, and the win-or-go-home mentality has set in even before the first game.
Ryan Mathews vastly improved in his second season with the Chargers, and I could see him having a breakout year in 2012.
Despite splitting carries with Mike Tolbert in the backfield, Mathews rushed for 1,091 yards and six touchdowns. The 24-year-old still had some issues with injuries, but nothing major that put his season on hold. He actually played two more games than he did in his injury-ridden first season.
When San Diego's running game gets going, it's only a matter of time before defenses start crowding the line of scrimmage and Rivers is able to make them pay downfield. I expect Mathews to have a breakout year in 2012 and lead the Chargers into the postseason.
Things couldn't have gone worse for Philip Rivers last season, and it certainly seemed like the worst day ever, but this guy is still an elite quarterback in the NFL and he will definitely bounce back in 2012.
Other than the infamous fumbled snap against the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday Night Football, Rivers had career highs in interceptions (20) and fumbles (7), as turnovers factored into key losses. Last year's performance was nowhere near the level that Rivers is capable of, and I'm going to call it his sophomore slump even though he's already been in the league eight years.
Rivers will bounce back in 2012 and return to Pro Bowl form, thus increasing the likelihood of the Chargers coming out on top in the AFC West.