The AFC West---the worst division in the NFL in 2011---is primed for a comeback this year thanks to some extremely explosive offenses, led by quarterbacks with a lot to prove.
Peyton Manning is eager to get back after a year away from the game. Carson Palmer is primed to show he can still play at a high level. Matt Cassel wants to forget a nightmarish, injury-shortened season. Philip Rivers is determined to rebound from the most uneven season of his career.
All of these quarterbacks have shown at one time or another they can be among the best in the game, and here is why all of them will play a role in making the AFC West the best quarterback division in 2012.
Newly acquired quarterback Peyton Manning will bring quite a new look to the team's offense.
Tim Tebow came in and ignited the Broncos's running game last season, forming a devastating tandem with Willis McGahee. However, that wasn't balanced very well by the passing attack, and it ultimately resulted in Tebow being traded.
Manning will open up running lanes for his tailbacks with his throwing ability in a similarly effective way that Tebow opened up running lanes due to his own ability to carry the football.
The organization feels so comfortable in Manning's ability to make those around him better that they used all but one draft pick on defensive players this offseason. Manning's help came in free agency with the acquisition of his former teammate TE Jacob Tamme, and former Houston Texan Joel Dreessen.
Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker have shown flashes of playmaking ability even with Tebow throwing them the ball. Those two should only improve with one of the greatest of all-time zipping tighter spirals and imparting his seemingly endless football knowledge upon them.
If Manning is the Manning we've come to know—he should be if the Broncos signed him to a 5-year, $90 million dollar contract—expect another routine 4,000-plus yard season from the former Colt signal-caller.
Quietly, the Raiders have built one of the most explosive receiving corps in the NFL. The addition of Carson Palmer was an upgrade over Jason Campbell, who never quite stuck in the Silver and Black.
Campbell's struggles may have been due to inconsistency at offensive coordinator, but Palmer joined very late last season and performed surprisingly well as the season drew to an end.
Palmer threw for 2,753 yards in just over nine starts, capping it off by throwing for 417 against the solid pass defense of the San Diego Chargers, as the Raiders finished just one game out of the playoffs.
One player that benefited greatly from Palmer's arrival was Darrius Heyward-Bey. The former first-round pick from Maryland was considered a bust in his first two years in the league.
Heyward-Bey answered the critics in quietly having far and away his best season, catching 64 passes for 975 yards and four TDs in 15 games.
Beyond Palmer and Heyward-Bey, the Raiders were decimated by injuries on offense last season.
Their biggest injury was to talented running back Darren McFadden who missed nine games last season with a painful Lisfranc injury, but he figures to get to 100 percent and be back to contribute in a big way in 2012.
Louis Murphy battled through an injury-plagued campaign with groin and hamstring issues, but should return to his reliable self this season. The lightning fast Jacoby Ford also seems to be rounding himself into a more polished wide receiver entering his third year.
The late-season emergence from the speedy Denarius Moore was also aided by the arrival of Palmer, and with a full offseason to get this incredibly athletic group on the same page, the Raiders receiving corps should be among the most exciting to watch.
Palmer's arm looked livelier last season as he got a fresh start with an organization that he truly wanted to play for. He now has four players that can provide a vertical threat, a dynamic running back to give the ball to, and peace of mind about where he is playing.
All of this should lead to a career year for Palmer, and could turn the Raiders into a dangerous team next season if the defense can improve. The Raiders gave up a lot to get Palmer, and didn't select until the third round of this year's draft.
However, the significant investment in Palmer should pay big dividends in 2012.
Kansas City Chiefs
Last season this team was decimated by injuries.
Quarterback Matt Cassel was placed on injured reserve after breaking his throwing hand in Week 11 versus his former team, the New England Patriots.
Cassel struggled through the absence of a viable running back due to Jamaal Charles tearing his ACL, and not getting used to the new scheme.
The Chiefs had a thin backfield last year, which was a big part of their run to the playoffs in 2010. Behind Charles was the aging Thomas Jones, who wasn't the same player as the previous year, and Jackie Battle.
With Charles back, and the addition of a motivated Peyton Hillis, a solid 1-2 punch will form in the backfield, with Hillis being an exceptional pass catcher as well.
Tight end Tony Moeaki had a breakout rookie season, but also tore his ACL in the preseason last year, missing all of 2011. He was a security blanket for Cassel, and in case he comes back a different player, the team added former Giant and Raider Kevin Boss as insurance.
Last year's first-round pick Jonathan Baldwin provides a huge target with speed on the outside to go along with one of the top receivers in the game, Dwayne Bowe, and should make a big jump in his second year in the league, especially without Jones on the team.
NFL.com's Bucky Brooks also praises wide receiver Devon Wylie, a fourth-round selection, as comparable to Wes Welker. This could provide Cassel another reliable target, and he could compete with Dexter McCluster for snaps, lining up in the slot.
Keep in mind, Cassel sat behind Tom Brady in New England for multiple years, learning a similar offensive system, and was then coached last year by former Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, who left for the University of Florida.
During the successful 11-5 season with the Patriots in 2008 and on the 10-6 playoff team, Cassel's unit wasn't hit with such devastating injuries.
2012 should be a bounce back season for Cassel with a healthy supporting cast, and a much more positive environment under Crennel, who is reputedly more of a player's coach than his predecessor Todd Haley.
San Diego Chargers
Philip Rivers suffered through one of the worst seasons of his career, but helped the Chargers put up the sixth-most points in the NFL in 2011. While he threw for 27 TDs, Rivers also threw a career-high 20 interception after throwing just 22 combined in the previous two seasons.
Antonio Gates looks to have a healthy season after being beat up for the previous two, and head coach Norv Turner seems to believe that it will finally happen based on how Gates has looked so far in OTAs.
That's a scary thought, considering Gates still led the team in receptions and scored seven touchdowns last season.
With the addition of Robert Meachem in free agency to replace malcontent No. 1 WR Vincent Jackson, Rivers will still have two big targets on the outside in Meachem and Malcom Floyd.
Running back Ryan Mathews finally stayed healthy last season and also grabbed 50 balls out of the backfield in addition to rushing for nearly 1100 yards. Le'Ron McClain and Jacob Hester also bring versatility, having the ability to carry the ball, catch, and even line up at fullback.
Rivers's poor decision-making was the root cause of his uncharacteristically high interception total. The Chargers have been expected to win a Super Bowl for a number of years with Rivers at the helm, but have not threatened as much as they should have.
Expect Rivers to be rejuvenated in 2012 and orchestrate another explosive offensive unit, with perhaps some extra motivation to succeed since he is no longer the unquestioned best quarterback in the AFC West.
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