NFL Preview 2012: Predicting the AFC West
Last season, the AFC West teams completely kicked the snot out of each other. The result was the Tim Tebow-lead Denver Broncos winning the division and shocking the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Wild Card round.
This season, the Broncos made an upgrade at quarterback by acquiring Peyton Manning. However, the rest of the AFC West will get better as well.
The Raiders will get back their star, injury-plagued running back in Darren McFadden. The Chargers will get a healthy Antonio Gates. The Kansas City Chiefs will get three key players back from torn ACLs.
Just like in 2011, the teams of the AFC West may just rear back and beat the tar out of each other again. Here's a look at who could come out on top come January.
4. San Diego Chargers
Ryan Mathews' collarbone is just one of the injuries that have put a damper on the Chargers' hopes in 2012.
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The Chargers have just as much talent as any team in the league, but injuries could zap the potential that they had at the beginning of the season.
Once the preseason started, the Chargers lost Ryan Mathews on the first carry of the preseason to a broken collarbone. The next week, emerging wide receiver Vincent Brown broke his ankle and will be out until midseason.
That's two offensive playmakers gone after losing their top receiver, Vincent Jackson, to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers via free agency.
The good news is that neither player is going to miss the entire season, but there are other variables that could affect the Chargers, including Philip Rivers' inconsistent play from 2011 and the ticking time bomb known as Antonio Gates' foot.
The Chargers have the talent to make a run, but there are too many variables to put them toward the top of a tough division.
3. Oakland Raiders
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Speaking of teams with many variables, the Oakland Raiders are still a team of turmoil despite having a complete front office overhaul that included the hiring of former Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen.
The concerns with the Raiders start with their offense and their quarterback Carson Palmer. The Raiders gave up a lot to acquire Palmer from the Cincinnati Bengals mid-season, and he responded by playing decently.
Palmer will have a full season under his belt by the time the season starts, and that could help him build a rapport with a young receiving corps that includes Darrius Heyward-Bey and Denarius Moore.
However, the Raiders fate may solely be in the hands of Darren McFadden. McFadden was in the conversation as one of the best running backs in the league when he went down with a foot injury around Week 7. The Raiders couldn't catch up to the Broncos after that point.
With insurance policy Michael Bush now in Chicago, the Raiders need McFadden to avoid the injury bug in order for them to compete in the AFC West.
2. Kansas City Chiefs
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If you're looking for a sleeper team in the AFC this year, look no further than the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Chiefs stalled out last season after having three starters (Jamaal Charles, Eric Berry, and Tony Moeaki) go down with season-ending ACL injuries. It also didn't help that their starting quarterback, Matt Cassel missed the final seven games of the season with a thumb injury.
2012 looks like a season where the Chiefs can bounce back thanks to the additions of Peyton Hillis and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll.
Daboll has been a magician in the past three seasons as he's turned mediocre running backs into Pro Bowl studs.
Two seasons ago, Daboll turned Hillis into one of the league's most feared rusher as he racked up 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns for the Cleveland Browns.
Daboll took his bag of tricks to Miami last season and proceeded to turn Reggie Bush, who was a disappointment with the New Orleans Saints, into a full-time rusher with 1,086 yards and six touchdowns.
Now Daboll brings Hillis with him to Kansas City to partner with explosive running back, Jamaal Charles. Although Charles will be limited the first half of the season as he returns, the Chiefs should be able to ride that attack to challenge the Denver Broncos for the AFC West championship.
1. Denver Broncos
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I'll admit it's odd to see Peyton Manning in a Denver Broncos jersey. However, he looks healthy during the preseason and should lead the Broncos to their second straight AFC West Championship.
Last season, the Broncos hit their stride when their defense finally caught fire at midseason. Tim Tebow did just enough to lead the Broncos to the playoffs (and pick up a victory once they got there).
Now they have Manning at the controls. If the Broncos had Manning last season, some of those miraculous Tebow victories might have been complete laughers.
Manning is just so much better than Tebow and that's why the Broncos ditched Tebow immediately once Manning became available.
The defense will need to continue it's late season momentum, but with Von Miller leading the way the Broncos should be able to repeat as AFC West champions.