AFC West Team Preview and Predictions

Matt BarbatoCorrespondent ISeptember 3, 2012

AFC West Team Preview and Predictions

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    Last season the AFC West race came down to the final games of the regular season. Every team in the division was within one game of each other. The Broncos, Chargers and Raiders all had identical 8-8 records but the Broncos won the division due to tiebreakers. The Broncos, who were led by current New York Jet, Tim Tebow, led the league in rushing last season.

    The Chargers had a very disappointing season and the Raiders made a switch at quarterback in Week 8 by acquiring Carson Palmer. The doormat of the competitive AFC West was the Kansas City Chiefs, who lost their star Jamaal Charles to a torn ACL in the first game of the season.

    Is Peyton Manning the difference between an 8-8 team and a Super Bowl contender? Will Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates recover from disappointing seasons? Can Darren McFadden stay healthy for all 16 games of the season? Will Charles return to form and help Matt Cassel lead the Chiefs' offense? These questions will be answered in the AFC West preview.

Denver Broncos

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    Last season the Broncos were one of the most talked about teams in the NFL. Led by Tim Tebow, Denver won the AFC West and pulled off an overtime upset over Pittsburgh. The Broncos followed up their highly publicized season with an even more publicized offseason. The Broncos signed Peyton Manning and traded Tebow to New York. The Broncos are taking a big chance on Manning, who missed the entire regular season with a neck injury.

    The Broncos' offense will have 1,199 yard rusher Willis McGahee to assist Manning in the backfield, along with young receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker. The Broncos defense is young and improving, and is led by Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil. The secondary will be losing some leadership, as Brian Dawkins retired during the offseason.

    Offense: The Broncos' offense last season was one of the best rushing offenses but one of the worst passing offenses. The Broncos averaged over 164 yards on the ground last season but only 152 yards per game through the air. McGahee and Tebow combined for over 1,800 yards rushing last season, but Tebow's throwing ability was highly questionable. If not for Tebow's ability to make plays in the fourth quarter, Denver probably would have missed the playoffs.

    But this year's version of the Broncos offense will be much different than last year's. In comes Peyton Manning, which means an immediate difference in the playbook. Much of the offense will be put on Manning's shoulders which could harm McGahee's production.

    Two players to watch are receivers Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas. Decker caught only 44 passes last season but did score eight times. Thomas had only 32 grabs and four touchdowns but is an athletic specimen. If both can emerge as viable options then Manning will get them the ball often. Although McGahee probably won't rush for almost 1,200 yards this season, he can still produce good numbers to aid a much improved passing game.

    Defense: The Broncos' defense was not one of the best statistical defenses, but they did keep Denver in the game when the offense was struggling. Denver allowed an average of 357.8 yards per game, and allowed just over 24 points per game. Their front seven is led by Von Miller, D.J. Williams and Elvis Dumervil. Miller and Dumervil were beastly in pass rushing situations—combining for 21 sacks last season.

    The secondary will take a hit by losing Brian Dawkins to retirement, but the Broncos picked up cornerback Tracy Porter who will make a big impact in coverage. The Broncos also have Champ Bailey who is as good at the position as it gets. One thing Denver must improve upon if they want to succeed is their turnover production. Denver forced only 18 turnovers a year ago, which ranked 14th in the AFC.

    The Broncos defense is very young and will improve every week. By the end of this season I expect this Denver defense to be one of the toughest in the league.

    Prediction: With a healthy Peyton Manning there is no doubt that this is at least a ten-win football team. But as good as Manning is, he scares me (and I know I'm scared of a player when I refuse to pick them in a fantasy football draft). Manning will probably stay healthy, but I am more concerned about his year off than anything. I expect Decker and Thomas both to make strides this season with Manning throwing the ball. McGahee probably won't get as many touches as last year but he still could have a productive season

    The defense will be very much improved from last season. Miller, Dumervil and Williams will continue to progress and the addition of Tracy Porter gives Denver two very good cover corners. As long as Denver can produce more turnovers, this defense will be one of the best in the league.

    The Broncos' schedule is very tough right out of the gates with games against Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Houston. I expect Manning and the Broncos to survive the early storm and finish the season with an 11-5 record.

Kansas City Chiefs

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    It was an up and down season for the Kansas City Chiefs last year. The Chiefs started the season 0-3, then won four straight, then lost four straight and went 3-2 in their final five games. After the roller coaster ride the Chiefs finished with a 7-9 record.

    Throughout the roller coaster season the Chiefs used Matt Cassel, Tyler Palko and Kyle Orton at quarterback. The Chiefs were doomed as soon as Jamaal Charles was hurt in Week 1 with a torn ACL. Since then the Chiefs struggled to find anything on offense outside of Dwayne Bowe. The Chiefs averaged 13.3 points per game, which ranked 31st in the NFL.

    Despite their pitiful offense, the Chiefs' defense was actually pretty good last year. The Chiefs were 11th in the league in average yards allowed per game and surrendered about 21 points per game. Derrick Johnson had one of the best defensive seasons in the league with 131 tackles.

    Offense: It is hard to find anything positive to say about the Chiefs' offense last season. The Chiefs essentially played without a quarterback or running back. Cassel threw for only 1,700 yards and ten touchdowns last season. Jackie Battle, Dexter McCluster and Thomas Jones all were used to help replace Charles, but the three combined for only three rushing touchdowns the entire season.

    The Chiefs' offense does have one thing going for it, and that is Dwayne Bowe. With Cassel, Palko and Orton at quarterback Bowe still managed to catch 81 passes for over 1,100 yards. He had five touchdowns but the Chiefs quarterbacks only managed to throw 13 touchdowns all season. The guy to look out for in Kansas City is Jon Baldwin. Baldwin caught only 21 passes for 254 yards but he will be given the starting job opposite of Bowe and will see his share of targets while defenses focus on Bowe. A productive Baldwin will be essential to the Chiefs' passing attack.

    Although the offense will be getting Jamaal Charles back, I don't think his return will be enough to make this a good offense. Cassel and the wide receivers not named Dwayne Bowe are absolutely atrocious. If Jon Baldwin makes some noise, this could be a different story, but Charles could take a few games to get back to his old form (if he ever reaches it), and I don't trust Cassel to do much throwing the ball.

    Defense: The Kansas City defense was the team's backbone. Derrick Johnson led the team in tackles, but Tamba Hali, Jovan Belcher and Glenn Dorsey all recorded at least 60 tackles. The Chiefs' secondary was quietly one of the best in the league. The Chiefs were 6th in the league in average passing yards allowed per game. Brandon Flowers and Brandon Carr both recorded four interceptions, and Jon McGraw and Kendrick Lewis both had three picks.

    The Chiefs will also be getting back safety Eric Berry, who is one of the most talented safeties in the league. Berry tore his ACL in the first game of the season but in his rookie season he had four interceptions and 92 tackles. If Berry can get back to form he will make the Chiefs' secondary one of the scariest in the league.

    The Chiefs' defense was also very good at forcing turnovers. The Chiefs, led by Romeo Crennel, forced 26 turnovers last season including 20 interceptions. The Chiefs were also decent at rushing the passer with 34 sacks.

    Prediction: The Chiefs will be an interesting team to watch next season. If Charles can get back to his old form then this offense could be competitive. The offense hinges on the play of Matt Cassel, and as of right now, I am unconvinced that he will make it through Week 17 as the starter. Dwayne Bowe always helps, but he will be drawing double teams all game which will make it even harder for Cassel to play well.

    The Chiefs defense is pretty darn good. Johnson, Hali and Belcher are very good in the front seven and the Chiefs' secondary is really talented. Although they will be losing Carr and McGraw, they will be getting Berry back and signed cornerback Stanford Routt. Even if Berry does not return to form right away, Flowers is good enough to shutdown most of the wide receivers in the league.

    The Chiefs defense will be one of the strongest in the entire league next season, but their offense will be one of the worst. I don't see them improving much on their 13.3 points per game average from last season, and as much as I love their defense, I am forced to give the Chiefs a 5-11 record.

Oakland Raiders

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    The Oakland Raiders looked like the front runners for the division mid-way through last season with a 7-4 record after week 12. They then dropped four of their last five games and finished the season 8-8 and out of the playoffs. Jason Campbell started as the quarterback but was replaced after seven games by Carson Palmer. Darren McFadden got hurt again and missed nine games last season.

    The Raiders' defense generated a lot of turnovers but that was about all. They allowed over 387 yards per game and just over 27 points. Tyvon Branch and Rolando McClain led the team in tackles, and Matt Giordano had five picks.

    Offense: The Raiders offense wasn't nearly as good as management thought it would be when they picked up Carson Palmer. In fact, Palmer might have been the liability of the Raiders offense. Palmer threw 13 touchdowns and 16 interceptions in ten starts for Oakland.

    Darrius Heyward-Bey led the team in receptions with 64 and also racked up 975 yards. Denarius Moore came on the scene later in the year with 33 catches and five touchdowns. Michael Bush filled in nicely for McFadden with 977 yards and seven touchdowns.

    Bush left for Chicago in the offseason, which means that the load will be put on McFadden. The Raiders will not succeed unless he is healthy. When Run-DMC is healthy he is one of the best running backs in the league. Heyward-Bey and Moore will battle for targets but both are speedy receivers. The Raiders are hoping that they will develop into talented targets.

    Defense: The Raiders' defense was pretty bad last season. Although they generated 26 turnovers they also gave up a ton of yardage and points. McClain and Branch are nice pieces to the puzzle, but other than them I don't see a whole lot on this defense. The Raiders acquired Ron Bartell during the offseason, but he only has eight career interceptions in eight seasons and played only one game for St. Louis last season.

    The Raiders' defense has a lot of question marks. They have great playmaking ability but can not stop a nose bleed. The Raiders ranked in the bottom half of the league in passing and rushing yards allowed. They will need great seasons out of Michael Huff, Richard Seymour and Bartell if they want to contend for the AFC West.

    Prediction: I have heard from some people that they like the Raiders this year. I don't see what there is to like. McFadden, when healthy, is a top five running back, but we all know he won't play all 16 games one way or another. Palmer has a great arm, but his 16 interceptions in only ten games concerns me. I like Heyward-Bey as a solid receiver, but I don't think he has the skill to be elite.

    The defense is my main concern for this team. They have a couple of good players in McClain and Branch, but they did not make many improvements to their defense. They will be slightly better, but they will still give up a lot of yards.

    If Palmer can light things up and McFadden can stay healthy then maybe this team has a shot at the playoffs. But I don't think that defense will get it done. I have the Raiders at 6-10 this season.

San Diego Chargers

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    The San Diego Chargers always have high expectations and always seem to disappoint. Last season was not much different. Philip Rivers faltered and the team finished 8-8. Rivers threw 20 interceptions and people wondered whether he was playing injured. Ryan Mathews had a good season with over one thousand yards and six touchdowns. The Chargers will be without their top wide receiver from last season, Vincent Jackson, who left to play in Tampa Bay.

    The Chargers' defense was average last season. Takeo Spikes and Donald Butler led the team in tackles and Eric Weddle tied for the league lead with seven interceptions. The Chargers were average when it came to yardage allowed and struggled to sack the quarterback.

    Offense: The Chargers' offense was very explosive last season. They averaged almost 400 yards per game and scored about 25 points per game. Philip Rivers threw for over 4,600 yards, but had only 27 touchdowns and 20 interceptions. Ryan Mathews stayed relatively healthy and only missed two games during the season. Mathews broke his collarbone in the preseason and will likely miss the first game of the season.

    The Chargers' wide receiver group is drastically different. Vincent Jackson left to play for Tampa Bay and the Chargers' replaced him with Robert Meachem. Meachem caught 40 passes for 620 yards and six touchdowns with the Saints. Meachem will pair up with Malcolm Floyd, who caught 43 passes for 856 yards and five touchdowns. Floyd's downside is that he has missed nine games between the 2010 and 2011 seasons due to injury.

    Antonio Gates cannot be forgotten about in San Diego's passing game. Gates caught 64 passes for 778 yards and seven touchdowns, but missed three games last season. If Gates and Floyd can stay healthy, they could give Rivers a very good set of targets along with Meachem.

    Defense: The San Diego defense was the weak spot of the team last season. San Diego gave up an average of 346.6 yards per game and over 23 points last season. Takeo Spikes anchors the front seven while Eric Weddle leads the secondary. The Chargers added Jarret Johnson to the linebacker group and drafted Melvin Ingram in the first round of the draft.

    Weddle had a tremendous season in 2011 with seven interceptions—that accounted for a third of San Diego's turnover total. The Chargers also struggled to get to the quarterback. Antwan Barnes led the team with 11 of the team's 30 sacks.

    Prediction: I expect San Diego to be very good offensively. I think Rivers will have a great bounce back season, and I believe that Robert Meachem could be a top 15 wide receiver. If Gates and Floyd can stay on the field then this passing game can be one of the best in the league.

    Ryan Mathews will build off of his very good 2011 season, and I expect him to rush for 1,200 yards and get around eight or nine touchdowns. His health is a bit concerning, but if he stays healthy he is easily a top ten running back. 

    If San Diego wants to keep up with their high-powered offense then the defense has to fix it's problems. Their secondary is decent but other than Weddle the team only accumulated ten interceptions. I like the addition of Jarret Johnson to the front seven and I think Melvin Ingram has the athleticism to be an excellent player in the league.

    Although I am not entirely sold on San Diego's defense, I think the offense will be enough to make this team substantially better than last season. I think Rivers will rebound nicely and keep his Chargers in the AFC West race with Denver. I see the Chargers finishing at 10-6

AFC West Recap and Final Prediction

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    Here is how I see the AFC West playing out.

    1. Denver Broncos 11-5

    2. San Diego Chargers 10-6

    3. Oakland Raiders 6-10

    4. Kansas City Chiefs 5-11

    Denver made one of the biggest upgrades of the offseason by adding Peyton Manning. Manning will make Decker and Thomas much better options. I think McGahee will have another solid season as teams will plan for Peyton.

    The Denver defense is by far the best in the division. Von Miller, Elvis Dumervil and D.J. Williams are studs. Their secondary lost Brian Dawkins but gained a pretty good cornerback in Tracy Porter. 

    San Diego addressed its defense by adding Johnson and Ingram. I think Johnson will end up being a very good pick up for the Chargers. Eric Weddle is a very good defensive back, and I still think Quentin Jammer has more in the tank.

    Mark my words, Philip Rivers will contend for the MVP award this season. The Chargers have very good weapons, and watch out for Vincent Brown to be another good target for Rivers. Mathews is a pretty good back and will build off of his solid season if he remains healthy.

    Oakland's offense is good with the potential to be great. If Palmer can correct his mistakes from last season and McFadden can stay healthy, then this offense is pretty explosive.

    The problem is the defense; it is very bad. They give up too many yards and don't generate enough turnovers to overcome it. McClain and Branch are a good start, but this defense will need some time to add better players and develop.

    Kansas City will live and die by Jamaal Charles's knee. If he regresses, they may not even win five games. Cassel hasn't proven that he is a starting quarterback since he arrived in Kansas City. As talented as Dwayne Bowe is, there isn't much else on that receiving group.

    The Chiefs' defense will be a top ten defense this year. Hali and Dorsey will continue to get better and I think having Eric Berry back will be a huge boost to the secondary.

    In the end, I think Peyton Manning will have a very successful first season with Denver. The Broncos are pretty talented and if Manning stays healthy they could make a Super Bowl run.