In Sagging AFC West, San Diego Chargers Are Again the Team To Beat

Anthony GContributor IMay 21, 2009

SAN DIEGO - DECEMBER 28:  Quarterback Philip Rivers #17 of the San Diego Chargers celebrates after defeating the Denver Broncos in the NFL game at Qualcomm Stadium on December 28, 2008 in San Diego, California. The Chargers defeated the Broncos 52--21. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

Since their last losing season in 2003, the San Diego Chargers have been the team to beat in the AFC West. In 2009, the three-time defending division champions should have little trouble winning a fourth straight crown in one of the worst divisions in the NFL.

En route to three straight division titles, the Chargers have feasted on a relatively weak AFC West. In the last two seasons, none of the Bolts’ division foes has finished with a winning record and last season San Diego needed only an 8-8 record to take the crown.

Despite their .500 record last season, the Chargers finished 5-1 against the AFC West, and their only loss was the one-point defeat at Denver that would have been a win were it not for the infamous Ed Hochuli call.

This dominance is nothing new—in the past five seasons, the Bolts are 23-7 against divisional opponents with an .800 winning percentage at home.

It should be more of the same for the Chargers in 2009. The Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs are both in transition years and the Oakland Raiders have not had a winning season since 2002.

The Broncos’ collapse last season that allowed the Chargers to take the AFC West title resulted in a host of changes in the Mile High City. For starters, the Broncos fired Mike Shanahan and brought in rookie head coach Josh McDaniels.

With McDaniels, a former assistant with the New England Patriots, comes a new offensive scheme and an adjustment period in Denver.

The Broncos will also start 2009 without Pro Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler, who was traded to the Chicago Bears for Kyle Orton after a falling out with McDaniels and the Broncos organization.

Orton and Chris Simms will compete for the quarterback job in an offense with plenty of weapons, including Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall and rookie running back Knowshon Moreno.

The problem last year in Denver was a defense that finished 29th in yards allowed and allowed 28 points per game. Former Ravens defensive coordinator and 49ers head coach Mike Nolan has been brought in to shore up the defense which will switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 this season. The Broncos are a team in transition, and should finish around .500 in 2009.

The Chiefs finished 2-14 last season, including two one-point losses to the Chargers. Perhaps their biggest move in the offseason was in the front office, bringing in general manager Scott Pioli, who worked in the Patriots’ front office from 2000-2008.

Kansas City’s biggest on-field move of the offseason was trading for New England quarterback Matt Cassel. Filling in at quarterback for the injured Tom Brady in 2008, Cassel threw for 3,693 yards and 21 touchdowns in his first full year as an NFL starter. Cassel has nothing but upside and fills a big need for the Chiefs.

Even without recently traded tight end Tony Gonzalez, the Chiefs offense should be much improved. On the other side of the ball, Kansas City’s defense is very young and very talented with the likes of linebacker Derrick Johnson, defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey and rookie defensive end Tyson Jackson.

The Chiefs will improve on their two-win season of 2008, but will most likely not challenge the Chargers for the division crown in 2009.

The Raiders are coming off of a five-win season in 2008 and it doesn’t appear that things are going to get better anytime soon in the Bay Area. Tom Cable was named head coach in the offseason after serving as interim coach last year when second-year Lane Kiffin was fired.

Oakland averaged 16.4 points per game in 2008, 29th in the NFL. And although rookie receiver Darius Heyward-Bey should give the Raiders a true downfield threat, protection is still an issue for quarterback JaMarcus Russell, who was taken down 31 times last season.

That was one reason the Raiders finished last in the league in passing yards per game last season.

Defensively, the Raiders allowed 160 rushing yards per game, second to last in the league. In the off-season, Oakland did not do much to bolster their defense, the strength of which lies in the secondary with cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and safety Michael Huff.

Oakland doesn’t appear to be improved headed into 2009 and will have a tough time improving on their win total of 2008.

The Chargers have led the pack in the struggling AFC West for the past few seasons and should be the only playoff team in the division for the third straight year. With two of their division rivals rebuilding and the other struggling to be competitive, the Chargers should expect a fourth consecutive division title in 2009.