Ask any head coach in the NFL and they will tell you that the best way to get into the postseason is to win your division. The best way to win your division is to beat your division opponents. Over the last three seasons only one team, the 2006 Carolina Panthers, failed to make the playoffs with the best record amongst their division opponents.
The San Diego Chargers are seeking their fourth straight AFC West Crown, and fifth in six years. Trying to take them down will be their long time foes, the Broncos, Chiefs, and Raiders.
Let's examine these three opponents and gauge their threat level to the reigning division champs.
The Denver Broncos have had one of the most interesting offseasons in recent memory—a never ending series of curious moves. Mike Shanahan, long time coach and close friend of owner Pat Bowlen, was fired shortly after the Broncos' historic collapse.
Josh McDaniels replaced Shanahan, even though many felt a defensive wiz like Steve Spagnoulo or Jim Schwartz would have made more sense, in light of the Bronco's defensive struggles.
Then came the Jay Cutler fiasco that ended with Cutler in Chicago and Kyle Orton as Denver's projected starter at quarterback.
Finally, with glaring holes in the defensive front seven and having signed several free agent running backs, the Broncos selected Knowshon Moreno, a running back, with their first pick in the draft.
Reasons for Optimism
While losing Cutler hurts the team (at least on paper), the Broncos could have one of the most explosive offenses in the league. McDaniels is known for his work with quarterbacks, and Orton may actually be a better fit for McDaniels' system.
Playing behind a strong line, Orton will have plenty of quality targets to throw to in players like Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal. The addition of rookie running back Knowshon Moreno gives the team a legitimate three down back who can run, catch, and block. There is also quality depth at the skill positions.
Reasons to Worry
The defense has major holes. While new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is well regarded for his defensive knowledge, there is little to work with in the front seven. The team is switching to a 3-4 defense and simply lacks the bodies required to play up front.
The team is also getting old in the secondary. Corner back Champ Baily will be 31 at the start of the season. Much like running backs, corner backs often decline after the age of 30. And while Brian Dawkins has been a force at safety for years, he will turn 36 this season, while learning a new system.
Josh McDaniels may prove to be an evil genius. The potential is there for a high scoring offense. If Nolan, Baily, and Dawkins can work miracles, the defense might be competent enough for this team to compete.
The holes in the front seven, however, are too large to ignore. The team did little to nothing to improve their biggest weakness, and lacks the personnel to play a 3-4 scheme effectively.
This is a team that appears to be in turmoil, and McDaniels appears to be in over his head. Bill Belichick's assistants have had little success on their own. McDaniels looks to be no different. Bowlen may regret firing Shanahan by the bye week, if he doesn't already.
Kansas City Chiefs
Coming off of a 2-14 season, change was needed in Kansas City. Long time general manager Carl Peterson resigned towards the end of last season, and head coach Herman Edwards was let go in the offseason.
The team needed a new direction.
Scott Pioli was hired to do just that. The former vice president of player personnel for the New England Patriots, Pioli played an integral role in helping build the Patriots dynasty.
Pioli chose former Arizona Cardinal offensive coordinator Todd Haley as the Chiefs next head coach. Haley is viewed as a no nonsense coach, and one of the brighter offensive minds in football.
Reasons for Optimism
Pioli and Haley bring an air of confidence that has not been felt around Kansas City in some time. Both men have had great success in recent years in helping turn around floundering franchises.
The team acquired quarterback Matt Cassel from the Patriots, along with linebacker Mike Vrabel. Cassel should upgrade the most important position on the team. Although he only played one season, Cassel appears to be a good fit for Haley's offense.
Vrabel, along with newly acquired linebacker Zach Thomas, should add a veteran presence and stability to a unit that is making the switch to a 3-4 defense. The team has some talented young players on defense, such as linebacker Derrick Johnson, cornerback Brandon Flowers, and rookie lineman Tyson Jackson. The mix of youth and veterans could help turn this defense around quickly.
Reasons to Worry
Despite the additions of Pioli, Haley, and Cassel, this is still a team that finished 2-14 last season. There are plenty of holes on the line of scrimmage and at the skill positions.
The team traded tight end Tony Gonzales, their best offensive weapon, to the Falcons this offseason. That leaves wide receiver Dwayne Bowe and not much else for quarterback Matt Cassel to throw to.
The running game is also a huge question mark, as former pro-bowl running back Larry Johnson has been plagued by injuries and off-the-field incidents recently. His future with the team is still in doubt heading into training camp.
While the defense could be improved, there are still major holes to fill as the team switches to a 3-4. The team lacks a true nose tackle, the most pivotal player in a 3-4 scheme. They also did little to address an anemic pass rush that recorded a paltry 10 sacks in 2008.
The arrow is pointing up on the Chiefs future, as most believe that Pioli and Haley are more than capable of turning around the team's fortunes.
Unfortunately, that turn-around will most likely take more than one offseason. While the Chiefs will most likely be a well-coached and competitive team in 2009, they don't appear to be a serious threat to dethrone the Chargers.
Since losing Superbowl 37 to the Buccaneers, the Oakland Raiders have lost 11 or more games in six straight seasons. Their owner Al Davis, was once regarded as one of the brightest and most innovative owners in all of sports. These days, most people wonder if it's time for Al to give up the reigns.
Davis continues to make moves that leave fans and experts alike scratching their heads. In '08, it was the signing of Javon Walker and DeAngelo Hall to monster contracts.
In the '09 draft, Davis was at it again, drafting wide receiver Darruis Heyward-Bey in round one ahead of Michael Crabtree, and unknown safety Mike Mitchell in round two, who most teams didn't even have rated.
Former interim head coach Tom Cable gets his shot to try and change the fortunes of this once proud franchise. To do that, Cable will need some of the team's recent high draft picks to start earning their paychecks. Topping that list is quarterback JaMarcus Russell, who finally showed improvement late last season.
Reasons for Optimism
The Raiders, despite their problems, do have some talented young players. Quarterback JaMarcus Russell was the number one overall pick in 2007. Russell is huge for a quarterback, has a rocket arm, and shows good mobility. His play down the stretch in '08 showed signs of improvement.
Russell has plenty of help at the skill positions. The Raiders boast a trio of talented running backs in Darren McFadden, Michael Bush, and Justin Fargas, as well as one of the better young tight ends in the game in Zach Miller. If these young players play to their potential, the Raiders could have a solid ball-control offense.
Defensively the Raiders are not void of play-makers. Cornerback Nhamdi Asomugha might be the best in the business, as teams rarely throw his way. Linebackers Kirk Morrison and Thomas Howard are solid play makers in both the run game and passing game. Additionally, the Raiders may have the best kicking tandem in the NFL in Sebastian Janikowski and Shane Lechler.
Reasons to Worry
While the Raiders have plenty of young players with talent and potential, it has yet to translate on the field, at least on a consistent basis. McFadden and Bush need to put injuries behind them and stay on the field as well as improve their all around games.
As talented as Russell is, his game is still raw. He still needs a lot of work in reading defenses and anticipating the rush. His work ethic has also come into question recently; a bad sign for a franchise quarterback. This team will only go as far as Russell goes.
Russell also has very few options in the passing game. Their leading wide receiver from a year ago was Johnnie Lee Higgins, who caught 22 passes for 366 yards. Rookie Heyward-Bey may have speed, but is an inconsistent receiver.
Defenses will load up against the Raiders running game and force Russell and a group of unproven receivers to beat them.
The defense also has concerns, especially up front. The Raiders are inconsistent at best when it comes to stopping other teams running games—they ranked 31st in the league a year ago.
Unless they can slow down other teams running games, this team will continue to struggle.
The Raiders have plenty of talented players.
It is time for these players to translate that talent into production. If guys like McFadden and Russell can begin to live up to their billings as first round draft picks, the Raiders can be improved from a year ago.
But until this team finds play makers in the receiving corp and starts to play more consistent defense, afc the Raiders will be unable to mount a realistic challenge for the division crown.