The lack of strength in the AFC West allowed the San Diego Chargers to win their third consecutive divisional crown in 2008 with just an 8-8 record.
How futile were the Broncos, Chiefs and Raiders last year? Their 15 combined wins last season were only two more than the 13-3 Tennessee Titans. However, change is in the air for the division’s clubs.
Only San Diego’s Norv Turner will repeat as coach for his team. Todd Haley, Josh McDaniels, and Tom Cable were not on the sidelines as signal callers for their teams in Week 1 of 2008.
Kansas City and Denver also attacked the free agent market ferociously, with Denver attempting to reorganize its defense—and move past the Jay Cutler fiasco—while Kansas City (through new GM Scott Pioli) tried to end their uncertainty at quarterback whilst acquiring players to ease the switch into its new defensive scheme.
Oakland got burned last season with several misguided signings (Remember DeAngelo Hall?) and stayed somewhat quiet. The signing of Jeff Garcia is the first indication out of the Al Davis camp that JaMarcus Russell might not pan out the way they thought he would.
Then came April in New York.
Kansas City came off of a strong 2008 draft with a solid one in 2009. Denver swung for the fences by getting Knowshon Moreno but did little to improve its defensive line. Oakland was ridiculed by many for reaching for several players (Kipergate was especially entertaining).
While the Chiefs and Broncos have for the most part improved their personnel, both bolstering their young squads with experienced players (Zach Thomas and Mike Vrabel in KC, Brian Dawkins in Denver), Oakland will continue to depend on how their young guys jell.
Those young guys will be shepherded by Cable, who helped the Raiders finish strong in 2008 by winning their last two games, albeit against teams who missed the playoffs. Oakland’s speed and youth will work for them, their schedule won’t.
Brutal visits to Dallas, Super Bowl champions Pittsburgh, and to the New York Giants will be daunting tests. A clear indicator of the Raiders’ chances will be after Week Three, as they will face every team in their division, with two of those games coming at home.
A realistic scenario has them improving upon their 5-11 record… to a modest 6-10 (with no wins against San Diego—again).
Kansas City, as mentioned, will rely on an interesting mixture of youth and veteran leadership to hopefully do better than the ghastly 2-14 in 2008.
Todd Haley, formerly Arizona’s offensive coordinator, will take the reins at Arrowhead Stadium.
Even with moves designed to bolster their mediocre defense, the Chiefs still look like a team who can’t pressure the quarterback (save for Tyson Jackson) enough to force turnovers.
The offense is clearly Matt Cassel’s show to run, and it will be interesting to see a continuation of sorts between Haley’s pass-first offense in Arizona and Cassel’s spread background from his days in New England.
Their strong games against the Chargers will most likely preface a season split. Again, the NFC East matchup won’t favor any AFC West team, but the Chiefs will at least get to play the Giants and the Cowboys at home.
Other games of note are the showdowns at Baltimore and Jacksonville, as well a visit from the Steelers.
The Haley/Pioli era starts off with a 6-10 or 7-9, at the most.
In Denver, the offseason drama was worthy of a daytime Emmy-winning soap opera writer. Putting the Cutler saga behind him, Josh McDaniels got to work on remaking a defense that got shelled last season.
Losing Cutler will be a blow, but Knowshon Moreno should keep defenses at bay enough to let Kyle Orton throw to his talented receivers.
Dawkins will provide veteran leadership to the club, but Denver’s defensive line is lacking, even with the addition of Robert Ayers. Beyond that, it’s a shot in the dark to say whether the mixture of new faces will come together to provide a significant difference for Denver.
The Chargers-Broncos rivalry added a new chapter with “The Mile High Robbery” last season, and the Broncos will look to avenge their brutal 52-21 thrashing in Week 17 (that was also good for knocking Denver out of the playoffs).
An important four-week stretch from Weeks 12 to 15 will make or break their season, as they take on the Giants at home, go on the road to play against the Colts and Chiefs, before wrapping up by hosting the Raiders.
A repeat of 8-8 is very plausible, with a shock win over Baltimore or Dallas nudging them to 9-7.
With these offseason shakeups, the talented yet flawed AFC West will set out to prove to the Chargers that 8-8 won’t cut it in order to earn a playoff berth.
However, by the looks of things, 9-7 could well do it.