Hey, it’s the 50th anniversary of the original AFL! Of course, if this year resembles last year, there won’t be much cause for celebration in the AFC West.
When looking at the AFC West, it is important to realize that making the playoffs means winning the division. Second place will only make you a spectator.
Consider that the Denver Broncos owned first place in the division throughout the season, dropping to second in a week 17 thrashing at the hands of the San Diego Chargers (final score 52-21). Consider that with an 8-8 record, San Diego made the playoffs as a result of winning the West while the Broncos at 8-8 missed the playoffs. Consider that teams like the Patriots (11-5), Jets (9-7), and Texans (8-8) also stayed home.
And what’s worse, Indianapolis (12-4) was hosted by San Diego because winning the division made them a higher seed. So, in its simplest terms, you win and you’re in.
That said; let’s not dwell on how weak the division was/is. Let’s concentrate on what it takes to win the division, solidifying a place in the playoffs.
The Kansas City Chiefs finished last year a dismal 2-14. CEO Carl Peterson resigned, head coach Herm Edwards was fired and the quarterback equivalencies of the Keystone Cops (Brody Croyle, Damon Huard, and Tyler Thigpen) were upgraded.
Though they lost Tony Gonzalez in the offseason (Atlanta Falcons), the tight end position figures less into new head coach Todd Haley’s scheme as a pass receiver. The tight end will be used more traditionally in a blocker’s role.
Former New England Patriots vice president Scott Pioli takes over the position vacated be Peterson and the Chiefs were also able to secure last year’s quarterback virtuoso, Matt Cassell.
Larry Johnson was the focus of the team’s offense last year and he didn’t perform up to the hopes and expectations laid before him. He was injured late in 2007 (week 9) and didn’t play again until September 7th of the following year. Team suspensions were followed by a league suspension.
If the Chiefs want to succeed this year, they will hope LJ wants to succeed as well.
Glen Dorsey has a year under his belt and aims to make more of an impact this year as a veteran. Fellow LSU Tiger Tyler Jackson was added in this year’s draft and surely they’ll be excited to put the band back together.
Keeping in mind that the Chiefs fielded the youngest team in football (average age of 25.5) last year and they’ve had a year to mature; they could make some noise in 2009. Depending on how quickly the team can congeal and begin to absorb coach Haley’s offense, this team could become a contender in one to two years.
The Oakland Raiders would love a return to glory, a time when “Pride and Poise” and “A Commitment to Excellence” meant something. “Just Win Baby” has been replaced by “At Least Try.”
2008 ended with the lowly Raiders holding a 5-11 record, their best since a Super Bowl loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2002. It was also the first year since that time they didn’t finish last in the division. So, there’s a positive.
JaMarcus Russell enters his third year as the team’s quarterback. And with the addition of UMD speedster Darrius Heyward-Bey, Russell will have opportunities to shine.
Once again, Darren McFadden will be called upon to breathe life into the Oakland “O.” Surely, Justin Fargas will get his share of carries, but the majority should come in McFadden’s direction. He is also a pass receiving threat that should get a fair amount of looks on third downs.
It should also be noted that the Raiders won their last two games of the season. They’ll hope to build upon and continue that success in the 2009 campaign.
The San Diego Chargers were the class of the division in 2008. Of course, winning the division on the last day of the regular season AND posting an 8-8 record does not necessarily mean you’re in a good place.
But, all-in-all, this season could be infinitely better. LT played injured (when he did play) all season long last year. The team hopes to see both Tomlinson and Antonio Gates at 100% in time for the 2009 campaign.
Phillip Rivers and Darren Sproles both had exceptional seasons and they’ll look to parlay those performances into the next year. Of course, the offense does have substantial help on the other side.
Ron Rivera will be captaining the 4-3 defense. Shaun Phillips and Shawne Merriman welcome Larry English into the fold. With English creating panic from the end and Phillips and Merriman disrupting the middle, life will be hell for opposing quarterbacks.
The sense of stability, more than anything, makes the Chargers the odds on favorite to once again claim the West. So where does that leave Denver?
In a word, “desperate.”
The Broncos will be desperate to mesh. They’ll need to gain an instant trust for Coach McDaniels. They’ll need an instant belief in the new playbooks and new regime.
Playbooks, with an “s”?
Yep, playbooks. McDaniels brings his (for lack of a better term) Patriots offense with him, while Mike Nolan begins to practice the 3-4. The 2009 Broncos will not look like the 2008 Broncos except for those uniforms.
In a way, the Denver Broncos will be the anti-Chargers. They will be ushering in a new offense, new defense, new quarterback, and new running backs. Loyalists will try not to be too critical during the “rebuilding stage”, but many will want to see an unrepentant organization turn the water into wine.
In the AFC West, look for the offenses to put up numbers. All these teams will have the potential to score points. Unfortunately, the changes to the defenses may not be enough. In a division posting the 25th (San Diego), 27th (Oakland), 29th (Denver), and 31st ranked (Kansas City) defenses in the league, every opponent will have the opportunity to answer the West offenses.
That means the potential for two teams from the AFC West to land in the playoffs is as slim as last year. There will certainly be more competition in the division, as each team has improved upon last year’s teams. The issue is that the West is still not in the same class as the rest of the AFC.