Can Anyone Stop the Bolts in the AFC West?

Mike RitterContributor IMay 29, 2009

SAN DIEGO - DECEMBER 28:  Quarterback Jay Cutler #6 of the Denver Broncos scrambles with the ball against the San Diego Chargers during 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)

In 2008 the AFC West was won - barely, by the 8-8 San Diego Chargers - after the Denver Broncos completely collapsed, blowing a three-game lead with three to play in the season.

The Chargers will likely repeat as the AFC West Champions in 2009, continuing a streak of four consecutive Division Championships and their fifth in the last six years. And it probably will be quite easy this time around.

It may not matter how well the Bolts play against their non-divisional opponents, because they almost certainly can wrap up this division by Week 13 by beating up on their weak division rivals. On paper, the Chargers are the clear favorite to win the division.

Last year was a bit of a struggle. The Bolts took a 4-8 record into the season's final quarter, yet still managed to win the division by blowing out Denver 52-21 to end the regular season. But those were the Broncos led by Super Bowl Champion coach Mike Shanahan - who was eventually fired - and Pro Bowler Jay Cutler, who had a hard time trying to swallow a light trade rumor, and was eventually shipped to the Bears.

The Broncos still figure to be the Chargers' biggest competition in the division, but the two teams are going in opposite directions. The Chargers will be aided be the return of prolific playmaker Shawne Merriman, while the Broncos will be going through some growing pains with first-year head coach Josh McDaniels. They really had something special going with up-and-coming QB Jay Cutler. New QB Kyle Orton is no Jay Cutler.

Brian Dawkins was a nice pickup at safety, and Alphonso Smith can be taken under Champ Bailey's wing at cornerback, but this is a .500 team at best.

The Chiefs are vastly improved with the addition of Matt Cassell at quarterback as well as the addition of former Arizona Cardinals' offensive coordinator Todd Haley as head coach. Cassell and Haley should help jumpstart an offense that ranked close to the bottom of the NFL in several major categories, but the Chiefs still lack major offensive weapons. They will no longer enjoy the services of tight end Tony Gonzalez.

On defense, veteran linebacker Mike Vrabel, who was acquired with Cassell from the Patriots, is a boost to the Chiefs' front seven, as well as Tyson Jackson, who many draftniks viewed as a reach at No. 3 overall, but still should be a solid defensive end, a position of need for the Chiefs.

The Chiefs are improved, but are far from being a division contender.

The Raiders are still in no position to win for a long time, and a lot of that starts with owner Al Davis, who fired coach Lane Kiffin early in 2008 and officially hired Tom Cable, who held the interim tag last season.

Perhaps the best move the Raiders made this offseason was signing quarterback Jeff Garcia. The veteran could actually win the starting job over Jamarcus Russell. If he doesn't, at least he can mentor the struggling young QB.

Only time well tell, but on paper, the Raiders did not draft well again in 2009, reaching on both of their first two draft picks - WR Darius Heyward-Bey and safety Mike Mitchell.

It figures to be another long year for the Silver and Black, who have a brutal schedule to go along with a lack of talent across the board.

Projected 2009 AFC West Standings

San Diego Chargers: 1st, 12-4

Denver Broncos: 2nd, 7-9

Kansas City Chiefs: 3rd, 5-11

Oakland Raiders: 4th, 3-13