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AFC West Preview 2009

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AFC West Preview 2009
(Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

The AFC West used to be the toughest division in all of professional sports. For 50 years, the San Diego Chargers, Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs have played each other twice a season, every season. The original cities may have changed, but not the rivalry. There is no other division with a history quite like this one—which in truth is the AFL West, cleverly disguised.

Rarely, if ever, has one team had a clear advantage over its peers for an extended period. Every game in the AFC West is part of an ongoing battle for supremacy. With countless teams folding and moving in all sports over the natural course of time, a 50-year divisional lock down is rare. For a few seasons Seattle was included, but it never felt right—although it did not take long for the Seahawk faithful to develop an intense dislike for the Raiders and their fans...

 In order to help readers understand my individual point of view, I have to admit up front, I am a lifelong ChargerS fan, and these views might be somewhat...umm...  biased ;)

It is not personal, it is genetic. No one wants to take that final dirt nap without seizing one damn day when your team wins it all. I have seen many other teams hold up the Lombardi trophy, some multiple times, while waiting for the Chargers to squeeze a trip through the playoffs successfully. Rest before finishing the job is not an option, but I am not getting any younger.

In my best Tarzan, "Chargers good, rest of NFL bad."

To best explain how I got to this point, I can tell you guys what we all already know. As a fan, losing in the playoffs and the Super Bowl really sucks, no matter who you are rooting for. All that damn work, time, and effort spent getting to January, only to have fate decide today is just not your day, my friend. It rips your soul in half, and all you can do is walk it off.

Chargers fans have been walking it off for decades.

Winning it all has become an eternal quest around here, especially in the fading twilight of The Murph’s last few seasons. San Diego Jack Murphy Qualcomm Stadium may be an old broken-down shell of itself, but I can tell you it is still a great place to watch a football game. It's never boring, that’s for sure. Well, almost never.

It's fate hanging by a thread, all I can say is the Murph will always be my home stadium. When it is finally demolished, for me, it will be like watching the Enterprise blow up in Wrath of Kahn (I date myself., but it’s a good metaphor). It deserves better. The Murph has seen so many great contests, so many records set there. Turing that space into yet another empty set of office buildings seems like such a waste.

When and if the Charger finally have to move, California can more than likely kiss my DMV fees goodbye. It’s become pretty obvious that a new stadium for the Chargers built anywhere within fifty miles of Qualcomm is a long way off. The positive side of this is the Bolts really don’t have a clear-cut option that suits their wishes.

Yet. But deals get done, and teams do move.

Chargers fans face losing their team, and their trusted venue all in one masterstroke. 2009 is a huge year for the future of this team.

As I said, I am a little biased. But I will try to be objective…

 

First place - San Diego Chargers (12-4) Division Champions

The Chargers are the most talented team in the NFL, and if they don’t win the Super Bowl this season, have no one to blame but themselves. No excuses, no holy rollers, no bull$%#@.

Win. Now.

Philip Rivers is the unquestioned leader in San Diego, and as PR goes, so do the Chargers in 2009. Rivers is Dan Fouts reborn, with greater physical skills than Fouts ever had—and Dan retired as the all-time passing yardage leader. Rivers has tools at his disposal that even Air Coryell would have a tough time matching, man for man. Phillip is a stand-up citizen as well, married and with kids that he adores.

Ladanian Tomlinson enters the 2009 season healthy and with a lot to prove to people who questioned his heart during the last two seasons. No one cares more about winning than LT, and sitting out during the playoffs is not in the cards for '09.

The goal for the Chargers is to keep LT healthy for the entire season, and they have several running backs lined up to help carry the load. Darren Sproles is the best secret weapon in the NFL, while Michael Bennett provides a solid change of pace as a feature back.

Antonio Gates is healthy as well, and looks to lead the NFL in receptions this season, Gates played on a bad toe in '08, severely hampering his game. He may very well be the best tight end in the NFL. His sure hands give Rivers a solid option on any down.

At WR, Chris Chambers leads a talented group. Vincent Jackson is lined up for a breakout season and Buster Davis enters his third season with a chance to finally contribute. Malcolm Floyd and Legeduu Nanee all could start for most other teams,  giving the Bolts much-needed depth.

On defense, San Diego has tried to address its weaknesses from 2008, adding Larry English and Kevin Burnette at LB, and acquiring DE Travis Johnson from the Texans during the preseason. Shawne Merriman should be able to step back in and help solidify the schemes of coordinator Ron Rivera.

Luis Castillo and Jamal Williams lead the front of Rivera’s 3-4 defense. Both need to create havoc in the backfield for opposing quarterbacks while stuffing the run game. The addition of Travis Willliams should add depth at a thin position. The defensive line needs to be a strength if the Chargers are to truly contend.

Antonio Cromartie and Quenton Jammer will benefit from an enhanced pass rush, with both players needing to increase their interception ratio from 2008. Cromartie played on a broken hip last year and can't afford to have another down season. Jammer is the Bolts' best DB—when he came out of the playoff game against the Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger feasted on his replacement.

Mike Scifres is the best punter in the NFL, using the space between the five-yard line and the goal line as his personal playground. Scifres gives the Chargers an extra few yards to protect, making the defense that much tougher to break. Nate Kaeding is nails inside 35, and gives the Bolts a chance to put points up on any drive into opposing scoring territory.

Chargers head honcho Norv Turner has somewhat silenced his critics and provides steady leadership. His December record is 9-1 since he got here, and that’s winning time.

I was not a fan of Norv when he arrived, but he has won me over with his steady approach to games and ability to deal with pressure. Turner's main strength is an easygoing demeanor, which helps in playoff pressure. Marty Schottenheimer just could not unclench in a big game, while Norv just keeps rolling along.

Fate has had a way of not caring just how talented the Chargers have been over the long years since I got here, and I am conditioned to expect the bottom to fall out of each season. So I am not expecting a title, but I certainly won't kick one out of bed.

 

Second place - Kansas City Chiefs (6-10)

Kansas City enters 2009 in a total rebuilding mode. Gone is Herm Edwards, who just could not find a QB. The Chiefs find themselves hoping that former Patriots QB Matt Cassel can navigate his way through this season intact. Good luck with that, as Cassel is already dinged up and we haven't even played one meaningful game in 2009. 

Chiefs head coach Todd Haley knows how difficult his new job is, saying “Change is painful. There is no doubt about it, as I said on my first day in this building, I told the fans that we’re going to have to earn the fans back. I have no illusions of anything else. We’re going to have to earn it by what we do on the field and that’s the NFL. It’s a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league and we need to do start doing something.”

Haley seems to understand how deep of a hole the Chiefs have dug for themselves during the last several seasons, but its going to take more than pretty speeches to turn things around in 2009.

Kansas City is not devoid of talent, judging by the addition of QB Matt Cassel, and returning players such as WR Dwayne Bowe—not to mention signing free agents such as former Patriots LB Mike Vrable. But the Chiefs are basically starting from scratch in terms of a cohesive team concept, and in the NFL that takes time to develop. 

Running back Larry Johnson looks to regain his all-pro form while helping Kansas City turn things around in 2009. Johnson is a truck, one of the best backs in the NFL.

The Chiefs face a tough early-season schedule with games against the Ravens, Eagles, and Giants in the first four weeks. Only a matchup against the Raiders offers any hope of a win, and KC had better take advantage of it.

 

Third Place - Denver Broncos  (3-13)

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Denver has been one of the top franchises in football during the last 25 years, but this season may be the toughest one they have faced since the 1960s.

Once again, losing to the Chargers caused major turmoil, with Mike Shannahan getting fired and QB Jay Cutler basically abandoning the Broncos soon after. Finger pointing has abounded in Denver, whose spoiled fan base expects John Elway-type miracles every week, year in and year out.

Denver fans rejoiced in getting that cheap win on Ed Hochuli’s blown call last season against San Diego, but karma has evened the score. The Broncos pulled the all-time pratfall in blowing a three-game lead with three games to go for the AFC West title last season. That division title banner looks great in blue and gold, by the way.

Jay Cutler was quoted as saying Denver fans only rate at about a six, and I would have to agree with that assessment. Broncos fans are plentiful as long as the team is winning, but lose three games in a row and you can actually watch the bandwagon empty. During the Bears-Broncos exhibition game last week, Denver fans were far more interested in humiliating Jay Cutler than the current state of their team.

Look for Kyle Orton, Cutler's successor, to be done by week four, broken into little pieces because of the Broncos now-porous offensive line. Add to that an untested running back and receiver corps, and you have the formula for disaster.

Second-year back Peyton Hillis is a FB who is going to share time with rookie HB Knowshon Moreno, but beyond that the Broncos have virtually no one else in the backfield who any of us could identify without a lineup card.

The Marshall saga continues as well, with the Broncos suspending WR Brandon Marshall. His displeasure with coach McDaniels is glaring to say the least. Marshall is a huge talent but with a tiny brain to go along with it. The sooner the Broncos get rid of this guy, the better off they will be. Marshall has returned to practice, and if motivated will help the Broncos. If.

Denver’s defense was shredded by the Chargers last season, exposing a weakness yet to be addressed. It is going to be a long, cold winter in the Rockies.

As I said, these are just my opinions, and I am sure some Broncos fan is going to have an issue with every word I wrote... Cowboys on acid always do.

I would have included some quotes from new Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels, but there are none on the Broncos website.

After letting Mike Shannahan go, Broncos fans should expect a rebuilding year, not a trip to the Super Bowl. Somehow, I feel that the Denverites are going to be sullen and pissed as they watch their beloved team shoot itself in the foot.

Trust me, it's not how good you act when you win, its how well you can take losing and come back for more.

Last place - Oakland Raiders (0-16)

Where to begin? There was a time when the mere mention of the Raiders spread fear throughout the NFL. This is no longer the case. The Raiduhs have become football's distant cousin of the Los Angeles Clippers, a clueless franchise who has absolutely no chance to win in the foreseeable future.

The halcyon days of Lyle Alzado and Jack Tatum are but a distant memory in the face of six straight 11-plus loss seasons.

Thanks to the NFL Network, I have gotten to see the Raiders local preseason broadcasts during the last two seasons, and one would never know the Raiders had ever even lost a game. Apparently, the Raiders have won the last seven Super Bowls, and all is well in Raiderland.

Turnovers and poor play are ignored in lieu of interviews with Raider greats of the past, tickets are shamelessly hawked every three minutes, and Al Davis is mentioned as often as possible. Also, the Raiders' overall record is flashed up as a graphic at least once a quarter, to remind all of us of their inherent greatness. We get it. REally, we do.

After about two hours of this, I was laughing my ass off. Talk about a snow job...

Head coach Tom Cable has his title because no one else wants it. The Raiders' coaching job consists of doing what Al Davis tells you to do, and no more. With the vast amount of Super Bowl-winning coaching talent currently available out there, the fact that Davis could not talk one of them into taking over speaks volumes.

Last year's coach, Lane Kiffin, was fired after losing to the Chargers (imagine that!), and has continued his feud with Davis until this very day.

Cable has already set a new standard, breaking the jaw of one of his assistant coaches during the 2009 preseason camp and denying it ever since.

The Raiders have once again cemented their position as the world’s most confused team, this time by cutting QB Jeff Garcia—the only legitimate signal caller on the roster. Jamarcus Russell is destined to look back at his wasted career and wonder what if someone better had drafted him—in the CFL.

Garcia struggled stat-wise during the preseason, but his veteran presence was much more important to the development of Russell. The Chargers brought in Doug Flutie to mentor Drew Brees, and Brees took those lessons to heart. Drew then turned around and taught them to Phillip Rivers before his departure from San Diego. It appears that the Raiders have forgotten the most basic of facts about winning, and I thought Garcia was a good signing for them.

Second-year back Darren McFadden looks like a legitimate runner...if he can stay healthy, that is. Justin Fargas is an excellent second back, providing the Raiders with their best chance to put up points in 2009.

The choice of Darrius Heyward-Bey as a No. 1 pick at WR will haunt this franchise, especially with unsignable Michael Crabtree still on the board. This mistake will become painfully obvious to Oakland, starting on the day Bey goes over the middle and has his ribs detached from his spine. Figure about week three.

The Raiders' D is probably the weakest link, and if the preseason is any indicator, get ready for a loooooong season. The addition of all-pro Richard Seymour from the Patriots this week should help somewhat, but it's going to take more than one guy to turn Oakland around.

Seymour has refused to report, apparently unhappy with the sudden trade from one of the top teams in the NFL to Oakland. As the Raiders turn...

The Raiders dealt New England  a No. 1 pick, a la Bobby Beathard. Chargers fans can tell everyone how that strategy works out on a long-term basis: Poorly. Those who can’t remember history are condemned to repeat it.

 

On a personal, Chargers fan note:

Beating the Raiders is job one around here in SD. As a Bolt Head, I consider this a golden age, one I hope never ends. To give Raider fans even one shred of hope when playing the Chargers is to start the whole process of Raidermania all over again. We can't have that! We must crush them, every time we play them—forever.

There are a few good Raiders fans out there, I consider an Oakland fan as one of my best friends. He is just a football fan, and I respect that. He also knows when to say we suck, an art lost on the majority of the more intense Raider fans.

Watching the clueless Raider faithful fume in disgust when things don’t go as planned is priceless. I have seen the most outrageous posts online so far during the preseason, from Raiders fans who are convinced they will win the Super Bowl—to hell with reality.

I may even start a Web site devoted to photos of these people freaking out after LT or anyone else scores another TD. It reminds me of someone who gets a fake lottery ticket when they find out it’s a trick.

Some times as a fan, you just have to accept that your team has “challenges.”

If you think this point of view is sour grapes, I can assure you that after watching Raider greats such as Darryl Lamonica, Kenny Stabler, Jim Plunkett, Marcus Allen, and Bo Jackson destroy the Chargers many times over—and dealing with the formerly annual parade of Raider fans marching around the Q singing "Raiders, Raiders" after they kicked our asses yet again—this is not sour grapes. This is payback.

Sweet, sweet payback.

The Raiders will not be allowed to win in our house EVER again. 

Every Chargers fan puts on his or her helmet and face paint one second after the game preceding the Raider game ends, singing, “Raider week!"

Game Faces ON. And this season, we Charger fans must do the same for every team we play- its Eagles WEEK. It’s Steelers WEEK. 20 WEEKS…

In Conclusion

As I stated above, I am a Charger fan, and my opinions carry no more weight than yours do. Feel free to disagree with me, question my intelligence and belittle my ancestors. It would not be football season unless you did ;)

Preseason prognostication is barely worth the paper it’s printed on, and not much else. The NFL is the toughest league to handicap in all of professional sports, and the exact opposite of what I have predicted may occur. The Raiders might win 14 games, the Broncos could run the table, the Chiefs could add a Lombardi trophy to the one they already have, and the Chargers might very well fall back to earth.

Ya never know...

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