NFL Season Predictions: AFC West Will be Wild, Wide Open in 2010
There may be no other division in the NFL as wide open this season as the AFC West.
Last year, rookie head coach Josh McDaniel had the Broncos looking like world beaters when they flew out the gates to a 6-0 start, only to turn around and lose four straight after their bye and winning just one of their final ten games.
The Chiefs also spent 2009 breaking in a new head coach, with former Arizona Cardinals offensive coordinator Todd Haley taking the reigns from Herm Edwards. Haley spent the entire season ridding the team of a lacking work ethic and purging cancers like running back Larry Johnson from the roster. In turn, the team doubled their win total from 2008, and appear poised for a better 2009 with a young core of highly drafted young players and some of the league's best assistant coaches.
Out in Oakland, despite having a defense that helped it stay in most of their games, the Raiders offense was a game of musical chairs at running back, which was supposed to be the strength of the offense. And while many fans were calling for the end of the Jamarcus Russell era after the 2008 season, it took the organization 11 interceptions in 246 passes and a passer rating of 50.0 to finally see the light. First round pick Darrius Heyward-Bey didn't help either, dropping more passes then he caught last season.
Finally, down in San Diego, the Chargers remained the main benefactor of the rest of the divisions ineptitude going 5-1 against the rest of the division and winning their final 11 games after a 2-3 start.
So what should we all expect from this division in 2010?
One wild ride that will redefine the balance of power in the AFC West.
4th Place: Denver Broncos
We haven't even begun the regular season yet, and the Denver Broncos are already in trouble. Not only did the team's best receiver take off for Miami, but the team's best defensive player, sack leader Elvis Dumervil, is out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle.
To make matters even more interesting, Dumervil's replacement Jarvis Moss is also on the shelf with a broken hand.
Last year, receivers Jabar Gaffney and Eddie Royal played well in complimentary roles next to Brandon Marshall, but neither is capable of replacing him in 2010. That's why the Broncos grabbed both Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker in April's NFL Draft.
Thomas could eventually step into Marshall's shoes, and Decker has a chance to remind Broncos fans of Ed McCaffrey, but we all know what a crapshoot rookie wide receivers are.
The running game, which is currently battered with training camp injuries to starter Knowshon Moreno and backup Correll Buckhalter, will need to carry the offense for this team to score points in 2010. Until those two make it back however, free agent castoffs like LenDale White and Justin Fargas may need to carry the load for awhile.
The defense, which was led by Dumervil and his NFL-best 17 sacks last season, struggled at times against the run last season, and will do so again without its best player.
It's safe to say that the Broncos won't come close to their 6-0 start from a year ago.
After opening the season in Jacksonville and then going home to play an improving Seahawks team, the Broncos will have to endure through a nightmarish four game stretch against the Colts, Titans, Ravens, and Jets.
By the time Denver gets an opportunity to play their division rivals and a relatively easy non-conference schedule against teams from the NFC West, they could very well already be 2-4 or worse.
The Broncos will struggle early on and have a tough time getting back to .500 over their final ten games.
WINS: Seattle, Oakland, St. Louis, San Diego, Houston
LOSSES: Jacksonville, Indianapolis, Tennessee, Baltimore, New York, San Francisco, Kansas City twice, Arizona, Oakland, San Diego
3rd Place: San Diego Chargers
More so than at any point in the past few years, the San Diego Chargers will have to rely upon young unproven players to help them get back into the playoffs in 2010.
Gone is the best running back to ever don a Chargers' uniform in LaDainian Tomlinson, and into the lineup is rookie Ryan Mathews from up the coast at Fresno State. The running game struggled all last season, and it remains to be seen if a combination of Mathews and Darren Sproles can resurrect it.
The passing game, on the shoulders of one of the league's best quarterbacks in Phillip Rivers, could take a step back in 2010. Not only is the team's best wide receiver Vincent Jackson refusing to sign his free agent tender and holding out while demanding a trade, but so is left tackle Marcus McNeill. On top of that, McNeill's backup Tra Thomas just underwent arthroscopic knee surgery and may miss time early on.
While Rivers will still have perennial All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates to throw to, a struggling and substandard group of receivers could be his team's downfall in 2010.
On defense, the team has already lost draft pick Donald Butler to a season-ending Achilles injury. Former standout linebacker Shawne Merriman who has reportedly just ended his contract holdout still has yet to show if he will ever be as effective as he was before the knee injury that cost him all but one game in 2008.
With all the injuries and the team's best corner from 2009, Antonio Cromartie, now wearing a Jets uniform, the Chargers defense could be one of the worst in the AFC this season.
Just as it was safe to say that the Broncos won't come close to their 6-0 start from a year ago, there is now way the Chargers will go on a ridiculous 11 game winning streak to close out the 2010 season.
With a first place schedule that is simply too difficult, a division where the other teams are improving, and so many injured or unhappy Chargers, this team is destined for what could be an epic fall from grace in 2010.
WINS: Arizona, St. Louis, Denver, Oakland, Kansas City, San Francisco
LOSSES: Kansas City, Jacksonville, Seattle, Oakland, New England, Tennessee, Houston, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Denver
2nd Place: Oakland Raiders
After finally cutting ties with first-round bust Jamarcus Russell, the Oakland Raiders may finally be ready to contend for a division title again. Unlike last season, this year the fans and players will have a quarterback in former Washington Redskin Jason Campbell that they can all get behind.
Campbell comes to the Raiders with a resume which includes starting every game the past two seasons for the Redskins, and completing more than 62 percent of his passes for 33 touchdowns and more than 6,800 yards. He was particularly adept at throwing deep balls to the likes of Santana Moss, who caught nine of Campbell touchdown passes.
The Raiders are expecting Campbell to be just as successful last year's first-round flop, Darrius Heyward-Bey. He will also have one of the best tight ends in football at his disposal in Zach Miller, along with a formidable two-headed rushing attack of Michael Bush and Darren McFadden.
On the defensive side of the ball, rookies Rolando McClain and Lamarr Houston should bolster an improving front seven while All-Pro cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha leads the secondary.
After winning just 16 games over the past four years, the Raiders may finally be ready to turn the corner. With an improved offense and one of the league's easiest schedules, this could very well be the year that that the Raiders turn the corner and contend again for a division title.
WINS: St. Louis, Arizona, Houston, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Kansas City, Miami, Denver
LOSSES: Tennessee, Denver, Pittsburgh, San Diego, Jacksonville, Indianapolis, Kansas City
1st Place: Kansas City Chiefs
Year one of the Todd Haley era in Kansas City was an exercise in changing the mindset of an organization and building a winner from the ground up and building up the talent level of a roster that had steadily declined since Dick Vermeil left town.
Although the acquisition of quarterback Matt Cassel was seen as the landmark move made by the team in 2009, it was two transactions around the bye week that most impacted the team's development down the stretch and into this season.
First, the release of running back Larry Johnson was the catalyst that led to the discovery of just how good Jamaal Charles could be. Only Tennessee's Chris Johnson, the NFL's leading rusher, ran for more yards than Charles over the season's final nine weeks.
Second, when San Diego released receiver Chris Chambers midway through the season, the Chiefs snatched up the veteran and he immediately paid dividends for Matt Cassel and the passing game.
This season, the Chiefs have added running back Thomas Jones to compliment Charles, and drafted another dynamic playmaker in receiver/runner Dexter McCluster from Ole Miss. New offensive coordinator Charlie Weis will be charged with designing ways to get those two the ball and helping Cassel make Chambers and Dwayne Bowe more involved in the passing game.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Chiefs biggest problem in 2009 was their interior rush defense. And while they made no significant moves to upgrade their front seven, they brought in veteran defensive coordinator and former Browns head coach Romeo Crennel. Crennel is a substantial upgrade over last year's coordinator Clancey Pendergast, and he will do a much better job of utilizing blitzes and zone packages to generate more of a pass rush while also improving the run defense.
The Chiefs will also take full advantage of the athleticism of the SEC's two best safeties over the past two years in draft picks Eric Berry and Kendrick Lewis. Berry and Lewis are both adept at dropping down in the "box" to play strong against the run while also possessing the ability to read play action and fall back into pass coverage.
Because of winning just four games a year ago, the Chiefs will benefit from one of the league's easiest schedules. They also will enjoy and early season bye in week four that should provide their younger players that much more time to improve prior to going on the road to Indianapolis and Houston, their two toughest road games.
WINS: San Diego, Cleveland, San Francisco, Jacksonville, Buffalo, Arizona, Denver twice, St. Louis, Oakland
LOSSES: Indianapolis, Houston, Oakland, Tennessee, Seattle, San Diego