In 2010, Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles was the premier back in the AFC West (with Oakland's Darren McFadden right on his heels), S.D. WR Vincent Jackson wasn't allowed to play until November and the Chiefs never trailed in the division race all season.
What a kooky year that was!
Now, a quarter through the 2011 season, things seem to be getting back to business-as-usual in the AFC West: The Chargers are in first, the Chiefs and Broncos are in the cellar fighting over scraps, and we don't know what to expect from the Raiders yet.
Vincent Jackson is fifth in receiving yards, Chargers QB Philip Rivers is fifth in passing yards and Darren McFadden is 77 yards in the lead over any other running back in the NFL. Here's a look at the matchups and pitfalls that lie in store for the soldiers of the AFC West this week.
Chargers (3-1) @ Broncos (1-3)
At first glance, this doesn't look like a very good game. It's all about the Chargers, right?
The Chargers top the Broncos in just about every relevant stat there is, yet I'm not so quick to dismiss the Broncos in this matchup.
The Chargers dominated offensively and defensively last season, and they finished 9-7. Also, the Chargers start slowly every year, yet they're 3-1: It's about time they lose a game like this. On top of that, their three wins are to teams with a COMBINED ONE WIN (Dolphins, Chiefs and Vikings).
No. 1 receiver V. Jackson still isn't practicing due to injury. Nor is Gates. Their second best receiver this season is Ryan Mathews.
Result: trap game.
As not to leave the Broncos completely out of the discussion, two of their three losses have come by a total of 6 points. They get a division foe at home this week, and I won't be surprised if they pull out the win in what could be the AFC West game of the week.
They have a QB controversy in the stands, but they don't seem to have one on the sidelines. Orton should get some time to get Lloyd heavily involved in this game. That will be needed to open things up for the running game that Denver has had trouble getting going.
Look for a bit of firepower from two teams averaging over 20 points per game.
Broncos 27, Chargers 24
Chiefs (1-3) @ Colts (0-4)
This won't be on anyone but Chiefs and Colts fans' game-of-the-week watch list. These are two teams with offenses so bad that they make the 2000 Ravens offense look explosive: 29th and 28th in yards respectively, while the Chiefs "boast" the league's worst point differential (minus-77).
Defensively, the two teams aren't fairing much better—probably due to being on the field so much after numerous three-and-outs. Both teams are feeling the pains of star players going out for the season, poor QB play and a struggling running game.
Cassel could really feel the pressure off the edges from Freeney and Mathis if they can't get some short-yardage situations early in this one. As we've all seen in the past, Cassel struggles more than most when he's pressured. The Chiefs will need to get the running game going fast in this one to give their QB time to throw, or it will be a long game for both of these teams.
The Colts are notoriously bad at stopping the run, so the Chiefs have a good shot at getting their second win against a winless opponent in two weeks. The Colts are also susceptible to screen plays when they blitz, so watch for a big play or two from Dexter McCluster coming out of the backfield.
The other thing the Chiefs will need to do to win this game is get into the backfield of the Colts on both runs and passes.
The Colts are a little banged up on the O-line, so this shouldn't be a problem with linebackers like Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson on the prowl. If they can get to Colts RB Joseph Addai and QB Curtis Painter, they should have a good chance in this one.
Chiefs 23, Colts 17
Raiders (2-2) @ Texans (3-1)
This is Rex Ryan's dream game—talk about ground and pound.
Led by Darren McFadden, the Raiders are the league's No. 1 rushing offense, while the Texans are ranked fourth in that category with a now-healthy Arian Foster. The only team in the NFL with more rushing attempts than the Raiders this season is the Texans.
On the flip side of the coin, neither team is all that great at stopping the run, so there promises to be a ton of handoffs in this one. The Texans are giving up 4.9 yards per carry, while the Raiders are giving up a staggering 5.9 yards per carry.
The Texans' overall defense looks better on paper, as does the team as a whole, but the Texans will be without Pro Bowl WR Andre Johnson—so if the Raiders can find an answer for Arian Foster and company, they may have a shot in this one.
Special teams may play an important role in this game, and the Raiders have the best one-two kick in the NFL. Lechler and Janikowski make sure that the Raiders always stay in the battle for field position, and that's a bonus in a game like this one is shaping up to be.
I think it's going to be a close, low-scoring game, but I'm just not sold on the Raiders just yet. Plus, the Texans are looking like they're finally turning the corner.
I'm hesitant to pick a winner in this one, but I did it on the other games, so I have to do it here—though I feel it could go either way.
Raiders 16, Texans 20
The AFC West has already been marred by injuries this season. Some are minor (Vincent Jackson) and some are severe (Jamaal Charles), but these teams will all have to man up and get through them.
There are no excuses in the NFL—only winners and losers.
There are still 12 more weeks to go, and this race is far from over. The Battle for AFC West supremacy continues this Sunday with the games highlighted in this article. All of these teams will have to fight it out each and every week, because I see this race coming down to a photo finish in 2011.