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Breaking Down the AFC West: Lightning Strikes Again in 2009

Neil PowellCorrespondent IMay 30, 2009

ALAMEDA, CA - SEPTEMBER 30:  Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis speaks during a press conference to announce the firing of head coach Lane Kiffin of the Oakland Raiders at thier training facility on Septemer 30, 2008 in Alameda, California.  (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

The AFC West has seen some major changes in 2009. 

Gone are some of the most recognizable faces in the conference.  Jay Cutler, Tony Gonzalez, and Mike Shanahan have moved on.  

They are replaced by Matt Cassel, Josh McDaniels, and Todd Haley to name a few.

The AFC West draws the NFC East and AFC North on the schedule in the upcoming season. 

That means each AFC West team not named the San Diego has at least six games against teams that made it to the playoffs last the season, including the past two Super Bowl Champions. 

The Chargers don't have to play against themselves, but the Bolts still get the Steelers, Giants, Ravens and Eagles like the rest of the teams. 

Here's an early and brief prediction of the conference and how the changes might influence it. 

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS 

Record in 2008: 8-8

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Projected 2009:  12-4

Top Player:  Philip Rivers

Head Coach:  Norv Turner

Offense:  The Chargers should romp through the AFC West in '09.  Philip Rivers, Darren Sproles and Vincent Jackson are coming off their best seasons of their careers and if LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates could stay healthy they will be a contender to win it all.

Defense:  Antonio Cromartie is one of the best play-makers in the league and the return of Shawne Merriman will help get the pressure they lacked without him.  Talent on the other side of the ball allows the defense to take more chances.

Overall:  The defense has seemed to have slipped quite a bit from a few years ago, but the offense is on the rise and should light up the scoreboard.  The rest of the conference is rebuilding so they should be pretty easy pickings.  Not a big Norv Turner fan, but he has won some big games recently.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

Record in 2008: 2-14

Projected 2009:  7-9

Top Player:  Matt Cassel

Head Coach:  Todd Haley

Offense:  The addition of Cassell gives the Chiefs a quarterback for years to come and Dwayne Bowe should blossom with him.  The loss of "Tony G" is huge from many angles.  It's a stretch to think that Larry Johnson will return to form, so other than Bowe there's not much to write home about.

Defense:  The 2008 version was historically bad producing only nine sacks as a team for the season. New defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast will play a 3-4 defense and the franchise drafted defensive end Tyson Jackson to anchor the line.

Free agent additions Zach Thomas and Mike Vrabel's best years are far behind them, but they are still a slight upgrade from last year. Safeties Bernard Pollard and Jarrad Page will get torched again if they remain the starters.

Overall:  Everything has changed at Arrowhead and although the results are pending, it appears the franchise is on the right track.  7-9 may be a stretch, but even 6-10 would be a vast improvement from the past two seasons.  The future of the franchise may be reflected through the play of Cassel. 

DENVER BRONCOS

Record in 2008: 8-8

Projected 2009: 6-10

Top Player:  Champ Bailey

Head Coach: Josh McDaniels

Offense:  New head coach McDaniels has made a lot of noise with his arrival at Mile High.  No longer with the team is pro bowler Jay Cutler who despite his attitude, is one of the better QB's in the league.  Kyle Orton gets the nod and has one of the elite wide receiver tandems in the league in Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal. 

Orton has no where near the talent of Cutler and the changes in philosophy could slow the offense to a crawl. 

Defense:  Safety Brian Dawkins is a major upgrade at the position, but not much else has changed from a defense that was down right putrid in '08.  Seems like every defensive player Shanahan drafted north of Trevor Pryce underachieved so a major rebuilding effort is needed. 

On the positive side, Champ Bailey is still a joy to watch and Mike Nolan is the biggest name at defensive coordinator since Wade Phillips.

Overall:  At first blush I thought it was a powerful message sent by McDaniels as he called Cutler's bluff and traded him to the Chicago Bears.  Now, I think it was a terrible decision and drafting Knowshon Moreno in the first round at a position that the team actually had some depth at made me question his judgement even further. 

McDaniels might have Moreno pinned for a Kevin Faulk type role going forward which has been highly effective for the New England.  The schedule is brutal and includes games against the Chargers (twice), Colts, Eagles, Giants, Cowboys, Steelers, Ravens, and Patriots.

OAKLAND RAIDERS

Record in 2008: 5-11

Projected 2009:  4-12

Best Player: Nnamdi Asomugha

Head Coach: Tom Cable

Offense:  If JaMarcus Russell struggles, look for Al Davis, I mean Cable to go to free agent addition Jeff Garcia early.  Justin Fargas and Darren McFadden pack a heck of a one-two punch, but they will need help on the outside to open things up for the them. 

Defense:  Asomugha is one of the best players in the NFL and the defense played well at times last season.  Michael Huff's struggles have been a major setback for the franchise.  The squad could be a surprise in '09, but don't bank on it.

Overall:  Garcia's grit and a break-out type season from McFadden might give the Raiders enough to sneak up on some teams in '09.  Team owner Davis made some noise with his draft this season confusing both experts and fans alike.

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