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Is 2022 AFC West the NFL's Best Division Ever?

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistMarch 19, 2022

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) meets with Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr (4) following an NFL football game in Kansas City, Mo., Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019. The Kansas City Chiefs won 40-9. (AP Photo/Ed Zurga)
Ed Zurga/Associated Press

It's been a wild start to the 2022 NFL offseason, and the landscape has changed significantly. No division has been affected more than the AFC West, which sent two teams to the postseason last year and may now feature four Super Bowl contenders.

Has the AFC West become the best division in NFL history? It's entirely possible, and it's not hyperbole.

The Kansas City Chiefs have been to four consecutive AFC Championship Games and are one of the teams to beat in the conference. Over the last week-and-a-half, the Denver Broncos, Las Vegas Raiders and Los Angeles Chargers have made numerous moves to catch up.

It all started March 8 when the Seattle Seahawks agreed to trade quarterback Russell Wilson to Denver.

"Russell was our No. 1 priority from the moment we learned he was available," Broncos general manager George Paton said, per Ryan O'Halloran of the Denver Post. "We were consumed with getting him here to Denver."

Wilson may prove to be the most significant addition to the AFC West, but he was far from the last.

        

AFC West Race

Here's a timeline of the biggest AFC West additions:

  • March 8: Seattle agrees to trade Russell Wilson to Denver
  • March 10: The Chicago Bears agree to trade Khalil Mack to L.A.
  • Monday: J.C. Jackson agrees to a deal with the Chargers
  • Tuesday: Randy Gregory spurns the Dallas Cowboys to join the Broncos
  • Wednesday: Las Vegas signs Chandler Jones
  • Thursday: The Raiders acquire Davante Adams from the Green Bay Packers
  • Friday: The Chiefs reportedly sign JuJu Smith-Schuster

In a span of 10 days, six big-time players joined the division. Four of them—Wilson, Chandler Jones, Khalil Mack and Davante Adams—are on pace to reach the Hall of Fame. J.C. Jackson was arguably the league's best cover corner in 2021. He logged eight interceptions, a league-high 23 passes defended and an opposing passer rating of 46.8.

Randy Gregory isn't in the same category, but he's a promising pass-rusher who had six sacks and 29 quarterback pressures last season. His last-minute decision to ditch Dallas and join Denver was a coup for the Broncos.

Three proven pass-rushers and a shutdown corner join a division that features four elite or borderline elite quarterbacks. Oh, and the Raiders are making a run at 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore, according to Vincent Bonsignore of the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

The chess matches between defensive coordinators and AFC West signal-callers will be thrilling to watch in 2022.

Adams might be the most notable addition outside of Wilson. He's coming off his fifth straight Pro Bowl campaign and his second straight All-Pro nod and is one of the league's most reliable receivers.

The Packers weren't eager to let Adams walk, but the Fresno State product wanted to play for the Raiders and his college quarterback, Derek Carr.

Ian Rapoport @RapSheet

From @GMFB: Davante Adams will fulfill his lifelong dream to play for the #Raiders and with QB Derek Carr, becoming the highest-paid WR in the NFL to do it. A look at how it all went down... https://t.co/uyyYVlEWmC

The Chiefs have largely been quiet this offseason, though they did franchise-tag left tackle Orlando Brown and swap in Justin Reid for safety Tyrann Mathieu. They also reportedly added receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, a dangerous slot weapon who can complement the team's already impressive collection of talent.

Smith-Schuster was limited to five games by a shoulder injury last season but has had three seasons with at least 831 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. He recorded 1,426 yards and a Pro Bowl appearance in 2018.

Kansas City will again have a championship-caliber roster and Patrick Mahomes at quarterback. The rest of the AFC West is significantly better, at least on paper, than it was two weeks ago.

      

It's Still All About the Quarterback

While an influx of talent is always notable, the AFC West's quarterback pool could really cause problems for the rest of the NFL. Contending for a Super Bowl without a high-end quarterback is virtually impossible. All four squads have one now that Wilson is in Denver's lineup.

The 33-year-old Wilson is the elder statesman of the group and the most accomplished. He's been to two Super Bowls and won one, and he has made nine Pro Bowls in 10 seasons. He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Mahomes is likely on the same path after arguably the hottest start by a quarterback to an NFL career. Mahomes sat for the majority of his rookie season but has since been to four straight conference title games, four consecutive Pro Bowls and two Super Bowls, winning one.

Chargers signal-caller Justin Herbert has never been to the playoffs, but his first two seasons are nothing to sneeze at.

Harbert set an NFL rookie record with 31 touchdown passes in 2020. Last season, he threw for 5,014 yards and 38 touchdowns while making his first appearance in the Pro Bowl. While Herbert might not be elite yet, he's getting close.

Carr may be the fourth-best quarterback in the AFC West, but the three-time Pro Bowler is better than most. He's taken the long-suffering Raiders to the postseason twice and has 30 game-winning drives on his resume.

Reunited with Adams, Carr could be in store for a career year.

Here are the 2022 AFC West quarterback and their passer ratings from last season:

  • Carr: 94.0
  • Herbert: 97.7
  • Mahomes: 98.5
  • Wilson: 103.1

And here's a look at their career touchdown-to-interception ratios:

  • Wilson: 292-87
  • Carr: 193-85
  • Mahomes: 151-37
  • Herbert: 69-25

All four quarterbacks can carry their teams to victory and into the postseason. Given the talent in the division—players like Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Darren Waller, Maxx Crosby, Austin Ekeler and Joey Bosa haven't gone anywhere—they might not have to.

      

Could the Broncos, Chiefs, Raiders and Chargers All Make the Playoffs?

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

While the concept of being the best division in NFL history is subjective, the Broncos, Chiefs, Raiders and Chargers could settle the debate by all making the postseason.

Four teams in the same division have never made the playoffs together since the 2002 conference realignment. Three teams from the same division have made it multiple times in the modern era—the AFC North sent three to the postseason in 2020—but never four.

In 1994, four NFC Central teams made the postseason, but the fifth—the Tampa Bay Buccaneers—finished 6-10. The 1997 NFC Central also sent four teams to the postseason, but the Bears went 4-12.

To be fair, the opportunity for an entire division to make the playoffs has only existed for two years, as the NFL expanded its playoff field from 12 to 14 teams in 2020. Still, it would be an NFL first and a feat that would redefine what it means for a division to be successful.

It's also entirely possible.

Consider that last season, the Chiefs, Raiders and Chargers all won at least nine games. The Chargers took the Raiders to overtime in the season finale and easily could have replaced Las Vegas in the postseason field. Had Las Vegas and Los Angeles tied in that game, the AFC West would have sent three teams to the playoffs.

The Broncos, meanwhile, had the league's third-ranked scoring defense and managed to win seven games with the tandem of Teddy Bridgewater and Drew Lock under center. If the addition of Wilson is worth two wins, we're probably looking at four teams with records above .500 next season.

Not coincidentally, the AFC West is the only division where all four teams are 40-1 or better to win Super Bowl LVII, according to DraftKings Sportsbook.

These are four talented teams led by four above-average or better quarterbacks. A lot will hinge on how many victories these teams take away from one another, but yes, all four teams can make the postseason.

And if the Broncos, Chiefs, Raiders and Chargers do all make the 2022 playoffs, it will be hard to argue that they don't represent the best division we've ever seen.

         

Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference.


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