The AFC West is always one of the hardest divisions to figure out. The Raiders swept the division last season and didn't make the playoffs! The Chargers were number one in the NFL in offense and defense and didn't make the playoffs! Let's take a look at each team and find out what's going on in 2011.
4. Denver Broncos - The Broncos have had one of the more publicly viewed and discussed training camps this year, largely because of the quarterback controversy surrounding Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow. Orton was supposed to have been dealt to the Dolphins but they could never get the trade done. The Denver fans want it to be Tebow time but the only problem is Orton is a better quarterback. In fact, Brady Quinn is a better quarterback, who has outperformed Tebow in the preseason. John Fox still doesn't know which direction he is going to go, and I don't think this is the way he wanted to start his career in Denver waffling over quarterbacks.
We know that Fox loves the two running back system, so we expect to see a lot of Knowshon Moreno and newly acquired veteran Willis McGahee in the offense this year. If Moreno can prove to stay healthy an entire season, he should have a good season for the Broncos. On defense, they are still really bad. Elvis Dumervil's return should have a positive impact, but they still have a long way to go to recover from their 32nd ranked defense in 2010. With a tough schedule playing the NFC North and AFC East this season, I have the Broncos finishing 4-12 in the West.
3. Oakland Raiders - As long as Al Davis is still running this team, they are going no where fast. Every year since 2002 has been a disappointment. The Raiders have been dubbed "the place where players go to die", because they've marked the end of careers for Javon Walker, Jerry Rice, Dante Culpepper, and several others. Let's all admit that the Lane Kiffin experiment was a bad move, but Tom Cable provided stability and swept the division in 2010, but Davis still canned him at the end of the season. So the Raiders will enter the 2011 season with a new head coach and a similar starting lineup as they had in 2010. The loss of Zach Miller was quickly mended by signing free agent Kevin Boss, who should help Campbell over the middle of the field. The Raiders still have McFadden and Mike Bush toting the ball, so we expect big numbers out of both of those backs. They still have solid players on both sides of the ball, but they need to put everything together to win the division. They added speedy receiver Jacoby Ford to line up across from Heyward-Bay. Ford is a good receiver, but the two are very similar in size, speed, and playing style. They may have been better off going after a bigger, possession receiver that could run routes over the middle of the field and help them pick up third down yardage. Overall, they didn't do much to improve the team from a year ago and a lot of other teams have gotten better. I have them finishing 7-9 in 2011.
2. Kansas City Chiefs - The Chiefs were able to win the AFC West last season, largely because of the mix of play calling from offensive coordinator Charlie Weiss. With Weiss now a Florida Gator, it's going to be interesting to see how the Chiefs offense responds. All the pieces are still there from a year ago, including new wide receiver Steve Breaston from Arizona. Jamaal Charles is one of the most explosive backs in the NFL, so we expect big things from him.
They are a young and inexperienced team, which showed in the playoffs when they were routed by the Baltimore Ravens. I expect this team to be even better talent wise, but Charlie Weiss is an offensive genius, so it's yet to be determined how much he will be missed this season. Can Dwayne Bowe finally show some stability and play every down like the Chiefs fans know he can? On defense, Eric Berry is one of the best young players in the league and provides leadership and maturity beyond his years already. I like all the pieces they have in place, and they may prove me wrong and win the division again, but right now I have them finishing second in the West with a 10-6 record. This may get them into the playoffs, depending on what happens with the Colts and Ravens this year.
1. San Diego Chargers - The loss of Charlie Weiss in Kansas City is the only reason I have the Chargers ahead of the Chiefs on this list. Last season the Chargers became the only team to finish number one in the NFL in offense and defense and not make the playoffs. How is this possible? Their special teams unit was awful last year, and they made bone head plays down the stretch of games to give them away. They will have Vincent Jackson and Antonio Gates both to start the season, so this will give Philip Rivers his two favorite targets coming out of the gates. Rivers has proven to be one of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL, and we expect no less than 3800 yards and 30 TD's from him this season. The Chargers will miss Darren Sproles more than people think. If you think back to all the big games they won against the Colts in the playoffs, it was always Sproles that was able to step up and put them away. They still have Ryan Matthews, but the jury is still out on whether he can stay healthy and be productive for a full season.
On defense, they kept their 2010 unit intact, plus added Bob Sanders from the Colts. Sanders was a huge disappointment to the Colts and their fans, finding his way on the IR list every single year. If and when he is healthy, he's one of the best at his position, but he hasn't proven he can stay on the field long enough to make an impact. The schedule for the Chargers is fairly light this year, which should allow them to win 11 games and get back into the playoffs. This division is going to come down to the Chiefs and Chargers matching up on Halloween night. Who ever wins this game may control their own destiny moving forward through the remainder of the season.