Denver Broncos (10-6) (3rd seed; Divisional Round)
San Diego Chargers (8-8)
Oakland Raiders (7-9)
Kansas City Chiefs (6-10)
The AFC West is a division where the top teams are in a state of decline while the rebuilding teams aren’t, well, rebuilt yet.
Peyton Manning remains the greatest quarterback in the game. Not just now. Ever. But his age, and the Broncos’ failure to significantly fortify their offensive line, likely means that Manning will be fighting off injuries just as much as he is fighting off opposing defensive linemen come January. Their chance to break free will be to rely heavily on the running game, much as the Dallas Cowboys did last year. That would help Peyton stay healthy and free up Denver’s receiving corps, which is less loaded than it used to be. Still, I don’t see the Broncos as the kind of elite team they were the last couple of years.
Lagging behind Denver are the Chargers, who still have Philip Rivers. He’s still good enough to get them to second place, but lack explosiveness offensively and lack the defensive firepower to get very far in the playoffs (if they get there at all).
The one team I find really exciting in this division is the Raiders. They added Amari Cooper to an offense that sorely needed a breakout star. He can help Derek Carr take that next step offensively. Defensively, the Raiders are still a work in progress, but they’re rapidly approaching the point where they will be that team absolutely no one wants to play if they can stay on track.
Kansas City has flirted with contention, but I think they take a step back this year. While Jeremy Maclin fills a hole in the offense, he alone isn’t enough to help the Chiefs get over the hump.
Overall, the AFC West is in a state of minor upheaval. And while Peyton Manning is still good enough to guide the Broncos into the AFC Divisional Round, I have them falling prey to the Baltimore Ravens there.
Games to Watch:
Week 2 – San Diego @ Cincinnati: If the Chargers aim to prove me wrong and play like contenders this season, this early contest against the playoff-hopeful Bengals is the kind of game they need to take charge of and win.
Week 5 – Denver @ Oakland: How good are the Raiders? If they can hold at home against division favorite Denver, the answer might be better than you think.
Week 13 – Kansas City @ Oakland: It’s been a long time since this classic AFL rivalry meant anything. It might not at Week 13, but then again, it’s getting closer.
Week 17 – San Diego @ Denver: The NFL, per usual, pits the division’s top two against each other to close out the season. And why wouldn’t they?