The AFC West appears to be a two-horse race this season

The AFC West appears to be a two-horse race this season

September 03, 2018 2:51 PM
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EDITOR’S NOTE: The AFC West is the last of eight NFL division previews. Bob Christ starts his weekly capsules on the GT website later in the week).

The AFC West appears to be a two-horse race this season between two-time defending champion Kansas City and the Los Angeles Chargers, but that doesn’t mean Denver and Oakland can’t be in the mix if the front-runners come back to the back.

It wouldn’t even be a surprise if the race ends up with all four teams within a game of each other, like it was in 2011.

Last year, the West took a downturn, going a cumulative four games under .500 after being +12 the previous season. Only the Chargers showed improvement. Anyway, there’s a good shot for a wild-card team to emerge from this group, especially since all four teams get to face the Jets, Dolphins and Bills, who figure to be bottom feeders in the AFC East. And West teams also get the NFC East, with the injury-ravaged Cowboys and rushing-deficient Redskins.

Here is how the division should play out, with teams listed in order of predicted finish. The odds are courtesy of Westgate Las Vegas.

1. Kansas City Chiefs (11-4 to win division; 20-1 to win Super Bowl): The Chiefs are famously rolling the dice by putting QB Patrick Mahomes in charge of the offense in place of vet Alex Smith, who led KC to West titles the past two years. 

Mahomes, in his second season, has only one career start, that coming in a JV game against Denver in the season finale, but coach Andy Reid and his staff rave about his strong arm. It will come handy throwing to mega speedy WR Tyreek Hill (15.6 yards a catch) and offseason acquisition Sammy Watkins, who had eight TDs in 2017.

Helping to free up the deep game will be the two-headed RB monster of 2017 rushing champ Kareem Hunt (4.9 a carry) and the return of former alpha back Spencer Ware from a knee injury. He played sparingly in exhibitions but averaged 4.6 a carry in 2016.

The Chiefs are loaded with questions all over the defensive unit, which is being rebuilt after old-timers and star DB Marcus Peters were let go. But at least standout DB Eric Berry is back to anchor the secondary. But regarding weak defensive play, that didn’t keep Green Bay from going 15-1 in 2011 despite having the worst-ranked unit.  

Note: KC had three TD drives of 90-plus yards in its season-opening victory over New England last year, the most by any club in a game last year. Yet the Chiefs had only one such drive the rest of the season.

2. LA Chargers (5-4 div; 16-1 SB): If the Chargers’ showing through their practice-game schedule this summer is an indication, they’ve toughened a rush defense that was worst in franchise history and last in the NFL in 2017, yielding 4.9 a carry. In this year’s exhibitions, that norm was 3.2.

When often facing an assortment of undrafted RBs, it’s hard to get a good measure. But since last year’s summer norm was 4.6, maybe there is some correlation. So, that’s good news for LA.

As always, LA’s hopes will be ride on the arm and savvy of QB Philip Rivers, who has answered the bell every game for the past 12 years. He had particularly good chemistry with standout WR Keenan Allen, who caught 66 of 91 targeted throws the final nine games en route to a 9-7 record. And running back Melvin Gordon proved to be a dependable performer with 1,581 yards from scrimmage behind a solid offensive line.

Defensively, LA’s pass rush was a force with DE Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa, who helped total 43 sacks last year, tied for fifth in the league. But the absence of ex-Pro Bowl CB Jason Verrett (IR) will sting. The Chargers definitely have the look of at least a wild-card contender and are certainly capable of overcoming KC.

Note: Stats aren’t everything. Eight years ago, the Chargers ranked first in both offense and defense yet still didn’t make the playoffs. The only other team in history to pull that stunt was the 1953 Eagles.

3. Denver Broncos (9-2 / 40-1): The Broncos made big news in the offseason by signing one-year wonder Case Keenum to be their QB for $36M over two years after he guided Minnesota to the NFC title game last season. 

If he merely helps Denver improve on its -17 turnover differential last year it will be a nice upgrade over Trevor Siemian. The Broncos will be looking to open up the air game, which had only three pass plays of 40-plus yards last year. Keenum had eight such throws with the Vikings, plus the dramatic game-winning heave to Stefon Diggs against the Saints in the playoffs.

Keenum will be working behind a suspect offensive line and without departed workhorse RB C.J. Anderson, who totaled 1,007 yards last year, including a 30-carry, 158-yard effort in Week 15 against Indianapolis. Denver’s defense, meanwhile, isn’t what it used to be. In back-to-back losses to the Eagles and Patriots at midseason last year, the Broncos yielded a ghastly total of 92 points.

Note: Denver has gone 31-1 the past five seasons when having a positive turnover edge. But last year it had only two such games.

4: Oakland Raiders (7-2 / 20-1): For the third straight year, the Raiders have been bet down significantly entering the season. Two years ago they opened at 50-1 and went off at 20-1. Last year, The Raiders went from 20-1 to 8-1. This year it was 30-1 to 20-1 with the return of coach Jon Gruden, who’s been off the sideline since 2008.

The Raiders have suddenly gotten worse, thanks to trading away the 2016 Defensive Player of the Year, LB Khalil Mack, this past weekend to Chicago for draft picks. The Raiders already ranked in the bottom 10 in defense the past two years with him, so they’re in deeper trouble now.

Offensively, Oakland has a good line and a very good QB in Derek Carr, but Gruden’s putting a lot of faith in greybeard RBs Marshawn Lynch and Doug Martin, in addition to WR Jordy Nelson, who was let loose by Green Bay. 

Note: The Raiders scored 30-plus points two seasons ago in their 12-4 wild-card campaign. They had only two such games last year in dropping to 6-10 and costing sideline boss Jack Del Rio his job.

  Up next: Bob Christ’s weekly forecasts will appear online throughout the regular season and playoffs.