Time might be up for Smith as Chiefs QB, while Raiders deserve favorite label

Time might be up for Smith as Chiefs QB, while Raiders deserve favorite label

August 29, 2017 3:01 AM
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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the seventh of eight NFL division previews for the 2017-18 season.

The AFC West became one of the league powerhouses last year with the emergence of the Oakland Raiders, who finished 12-4 and lost a division tiebreaker with the flag-winning Kansas City Chiefs.

Top to bottom this division, which includes the Denver Broncos and Los Angeles Chargers, figures to be as competitive as any in the league with a nice chance to spit out another wild card after having four in four years, the most of any loop.

Throwing a wrench in that possibility, though, is that the four teams have the toughest schedules based on last year’s records. Two are involved in franchise shifts.

The Chargers will be adjusting to new surroundings after vacating San Diego for a return to LA for the first time since winning the West Division in the first year of the AFL in 1960. The Raiders, meanwhile, will be lame-duck tenants in Oakland until their eventual 2020 move to their new home in Las Vegas.

The odds are courtesy of Westgate Las Vegas. Here’s the predicted order of finish:

Oakland Raiders

5-4 to win division; 8-1 Super Bowl: The Raiders have been the darlings of the Super Bowl futures world the past two seasons. In 2016, they dropped from an opening 50-1 to 20-1 by Week 1, which was remarkable for a team that was coming off 13 straight non-winning seasons.

This year the Raiders quickly dropped from an opening 20-1 to 12-1 before settling in at their current number. Only New England in the AFC is a bigger Super favorite. And if QB Derek Carr rebounds smartly from last year’s fractured fibula, the Raiders should be in for another successful season.

Helping to boost the return game is ex-Viking Cordarelle Patterson, who has returned five kickoffs for scores the past four years. Oakland, meanwhile, hasn’t had a KO score since 2010.

The running game will be relying on former retiree Marshawn Lynch. He’ll operate behind one of the best lines in the league, which helped the offense have a +161 play differential over the defense, tops in the league since 2013.

Defensively, LB Khalil Mack had 11 sacks, but his teammates totaled only 14. That relative lack of QB pressure helped result in DBs allowing 16 pass plays of 40-plus yards, tied for most in the league. That has to improve.

Note: The Raiders will have the most travel miles of any team this year with 32,876, which includes a trip to London and later a meeting with New England in Mexico City.

Los Angeles Chargers

9-2 division; 50-1 Super Bowl: This could be the surprise team of the West and vie for a wild-card berth if WR Keenan Allen, the favorite receiver of QB Philip Rivers, can stay healthy.

In last year’s opener at eventual division winner KC, the Chargers took a 21-3 lead before Allen was lost with an ACL tear. What followed was the Chiefs’ biggest comeback win in franchise history and a dagger into the Chargers’ psyche.

LA has one of the best group of receivers in the league with TE Antonio Gates and WR Tyrell Williams (69 catches, 15.3 norm, 7 TDs). Williams, though, is wrestling with a sore groin. Then there’s RB Melvin Gordon, who fell 3 yards shy of 1,000 after suffering a knee injury in Week 14. But what’s likely to keep LA from giving Oakland a serious run are giveaways. It had a league-high 35 last year.

On defense, the Chargers held three QBs to their worst day in 2016 (Drew Brees, Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler), which was tops in the league. That unit will now be directed by ex-Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley. The new defensive plan includes returning rookie sensation Joey Bosa to his more comfortable DE position.

Note: The Chargers have a league-high four jet-lag games in the early Sunday time slot in the East, most in the league. They were 0-2 SU/ATS in this situation last year, including a loss in Cleveland.

Kansas City Chiefs

9-4 division; 30-1 Super Bowl: The Chiefs’ hopes took a hit Friday with the serious knee injury to RB Spencer Ware, who’s likely to miss the season. But two years ago, standout RB Jamaal Charles went down in Week 5 with a knee injury and KC rebounded to win 11 straight and reach the AFC divisional round.

Remaining in the backfield are rookie Kareem Hunt and Charcandrick West.

Conservative QB Alex Smith still is at No. 1, but a slow start could speed up the promotion of rookie Patrick Mahomes.

Kansas City needs to brush up on its run defense, which was the worst among division leaders last year by allowing 121.1 yards a game. It didn’t help that LBs Tamba Hali, Justin Houston and Derrick Johnson started only one game together. The unit surely will miss run-stuffing DT Dontari Poe, who landed in Atlanta.

One thing that has held steady for Andy Reid’s club is cashing in on return TDs. Over this four-year tenure, KC has had a league-high 29 defensive/kick scores and yielded only three. And as long as Tyreek Hill remains healthy, the kicking game will benefit. He had three punt/kickoff return scores in 2016, two more than anyone else.

Note: When the Chiefs play at Oakland on a Thursday night in Week 7, it will be their fourth game in 18 days. Three teams face such a condensed schedule this year, but KC is the only one to play the final game on the road.

Denver Broncos

9-2 division; 40-1 Super Bowl: The team’s mediocre quarterbacking extends into a third year, although the Broncos proved they can win without much offensive help when the defense fueled a Super Bowl run two years ago despite having the worst-rated QB in the league (Peyton Manning).

Denver, which opened at 16-1 to win this year’s title, has an inexperienced coach (Vance Joseph), an inexperienced defensive coordinator (Joe Woods) and a third-year QB in Trevor Siemian. That could be rough to overcome.

On the other hand, Denver should have an improved running game that could develop nicely with the addition of the veteran Charles and the return of workhorse C.J. Anderson (knee). But the weak link of the team is the offensive line, just like last year. That’s a large reason in 2016 Denver had its worst rushing production over the past 22 years.

Defensively, the Broncos will be leaning on a pair of All-Pro CBs in Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib. But the team will need better play up front, for the defense allowed 130.3 yards on the ground, third worst in the league. In their SB season, they were third best at 83.6.

Note: The Broncos are 24-1 (.960) with a positive turnover differential the past three seasons, including 7-0 last year. That three-year mark is the league best. Denver is 5-13 with a negative margin in that span.

Next week: NFC West