Editor’s note: This is the last of eight NFL division previews:
There was no more thrilling division race in 2018 than what occurred in the AFC West when Kansas City and the Los Angeles Chargers battled it out to the season’s last gasp, both finishing with conference-best records of 12-4.
But since KC won the tiebreaker (superior division record), it gained the conference’s No. 1 seed while LA tumbled to No 5. It was the Chiefs’ franchise-record third straight crown.
This year figures to be another dogfight between KC and LA, but both teams have lost offensive potency. KC is without its top RB from last year, with Kareem Hunt now in Cleveland, and LA’s Melvin Gordon is entrenched in a holdout and likely to be traded.
Oakland, meanwhile, should have an interesting season with the addition of standout WR Antonio Brown. In Denver, the Broncos will be trying to regain relevance under first-year boss Vic Fangio, 60, who’s been a top defensive coordinator throughout his career, most recently with Chicago’s first-ranked unit.
Anyway, here’s how the division should play out. The odds are courtesy of Westgate Las Vegas:
1. Kansas City (1-2 to win division; 5-1 Super Bowl): Only the Patriots are a heavier choice to win a division this year, so QB Patrick Mahomes and Co. won’t be catching anyone off guard like in 2018, when they went off as 35-1 long shots (at Venetian) to win the Super Bowl.
There’s no debating Mahomes and WR Tyreek Hill provide the Chiefs with an enormous passing edge, not to mention one of the game’s top tight ends in Travis Kelce. But it’s the running game that’s a question mark.
Yet in a stunning turnabout, Buffalo just cut RB Shady McCoy, who was promptly picked up by his old coach, Andy Reid. McCoy, who had four 1,000-yard seasons with Reid in Philadelphia, will step in as the No. 2 RB behind Damien Williams. That just might work.
But the defense that finished 31st overall needs to step up.Gone are Dee Ford (13 sacks) and Justin Houston (nine in 12 games). But added was DE Frank Clark (13 sacks) from Seattle.
One thing that hurt was the fact KC’s defense was on the field for 113 more snaps that the offense, the fourth-worst differential in the league. KC’s foes totaled 30-plus first downs a league-high six times. That needs to change.
Did you know?: Since Reid took over as the Chiefs’ boss in 2013, KC has 38 scores off special teams/defensive returns and only six against. Both are league bests in that span.
2. Los Angeles Chargers (11-5 to win division; 14-1 Super Bowl): The Chargers’ chances to win the division took a downward turn this summer with the holdout of Gordon and the foot injury (IR) to DB Derwin James, who led the team in tackles last season.
Gordon may never come back. As for James, he’ll be out till at least late November after surgery.
And then there was the weekend revelation that veteran OLT Russell Okung will miss at least the first six games dealing with a heart ailment. He’s being replaced on QB Philip Rivers’ blind side by second-year guy Trent Scott (Grambling), who has one career start.
In positive news, Rivers still has versatile RB Austin Ekeler (5.2 a carry) and gets back TE Hunter Henry from injury and has standout WR Keenan Allen at his disposal. But Ekeler averaged fewer than eight carries a game last year. So it’s unlikely he’ll be a workhorse. Maybe LA will get a hot talent in a trade for Gordon.
On defense, even without James, LA’s defense is “vicious,” as described by ex-Patriots star Willie McGinest. Edge rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram are one of the league’s best tandems.
Did you know?: Seven times last year LA went up against arookie and/or backup QB, an NFL high. The Chargers went 6-1 in those outings.
3. Oakland (16-1 to win division; 40-1 Super Bowl): For the fourth straight year, Raiders fans have gone bonkers at the futures windows, this time jumping on them when they opened at 100-1.
The general consensus, though, is that QB Derek Carr gets one more chance to turn around a franchise that has been in the doldrums the past two years after their 2016 wild-card season.
The offense, which was held without a TD in four of its final 11 games of 2018, received a jolt with the addition of WRs Brown and ex-Charger Tyrell Williams in addition to drafting Alabama RB Josh Jacobs.
The Raiders could be foiled by a defense that four times allowed enemy passers to average 11.5-plus yards a throw in a game last year. That happened only six other times elsewhere all season. Plus, Oakland had a league-low 13 sacks. The Raiders could have doubled that total and still been last.
Did you know?: For the third year in the row Oakland will have to endure the most travel miles in the league. But that’s no built-in excuse. In 2012, San Francisco reached the Super Bowl despite the most travel.
4. Denver (14-1 to win division; 80-1 Super Bowl): Although Fangio appears to be the right man for the job in place of Vance Joseph, who just guided the Broncos to back-to-back double-digit loss seasons, chances are Joe Flacco, 34, isn’t the right guy to take over the QB reins. He replaces journeyman Case Keenum. But since his four-game 2012 Super Bowl playoff run he’s been ordinary at best each year. Plus, who’s his backup? As of the weekend, there isn’t one.
Defensively, the pass-rushing of Von Miller (14.5 sacks) and Bradley Chubb (12) make Denver a force, but with Fangio changing up the defense, it may take awhile for the unit to get acclimated.
Did you know?: In each of the past two seasons, two teams coming off a year with double-digit losses wound up winning a division title.
Bob Christ starts his weekly capsules on the GT website later in the week.