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The AFC West hasn’t seen one team dominate for a significant amount of time since the days of John Elway. Those days are long gone now and the division has become significantly more competitive. Kansas City burst onto the scene last season, finally getting back to the playoffs under second year coach Todd Haley. Though they were the story of the division by far, San Diego and Oakland saw quite productive seasons, and Denver has finally figured out who will hopefully be their quarterback of the future. So whose the favorite in 2011?
Oakland Raiders: Oakland has had a solid defense over the past few years. Led by star defensive back Nnamdi Asomugha, few teams were able to torch the Raiders, allowing them to keep games close squeak out eight wins while fighting for a wildcard spot. Unfortunately Asomugha will now hit free agency and Oakland has virtually zero chance of resigning him. They will surely have a gaping hole, one which will need to be addressed immediately. They should be able to lean on Darren McFadden on the offensive end who has finally lived up to the hype he had out of college. He put up 1157 yards and seven rushing touchdowns last year in a tandem backfield with Michael Bush who had eight touchdowns himself. The throwing game hasn’t been the same since the days of Rich Gannon, but if Oakland can control time of possession and play well on the defensive end, they should be able to stay in contention. Besides, nobody wants to play them in Oakland. Those fans are flat out crazy.
Denver Broncos: I find myself at a loss about what to say here. I was never the biggest Kyle Orton fan. He never put up great stats when he was winning in Chicago, but he seemed to find a way to get it done. Someone flipped a switch when he got to Denver by making him throw for almost 7,500 yards in his two seasons as starter. The Broncos should not have won only four games last season. Underachieving doesn’t even begin to describe what they did, but maybe in a way it was a blessing. Toward the end of the year they were forced to turn to highly touted draft pick Tim Tebow. The thought probably was that if he didn’t get a chance now, he might be stuck as a backup for quite a while. He performed fairly well in his short time and proved that he could lead a team the same way he did for so many years at Florida. All the fuss about Tebow’s mechanics? Throw it all away if he can win games. If he can match the results that he had as a Gator remains to be seen, but new coach John Fox seems to have faith in him. Fox has always brought a defensive mind to his teams, and Denver should be no different. We will surely see some changes in the Broncos next season, and I’m sure much improvements on an abysmal 2010.
San Diego Chargers: Well since we’re talking about underachieving, San Diego seems appropriate. How they can be the best offensive and defensive team in the NFL and yet still end up only 9-7, and miss the playoffs at that…wow. Complete inconsistency in finishing games, this team just seemed to forget how to win. Antonio Gates had gotten out to an incredible start to 2010 but was bitten by the injury bug which surely had a gigantic impact on the win column. In fact they saw many of their receivers go down throughout the year, and were without Vincent Jackson for much of the year due to suspension, but there should be no excuse. Philip Rivers still found a way to throw for almost 5,000 yards yet again, so I’m not sure if the receivers really were the problem. There’s not really much to say about them. They don’t need to address very many issues, they don’t need to change very many schemes, they just need to go out and win the games. I wouldn’t be shocked if they had the best record in the league next season, but I also somewhat expect more of the same for them. There’s only one way to shake a reputation of choking: win.
Kansas City Chiefs: Todd Haley is inspiring. Jamaal Charles is a beast. Dewayne Bowe is a touchdown machine. Matt Cassel is…well…adequate. Why did everyone sleep on Kansas City last year? The roster was most definitely there, and now everybody knows it. Maybe that will be a disadvantage for them, having higher expectations going into this year, but I doubt it. This team grew up a lot last year, their young players, namely Charles came into their own and carried this team to the playoffs. If they can add a few pieces they should be able to meet their next goal of notching a playoff win or two. The fear for fans is that they’re one of those “one hit wonder” type of teams, and will be once again overtaken by the Chargers eventually. I don’t think this is true after watching the job that Haley was able to do in close games to get his team over the hump, but I also don’t have all that much faith in Matt Cassel. They need to prove themselves again this year to put their stamp on the division and prove 2010 wasn’t a fluke. 10 wins should be the benchmark for this squad, and hopefully a playoff victory.
The Chargers have the talent, the Chiefs have the chemistry, the Broncos have the poster boy, and the Raiders have the 150 year old owner who will surely do something to mess up the one decent season his team has had in a while. I’d like to see Kansas City win the west again because who doesn’t like an underdog? The tough thing for this division is that the AFC is so competitive all-around that it would be shocking to get two AFC West teams into the playoffs in one year. Divisional games will be dog fights, and I for one, can’t wait to see what happens in those late afternoon games this season.