The AFC West is arguably the best division in the league. It features one team in the Denver Broncos which won the Super Bowl just a year and a half ago, and another in the Kansas City Chiefs which is a perennial playoff contender, and has made it to the divisional round each of the past two seasons. Then, there are the resurgent Oakland Raiders, who flew high last year and wound up qualifying for the postseason for the first time since Super Bowl XXXVII. At the bottom of the division are the inconsistent Los Angeles Chargers, who just left San Diego for the greener pastures (in more ways than one, I guess) of the nation's second largest urban area. Both the Raiders and the Chargers might be weighed down a bit by announcements of moves or impending moves. Yes, the Chargers already made their move, while the Raiders are staying in Oakland for the next couple of years before their inevitable move to Las Vegas. How these moves will affect these teams this season, and in the near and more distant future, remains to be seen.
Given that, let me make my predictions about what will happen this season in the AFC West:
1. Denver Broncos (projected division winners) - Everyone knew that the Broncos would have quarterback issues in 2016 after the team won Super Bowl 50. Peyton Manning, arguably the greatest quarterback in history, had already been noticeably on the decline, and it was fitting for him to ride off into the sunset with that championship. Trevor Siemian wound up earning the starting job to open the season, and for a while there, he was playing very well. The Broncos still had that rocking defense that carried them to the championship, and they raced off to an impressive 4-0 start, looking every bit like a serious contender. Indeed, they looked capable of a serious run to defend their title! But then, the problems started to line up, and so did the losses. Denver lost seven of their next 11 games, and by that point, they were well out of the AFC playoff picture. The Broncos had their issues, especially on offense, and Siemian's inexperience started to show, once he was no longer a mystery to opposing teams. Also, running back C.J. Anderson's injury really forced the Broncos to rely on Siemian more, just as he was beginning to really struggle. The results were not pretty, as the Broncos, who had won five straight division titles and earned a playoff bye in each of the previous four seasons, suddenly were well out of the playoff race far earlier than anyone could have expected. Well, it is one year later, and once again, Siemian appears to be headed to open the upcoming season as Denver's starting quarterback once again. Anderson can hopefully remain healthy, because the Broncos need him. This team still has a very wicked defense that ranks among the league's elite units, and that could and should help them bounce back from last year's disappointment to at least reach the playoffs once again.
2. Kansas City Chiefs (projected second place) - The Kansas City Chiefs are kind of hard to figure out. At some points, they seem capable of winning some impressive games and look like a legitimate contender. Then, they will drop some games, or put up performances, that make you wonder why you ever thought they could really be an elite team. The Chiefs enjoyed a solid 12-4 record last season, just edging out the resurgent Raiders to take the AFC West title, earning a playoff bye in the process. And their opponents were the Steelers, the same team that had whooped them in Pittsburgh earlier that season. Revenge time, right? Not exactly. Kansas City fought hard, but ultimately, the Steelers seemed to beat them to the punch throughout. They did recover, and almost pulled off a strong comeback, but it fell just short in the end. So, another good, but not great, season for KC. A promising 2015 season, and a solid 12-4 mark, all went down the toilet after their one and only playoff game, as the Chiefs once again could not elevate their game to produce the win. The Chiefs were decent on offense, and better on defense, and they still have the tools to make them division champions. However, they just do not seem to excel when the biggest stakes are on the line, which is why I am predicting a playoff spot, but not another division title, for this team.
3. Oakland Raiders (projected third place) - After many years of suffering, the Raiders finally broke through with a solid season last year. Their offense was explosive, led by emerging star quarterback Derek Carr. Yes, the Raiders finished the season with a solid 12-4 mark, although Carr was injured right at the end of the season, and missed the team's one and only playoff game. The Raiders lost that game, probably in large part because they did not have Carr in the lineup. Carr made a huge difference, throwing for almost 4,000 yards, including 28 touchdowns to just 6 interceptions. Those numbers might very well have been even better had he not gotten injured very late in the season. But without Carr, the Raiders were pedestrian at best. Their offense lacked the punch that it had with Carr, and their defense did not stand out for excellence like the offense did under Carr. So, the Raiders have to protect Carr, and hope that he stays healthy, because so much of their fortunes really ride with him. Indeed, the Raiders enjoyed resurgence last season, but they still have some issues that might inhibit continued progress this season. First of all, they clearly are not going to sneak up on people this year like they did last season. Secondly, they need that defense to stand up and improve a bit to truly become an elite team. Finally, they are moving to Las Vegas, but not right away. In a rather strange move, the Raiders announced that they will move to Las Vegas two years from now, but will remain in Oakland between now and then. Usually, when you have a divorce, you make a point of not making it as messy as possible, to try and have a clean break, and then move on. But that is not how the Raiders proceeded, and so it remains a mystery just how supportive their remaining fans in Oakland will be, and if this might compromise any home field advantage that this team might have. It is those issues that prevent me from predicting great things for this team, despite how impressive they were in finishing 12-4 last season. And with the Broncos likely recovering from what held them back last season, the Raiders might struggle quite a bit more than they did last year.
4. Los Angeles Chargers (projected last place) - It was a familiar story on the football field in San Diego last season, with the Chargers flying high on offense, mostly off the arm of star quarterback Philip Rivers, but then struggling mightily with defensive woes. Also, the Chargers committed many turnovers, and had one of the poorest turnover rations is the league. When you allow 27 points or more 10 times during the course of a 16 game season, and you commit considerably more turnovers than you recover from opposing teams, it does not take a genius to realize that you probably will lose a lot more games than you win. Yet, the Chargers are a talented team, and showed this with some impressive wins against the Broncos, the Titans, and some impressive road wins in Atlanta and Houston, both teams having gone on to win their division and advance in the playoffs. However, the Chargers killed themselves with mistakes and miscues, such as those turnovers. They could not close the deal on a lot of close games, and had a very bad record of 1-8 in games decided by a touchdown or less. It is all enough to make your jaw drop. And despite those impressive victories mentioned earlier, it should also be noted that this team lost to the Cleveland Browns, giving that team their only win on the year. The biggest news during the off-season, of course, was the move from San Diego to Los Angeles. It remains a mystery just how this will affect this team, and what the prospects are, both on the short team and on the long term. But with as many issues and question marks as this franchise has right now, it would be difficult to project anything but a last place finish for them in this upcoming season.