Ah, the AFC West. Where 9-7 is everyone’s goal.
Since selecting Denver as his new home, Peyton Manning has been commonly cited as the unbalancing factor that will turn this plodding, knotted division into an actual race to the top. Manning, however, isn’t the only story in the West and our analysts will tell you why as they look ahead and share their thoughts.
A varied group of breakout selections, interest in young Raider receivers, trust issues with a certain KC QB, and a divisive division-winner question highlight this exchange.
Who is the one player from this division you see having a breakout year?
Sam: There are a few candidates I could go for in this division, but the guy that really interests me is Denver’s Eric Decker. He may not have anything in particular that makes you sit up and say ‘wow’, but he gets open. Regularly. Unfortunately for Decker, Tim Tebow couldn’t get the ball in the same area code when trying to hit him. There were games last season where Tebow robbed Decker of hundreds of yards with wayward passes that he had no chance of bringing in. Demaryius Thomas may be the more physically gifted receiver and the guy with the postseason highlight reel, but Decker seems to me to be a Peyton Manning kind of receiver, and it wouldn’t shock me if he steps instantly into the role of a perennial 1,000-yard receiver and Manning’s top target.
Khaled: I’ve always felt that the only thing holding Robert Meachem back was that the Saints’ offense was never going to (nor would they need to) make him a big part of their game plan. Capable of beating you all over the field, there’s been some chatter about chemistry issues with Philip Rivers, but when the season rolls around I think he’s got it in him to put up big numbers in a pass-friendly system.
Neil: Kansas City outside linebacker Justin Houston is my selection here. He’s an excellent run defender and pass rusher that struggled in coverage early last year. While he’s still not great in that regard he got it sorted out by midseason and in the last half of the year played as well as most 3-4 outside linebackers.
Ben: I really want to say that Jonathan Baldwin is going to break out this season because if he realizes his potential he could be a tremendously exciting player. However I’m just not sure that he’s going to be able to do that. Consequently I’m looking for a re-emergence this season from the Chargers new starting nose tackle, Aubrayo Franklin. Lost and misused in the Saints’ defense last season Franklin was a shadow of his former self. Back in a 3-4 defense he should be the anchoring point that he was with 49ers and allow the Chargers to use Antonio Garay in a more robust and flexible manner.
The over/under lines for season win totals in the division have been set at: Denver 9.5; San Diego 9; Kansas City 8; Oakland 7. On which team would you put your theoretical $100?
Sam: Understandably, the odds makers have decided that the AFC West is, as usual, anybody’s to win. Every team is between seven and 9.5 wins in the over/under and in more or less the right order. I think Oakland is moving in the right direction, but in that division if a couple of the others look like contenders then wins become extremely tough to come by and seven might be beyond their reach.
Khaled: I must admit I do like the Chiefs. They’ve done as good a job as anyone in loading their roster up with talent all over the place. The question is: have they done enough to make up for Matt Cassell’s shortcomings? In my opinion the answer is a big fat ‘yes’. There are so many things I like about this team that I can see them dominating the AFC West if the other teams start slow.
Neil: Denver for me. I know he’s not fully fit; I’ve seen his throws wobble like never before but Peyton Manning has taken far worse teams than this to more than 9.5 wins. Let’s be honest, if Tim Tebow could get them into the playoffs then a 75% Manning must be able to as well.
Ben: The only handicap to the Chiefs here is their quarterback. I don’t think Matt Cassel can lead this team through to its true potential but he should be good enough to manage the talent on this team to a 10 win season. As a result I’ll take the Chiefs at over 8 wins, though this is one of my less confident bets.
Which rookie are you most looking forward to seeing in action?
Sam: I wanted to go elsewhere with this pick (it’s just too obvious), but I’m itching to see which Dontari Poe shows up in the NFL. Is it the player from his college tape that would put together reams of average performances against players that couldn’t hope to match him physically? Or will it be the guy that we saw at the combine, who–at 350 pounds–moved like a dancer, always with his feet beneath him, showing incredible balance, agility, and speed. That combine guy has the tools to perform like few players in the NFL, and fully represents the Planet Theory in action, but it hasn’t yet translated to tape. I’m really looking forward to seeing if it does with the Chiefs.
Khaled: Who doesn’t like an undrafted free agent doing well? I’m answering this after watching Rod Streater look so good for the Raiders in preseason and I want to see if he can 1) get playing time, and 2) do something when the opportunity presents itself.
Neil: The Raider WR, Juron Criner, is so unlike anything Oakland has ever taken before it will be fascinating to see him play. He’s not going to break any land speed records, but his big body and sure hands will make him a great third-down target over the middle.
Ben: The Chargers have a real depth and breadth of talent at outside linebacker this season so I’m fascinated to see how they make use of Melvin Ingram. Rookie pass rushers can make a spectacular impact if they aren’t pressed into full-time roles (Terrell Suggs and Aldon Smith have both proven that in the last decade), and Ingram has plenty of talent to take the pressure off of him being a full time player. The Chargers have lacked explosive playmakers on defense since the decline and departure of Shawne Merriman, so have created a situation for Ingram to provide them with that presence from Week 1.
Who is going to make the playoffs and who is going to win it all?
Sam: The Chargers are always contenders for the division and always make it hard for themselves, and Peyton Manning just makes postseasons, he’s that damn good. I think those two are the class of the division, though the San Diego’s roster is far better than Denver’s, and, in truth, Kansas City’s might be better than either, they’re just held back by the QB spot. In the end, I’m going to pick the Chargers to win the division and Denver to be in contention for a Wild Card spot. I can’t see either team really threatening to win it all, though.
Khaled: If the Chiefs had any of the other quarterbacks in this division I’d feel a lot more confident about them. The rest of their roster is loaded, but relying on a marginal talent like Cassel is risky. As it is, I’m not sold on the Chargers’ defense, don’t know when we can expect the Raiders’ rebuild to be complete, and am cautious of Peyton Manning’s health. Chiefs win it without even needing 10 wins.
Neil: I think Denver and San Diego will battle it out for supremacy in the West with both making the playoffs; the Chargers as the wild card. I don’t think Rivers has quite overcome the problems he encountered last year, but if he does so early on, that could easily turn them into the West’s winners. On the question of why not KC? I simply don’t trust Matt Cassel enough, although I think the Chiefs have the best talent in this division overall.
Ben: There is no more open division in the league this season than the AFC West, I’m not confident that any individual team is out of the running the playoffs and I don’t view any team as a dead cert for the playoffs either. That said my favorites for the AFC West division title are the Chiefs. This team played hard for Romeo Crennel down the stretch last season and with the wealth of young talent returning from injury they may be one of the more talented teams in the division. The Broncos and Chargers are also in the running for the division title but I’m not sure there’s a wildcard game coming from this division.