Friday September 3rd, 2010

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A case could be made that this was football's weakest division the past three years. During that time three of the four teams failed to post a winning record -- in any season. The exception was the Chargers, who've won four consecutive division titles and five of the past six.

San Diego should hear footsteps this year, however. Oakland had its best offseason in eight years, trading for an established quarterback (Jason Campbell) and drafting for talent instead of speed; Kansas City added coordinators with multiple Super Bowl rings (Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel) as well as a potential game-changing safety in top draft pick Eric Berry; and Denver believes it's better after jettisoning established young playmakers (Brandon Marshall, Tony Scheffler) for the second year in a row for unknown potential (Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Tim Tebow).

What the Chargers do best: Win in December.

The Chargers have won 18 in a row in the Christmas month, a streak that spans four years and two coaches. It's a good thing they've been stronger closers -- in the regular season -- because they've been slow starters under coach Norv Turner. The Chargers opened 1-3 and were 5-5 at another point in 2007 before winning six in a row to end the regular season. The next year they were 0-2 and 3-5 before finishing 8-8. And last season they opened 2-3 before winning 11 in a row.

Turner preached faster starts the past couple of years, but it didn't happen because of injuries and a belief among the players that they can flip the switch on demand. Why would they think anything else? San Diego was the only AFC West team in any of the past three seasons to post a winning record. Put another way: 2006 was the last time that Denver, Oakland or Kansas City finished above .500.

What the Chargers need to improve: Playoff performance.

San Diego's regular season success has not carried over to the playoffs. The Chargers have lost three of their past five playoff openers -- all at home. They were 12-4 in 2004 and lost to the visiting Jets in overtime. In 2006 they were 14-2 and lost to the visiting Patriots. And last season they were 13-3 and lost to the visiting Jets.

The Chargers could go 16-0 in the regular season and it won't mean anything unless they get to a Super Bowl. Division titles should bore them, particularly in an AFC West that might be the league's weakest division. It's truly Super Bowl of bust for them.

Which Charger needs to step up: Left tackle Brandyn Dombrowski.

The second-year pro is being asked to protect QB Philip Rivers' blindside because two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Marcus McNeill is locked in a contract dispute with the team and has yet to report. Dombrowski, who spent his first season on the practice squad, started eight games last season on the right side and performed well. But he has never played left tackle and had a couple of stumbles in the preseason.

Dombrowski (6-foot-5, 323 pounds) has excellent size and is considered a more physical run blocker than McNeill. But he will have to improve in pass protection. The good thing for the Chargers is that they don't face an elite pass rusher until Week 9, when they travel to Houston to meet the Texans and Mario Williams. That assumes that Arizona outside linebacker Joey Porter is unable to turn back the clock. San Diego hosts the Cardinals in Week 4.

Predicted record: 12-4.

The schedule couldn't be much easier on paper. The Chargers play four teams that went to the playoffs last season -- Arizona, Indianapolis, New England and Cincinnati. Combine that with a 20-4 divisional record over the past four years and San Diego should be able to ride out the absences of McNeill and wide receiver Vincent Jackson, who also has refused to report until he gets a fair-market deal. Not that any of this matters. The real test for the Chargers will come in the playoffs. Super Bowl or bust.


What the Broncos do best: Start fast.

In their first season under coach Josh McDaniels, the Broncos won their first six games, four of which were against teams that would go on to reach the playoffs: Cincinnati, Dallas, New England and San Diego. The key was their defense, which allowed only five touchdowns during the streak.

The problem was that Denver couldn't finish as strong. It lost eight of its final 10, in part because the defense surrendered 22 touchdowns in the defeats. By comparison, the Broncos scored only 12 touchdowns in those games. Some of it had to do with injuries, but opponents also caught up to a passing scheme that was largely horizontal. According to Stats Inc., Denver ranked 21st with only 1,751 air yards -- yards the ball traveled through the air before being caught. They were 12th with 2,074 yards after the catch.

What the Broncos need to improve: Protecting its home turf, then stop the run.

In one of the puzzling stats of 2009, the Broncos finished 3-0 in the division on the road but were 0-3 at home. Another area of concern is the run defense. Denver defenders likely had nightmares all offseason after Jamaal Charles ran for a Chiefs record 259 yards in the season finale. Overall the Broncos surrendered 17 rushes of 20 yards or longer, tying for fifth-most in the league, and finished 26th against the run, allowing an average of 128.7 yards a game.

Which Bronco needs to step up: Defensive tackle Jamal Williams.

The massive nose tackle, who was released by San Diego after missing the final 15 games last season with a torn triceps, was signed to shore up the run defense. Williams is almost immovable one-on-one, and his quickness allows him to split some double teams. Even at 34 he's a physical presence on the interior. The Broncos are likely to limit him to run downs to keep him fresh and healthy.

The 13-year veteran signed with Denver in large part to be reunited with line coach Wayne Nunnely, who tutored him for 11 years in San Diego. If the duo is as successful as it was in San Diego, the Broncos' run defense should take a significant jump up the rankings.

Predicted record: 9-7.

The schedule is rough. After opening with Jacksonville and Seattle, the Broncos face Indy, Tennessee, Baltimore, the Jets, Oakland and San Francisco the subsequent six weeks. That could take its toll on a team that has a lot of age on defense and question marks at wide receiver and running back, where injuries shut down their top two backs in the preseason.


What the Raiders do best: Struggle.

That's not meant to be a knock, but when you've had seven consecutive seasons of 11 or more losses -- the longest such streak in league history -- what else can you say until the Raiders turn things around? Thing is, change could be on the horizon. The team had its best offseason since reaching the Super Bowl in the 2002 season: It traded for QB Jason Campbell, drafted middle linebacker Rolando McClain and defensive end Lamarr Houston, signed free-agent defensive tackle John Henderson, hired offensive coordinator Hue Jackson and released QB JaMarcus Russell, the top pick of the 2007 draft who lacked drive and commitment.

There is a quiet confidence among the players that they will challenge for the division title. But there will be challenges, like knee surgery for No. 1 wideout Chaz Schilens, a broken thumb by running back Michael Bush and a wrist injury and stinger sustained by Campbell in the third preseason game. Oakland is not deep enough to overcome injuries to frontline players.

What the Raiders need to improve: Run defense.

The Raiders haven't ranked higher than 22nd against the run since 2002, and they took steps to correct that by drafting McClain and signing Henderson. They are big men who should provide a physical presence on the interior. When they hit the pile, it should move backward, which wasn't always the case in recent years. Also, tackle Tommy Kelly may have had his most impressive preseason since signing a big-money deal a few years ago. Rotate him with Richard Seymour and Henderson and that's quite an interior --if all of them play up to their abilities.

Will they really be better? Chicago's Matt Forte went 89 yards for a score against Oakland in the preseason, and San Francisco's Frank Gore had a 49-yard gain. Granted, Seymour was not on the field for either run, but the jaunts were disturbing in that divisional foes San Diego and Kansas City will be seeking to establish ground games this year. Also, the Raiders open against the Titans and Rams, whose starting backs, Chris Johnson and Steven Jackson, ranked first and second in rushing last season.

Which Raider needs to step up: Running back Darren McFadden.

The former Arkansas running back has struggled with injuries since being drafted fourth overall in 2008. He started strong, churning out 164 yards at Kansas City in his second game as a pro. Since then he has gone 23 consecutive games without breaking 100, and in 21 of those games he failed to reach 50.

Oakland desperately needs him to be the playmaker he was at Arkansas. The Raiders tied for last in the league with 17 offensive touchdowns last season and scored just 197 points overall, tying for second-fewest in the league. Their inability to threaten offensively puts undue pressure on the defense.

"It's been kind of frustrating not being able to do the things that I know -- and that I'm used to doing," says McFadden. "It's been rough for me. I haven't had the success I would like to have. I haven't showed people what I can do. I think a lot of people look at it like I'm just another guy who came into the NFL with high expectations and am not doing so well. One thing I'm going to try to get back to is getting that big-play ability going. That's my game. I've just got to go out and do it."

Predicted record: 8-8.

The Raiders will be much improved, but it's hard to see them making a quantum leap because it takes time to build chemistry and cohesion. Jackson, Campbell, McClain and Houston, among others, are in their first year in the system. Lack of depth and a suspect offensive line are also issues.


What the Chiefs do best: Run the ball.

Jamaal Charles, a speedy big-play threat, came out of nowhere last season to rush for 1,120 yards and seven TDs. He took off over the final eight games, during which his 968 yards rushing and 1,126 yards from scrimmage trailed only Tennessee's Chris Johnson, who had 1,047 and 1,388, respectively. Also, Charles' five rushes of 40 yards or longer ranked second to Johnson's seven for the season.

This year Charles will be complemented by Thomas Jones, a 32-year-old grinder who led the Jets last year with 1,402 yards rushing and 14 scores. The Chiefs have had to rely on the run because their passing game is so inconsistent, particularly the vertical passing game. Matt Cassel struggled in his first year in Kansas City after being acquired in a trade and signing a potential $63 million deal. He threw only 16 TDs and had 16 interceptions with a 69.9 passer rating. Not coincidentally, wideout Dwayne Bowe had the worst season of his career, though Bowe had a strong offseason and exhibition season.

What the Chiefs need to improve: Pass rush.

The Chiefs traded end Jared Allen to the Vikings after the 2007 season, and their pass rush hasn't been the same since. They averaged just 16 sacks the past two seasons, and only outside linebacker Tamba Hali recorded more than 4.5 in a season during that time. The secondary isn't bad, but its ability gets overshadowed when quarterbacks have so much time to throw.

Maybe linebacker Andy Studebaker will be the complement that Hali needs. Studebacker impressed during the exhibition season and was pushing starter Mike Vrabel for playing time. "We're all excited about him," says coach Todd Haley. "He's got the work ethic, the toughness, the athletic ability to be a good player. And he's working real hard trying to do that."

Which Chief needs to step up: Defensive end Tyson Jackson.

Jackson was the third pick of the 2009 draft, but the former LSU defensive end didn't play up to expectations. He made little to no impact as a rookie, and was not demonstrably better this preseason. The Chiefs don't need him to be great --3-4 ends rarely put up big stats -- but they do need him to be good. Consistently good.

Defensive ends in a 3-4 scheme are asked to occupy blockers and hold the line so the linebackers can flow to the ball. Jackson has the size and strength to do it, but he tends to disappear at times. That becomes an even bigger problem when the end on the other side, fellow LSU top-five pick Glenn Dorsey, does the same thing. These two have to step up for the defense to become formidable.

Predicted record: 6-10.

The additions of offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel will accelerate a return to respectability. Weis' arrival allows Haley to focus on managing the team instead of worrying about what play to call on offense. The record might not show it, but the team is headed in the right direction in Year 2 of the Haley/Scott Pioli regime.

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