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 (
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
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.
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.
The second-year pro is being asked to protect QB
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
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
In their first season under coach
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
Will they really be better? Chicago's
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."
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.
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
The Chiefs traded end
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
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/