2011 Division Preview: AFC West
In each of Norv Turner's first three seasons, the Chargers could start slow, flip the switch and still win the division because the rest of the AFC West was so awful. Kansas City, Oakland and Denver each failed to post a winning record in any season from 2007 to '09, which is the primary reason San Diego was able to claim the division despite a 2-3 start each year.
However, that all changed last season. With San Diego off to a fourth straight 2-3 start under Turner, the Chiefs rose up to win their first AFC West title since 2003. The question now is whether 2010 was an aberration for San Diego or the start of a trend?
What we do know is that the division is much improved from Turner's early years. Kansas City won the West a year ago, but Oakland swept the division with a 6-0 mark. Denver also figures to be more competitive with John Fox taking over for Josh McDaniels.
Still, look for San Diego to bounce back. It plays three of its first four at home -- one against a team (Vikings) breaking in a new quarterback, another against a team (Dolphins) still searching for a capable quarterback and another against a squad (Chiefs) it beat 31-0 at home last season.
The Chargers' fifth game is at Denver, where their only loss in the teams' last five Mile High meetings was 39-38 following a blown call by referee Ed Hochuli.
San Diego is the only team to rank in the top five in scoring each of the past seven seasons. That's saying a lot considering Indianapolis and Peyton Manning failed do it, New England and Tom Brady failed to do it, New Orleans and Drew Brees (since his arrival in 2006) failed to do it, and Green Bay and Brett Favre/Aaron Rodgers failed to do it.
What does it mean? Nothing, if you consider those teams/QBs won Super Bowls during that time while the Chargers failed to get past one trip to the conference final. But it is does reflect that if you're going to beat the Chargers, you're either going to have to put up points or play hellacious defense -- or hope their special teams break down like last season (more to come on that).
The lineup is stocked again with playmakers, notably quarterback Philip Rivers, tight end Antonio Gates, wide receivers Vincent Jackson and Malcolm Floyd, and running backs Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert. The line is solid, which means another top-five finish is likely in order.
As I've said before, they were the Keystone Kops of special teams last season. They allowed four returns for scores -- three of them on kickoffs, one shy of the league record -- and had four punts blocked and another deflected. The NFL record for blocked punts allowed is six.
San Diego believes it would have made the playoffs if not for the special teams breakdowns. It responded by replacing assistant Steve Crosby with Rich Bisaccia, whose units were perennially among the league's most respected during his tenure with the Bucs. Some team members say it was time for a change, if only because they had been listening to Crosby's voice for nine years. However, if the unit doesn't show marked improvement, someone else will have to take the fall, and his pay grade will be much higher than Bisaccia's.
The Chargers traded up 16 spots to draft Mathews 12th overall last year. Privately, they were disappointed that he didn't make more of an impact last season, when an ankle injury, fumbling problems and a slow transition from college conspired in limiting him to 678 yards rushing and seven scores. Undrafted teammate Mike Tolbert (735 yards, 11 TDs) turned out to be their most consistent and productive back in 2010, and the staff will be quick to turn to him again if Mathews is slow out of the gate. In the meantime, the plan is to expand Mathews' role, particularly in third-down situations now that Darren Sproles has departed for New Orleans.
The Chargers' starters are among the best in the league, which means there's no way they should miss the playoffs a second straight year -- particularly with a schedule that sets them up for what should be a 5-1 start. That's huge because of the team's slow starts in each of Norv Turner's first four seasons.
The Chiefs, who averaged a league-leading 164.2 yards rushing per game last season, can play smashmouth or finesse. They had an NFL-high 258 rushes of at least four yards, but also tied for seventh with 15 carries of 20 yards or longer -- three of which went for 50 or more. That was one behind Oakland.
The speedy Jamaal Charles (1,467 yards and 5 TDs on 230 carries) was their big-play threat, while veteran Thomas Jones (896, 6, 245) was the grinder. The impact of these two was reflected in the passing game, where wide receiver Dwayne Bowe set career receiving highs for yards (his 1,162 yards were 140 more than his previous high), yards per catch (16.2, which was two yards higher than his previous best) and touchdowns (15, which was one fewer than his total for the three previous seasons combined).
It speaks volumes that after Bowe's 72 catches last season, no other K.C. wideout had more than 22 receptions. The lack of other perimeter threats made it easy for the Ravens to erase Bowe in their playoff meeting. They put a man in front and another over the top, which resulted in Bowe not being targeted at least once in a game for the first time in his career.
The Chiefs addressed the problem by drafting Jonathan Baldwin (who is out for the preseason after an injury suffered in a fight with Jones) and signing free agents Steve Breaston and Keary Colbert. Jerheme Urban also returns after missing last season because of injury. Their presence could, along with a productive running game, mean fewer catches for Bowe but a more diversified passing game for the Chiefs.
The 11-year defensive tackle could be a major key to the Chiefs' season. For Kansas City's 3-4 defense to be effective, it needs a noseguard like Gregg who can command double teams and hold his ground.
The Chiefs mixed and matched at the position the past two years, but Gregg is a legit 3-4 noseguard who spent nine seasons with the Ravens and understands the ins and outs of the scheme. Rex Ryan, one of his former coordinators in Baltimore, made a last-minute call to Gregg in hopes of luring him to the Jets this year, but Gregg opted to sign with KC because it's a short plane ride to his home in Oklahoma and because the Chiefs are, in his opinion, an up-and-coming team.
Another reason to focus on Gregg is that he'll be asked to tutor rookie Jerrell Powe, the heir apparent at the position who is expected to be part of the rotation. The Chiefs are also hoping that Gregg's experience and professionalism will help former top-5 picks Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson maximize their potential.
The Chiefs will be a better team than in 2010 but will finish with a worse record. The reasons: They're still maturing and the schedule is daunting. Four of their first six games are on the road, including divisional games at San Diego and Oakland, where they lost 31-0 and 23-20 in OT last season. Overall, they'll play six teams outside the division that won at least 10 games a year ago, including 14-win New England, 12-win Pittsburgh, conference finalists Chicago and New York (Jets) and Super Bowl champion Green Bay.
They averaged 155.9 yards rushing last season to rank second in the league behind the Chiefs. The scary part? Oakland appears to be even deeper at the position this year. In addition to Darren McFadden, who led them with 1,157 yards rushing and a 5.2 yards-per-carry average, and Michael Bush, who had a team-high eight rushing scores, they added rookie speedster Taiwan Jones, who was averaging 6.2 yards per carry through three preseason games. The young line more than held its own against the Saints in the third exhibition game, which some teams treat as a dress rehearsal for the season opener. Look for the run game to be the foundation of the offense.
In one of the more peculiar stats of last season, Oakland held the running games of AFC West opponents to an average of 85.3 yards and .5 touchdowns a game. However, outside the division they surrendered an average of 162.6 yards and one touchdown rushing a game.
Defensive end Richard Seymour says the problem is more mental than physical, contending that the Raiders need to approach games outside the division with the same mindset and intensity as they do against the Chargers, Broncos and Chiefs. The talent is present to get it done. Oakland is big and physical up front and has the ability to bully some teams. But it must be disciplined and pay attention to gap assignments, otherwise the problem will perpetuate itself.
With Nnamdi Asomugha now in Philadelphia, Routt becomes the team's No. 1 cornerback. That could be asking a lot considering that last season was the first time in three years he started more than four games. Regardless, the Raiders are paying him like a shutdown corner. They signed him to a reported $31.5 million, three-year deal in the offseason that could pay him $20 million in the first two seasons.
The Raiders have the potential to win the division -- they were 6-0 against AFC West teams last season -- but their failure to play well against non-divisional opponents is troubling. They finished 2-8 outside the West last season and this year must play five of their first six games vs. non-divisional teams. As if that weren't daunting enough, their non-divisional schedule is comprised of the Packers, Jets, Patriots, Bears, Texans, Lions, Vikings, Dolphins, Browns and Bills.
The good news is that they should be able to build early momentum by opening against the Broncos and Bills. They beat Denver by an aggregate 98-37 last season and Buffalo is rebuilding after a 4-12 finish last year.
The veteran wideout led the league with 1,448 yards on 77 receptions last season and tied for fourth with 11 TD catches. But that was in an offense constructed by Josh McDaniels, who was fired late in the year. At this point there's no way to know what to expect of Lloyd and the passing game. If training camp was any indication, he should continue to excel. Lloyd caught everything thrown in his direction, and incumbent Kyle Orton remains the starting QB.
After a solid showing in 2009, the unit posted league-low averages in points allowed (29.4 a game) and yards allowed (390.2), ranked last in sacks (23) and gave up more yards rushing (154.6 a game) than every team but one.
First positive, 2009 sacks leader Elvis Dumervil is returning after missing missing all of last season with a torn pec. Second positive, the Broncos are shifting back to a 4-3 base defense, which means Dumervil and Robert Ayers can return to playing at the end spot, their natural position. Third positive, new coach John Fox is a respected defensive strategist who figures to help put players in positions to succeed.
The Broncos are searching for a pass-rush complement to Dumervil, and Miller could be the guy. He was drafted No. 2 overall this year and made an immediate impact on teammates in training camp.
The Broncos haven't had a 4-3 outside linebacker with Miller's type of explosion and pass-rush ability in some time. In most cases the 6-foot-3, 246-pound Texas A&M product will line up on the opposite side of Dumervil to prevent offenses from sliding their protections to one side.
If the Broncos can firm up interior of their defensive line, they have the personnel to make Sundays miserable for opposing quarterbacks. Miller will be coming off one edge, Dumervil off the other, and third-year pro Robert Ayers is expected to make a dramatic improvement after returning to end after two years at linebacker.
Finding five wins was tough, simply because the organization has so much work to do to rebuild a franchise that has gone four straight years without a winning record, and because the schedule is unforgiving. There are games against the defending Super Bowl champion Packers, the reloaded Patriots and a participant from each of last season's conference finals (Bears and Jets). Throw in a game against up-and-coming Detroit, two against AFC West champion Kansas City and four against the Raiders and Chargers, who've beaten them a combined six straight times and eight of the teams' last 10 meetings and, well, the picture is not pretty.