Wide-open AFC West could go to the wire
When exactly did the AFC West turn into the NFL's most intriguing division?
The timetable probably falls somewhere within the last week. The Chargers are once again doing what they do at this time of the year -- riding their annual, maddening roller coaster from good to mediocre. But in a span of about seven days, the Raiders lost their starting QB and traded for another one, Denver turned its offense over to Tim Tebow and the Chiefs scored their third straight victory to get back in the race.
Suddenly, there are storylines all over the place, and San Diego might be the most boring.
That said, the Chargers will be front and center on Halloween night, when they visit Kansas City in front of a national TV audience. A Chiefs win there would give every team in the division at least three losses and set things up for a frantic second half.
The outlook for each AFC West team, starting from the bottom:
• Denver (2-4): Anyone waiting on the Broncos to make a playoff run should wait to see if Denver can play a full game under Tebow. The Broncos' new QB pulled off a sensational comeback Sunday, but that doesn't erase the fact that his team was dominated for three-plus quarters by a winless Miami bunch.
The next five weeks will determine Denver's fate, one way or the other. The Broncos start in Week 8 with a home game against a frustrated Detroit team, then play at Oakland and Kansas City back-to-back in Weeks 9 and 10, return home to host the Jets and finish the stretch with a trip to San Diego.
With Tebow at the helm, this franchise clearly has the look of a team trying to get the pieces in place for a 2012 resurgence. But the sudden parity within the AFC West means that Denver has a shot to get back in it on the field.
• Kansas City (3-3): Three games ago, the Chiefs looked like one of the NFL's worst teams. Matt Cassel and Todd Haley were fighting on the sidelines, and Eric Berry and Jamaal Charles were done for the year with injuries.
K.C. has now run off three straight and that Monday nighter against San Diego kicks off a three-game Chiefs homestand. Is there really enough in the tank for the Chiefs defend their division title?
Well, it's worth mentioning again that the first two wins in this sudden Kansas City run came against Minnesota and Indianapolis, now a combined 1-13. And while Sunday's win in Oakland was impressive, the Raiders were a total mess at quarterback -- that may not be the case in Week 16 when the two teams meet again.
Of course, after playing San Diego, the Chiefs turn around and face winless Miami and last place Denver before hitting the road again. Getting to 6-3 is very much within the realm of possibilities. Monday may hold the key -- a loss to the Chargers would put K.C. at 0-2 against San Diego this year and leave the Chiefs in a deep divisional hole.
• Oakland (4-3): Maybe the AFC West's hardest team to figure out -- which is saying something given how schizophrenic this division has been.
Too many people in Oakland expected Carson Palmer to step right in for an injured Jason Campbell and make the Raiders a Super Bowl threat. As Palmer showed in relief of Kyle Boller Sunday, though, he's extremely rusty. The best thing about Oakland's 28-0 Week 7 loss is that it preceded a Week 8 bye.
Can Palmer get up to speed in time for a Week 9 home game against Denver? The NFL's new CBA rules force Oakland to take four consecutive days off during the bye week, so Palmer doesn't have as much opportunity as it may seem.
The Raiders still have two games against San Diego -- Week 10 on the road; Week 17 at home -- plus a Week 16 trip to Kansas City. Going at least 2-1 there is a must.
• San Diego (4-2): The Chargers' story has more sequels than the "Friday the 13th" franchise and, much like those movies, the plot is pretty much the same.
San Diego talks about getting off to a fast start. San Diego shows signs of life. San Diego underachieves and puts itself in a difficult spot down the stretch.
A 4-2 mark, which is where the Chargers sit right now, actually marks an upgrade over most recent years. But San Diego let one slip away against the Jets Sunday, looked overmatched against New England in Week 2 and has struggled to beat Minnesota, Denver, Miami and Kansas City.
The worst news here is that Philip Rivers seems out of sorts -- just seven TD passes to nine interceptions so far this season. Unless those numbers get turned around, it's hard to expect San Diego to contend for much in 2011.
And in addition to a game each against the Chiefs and Broncos and two with Oakland, the Chargers still have to travel to Chicago and Detroit, plus host Green Bay and Baltimore.
Long story short, the schedule does San Diego no favors -- so we're in for a fascinating finish in the AFC West. Is the division San Diego's to lose? Can Oakland or Kansas City rally back to steal it? Does Denver have enough to play spoiler? All we can say for sure right now is that few divisions offer as many possibilities.