Jim Trotter: 2012 Division Preview: AFC West - Sports Illustrated

2012 Division Preview: AFC West

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Only one game separated first and last place in the AFC West last season. Don't be shocked if the same thing happens again this year. The division is so tight that every team finished 3-3 against each other last season; so tight that only once in the past four seasons has the first- and second-place teams been separated by more than a game.

With the exception of the Raiders, who were hamstrung by salary cap issues and limited draft picks, each team made key moves in free agency or at the top of the draft -- notably the Broncos, who won the Peyton Manning sweepstakes.

What the Chiefs do best: Cope with adversity.

Safety Eric Berry, running back Jamaal Charles and tight end Tony Moeaki (torn ACLs) sustained season-ending injuries by Week 2, first-round pick Jon Baldwin missed the first five games with a broken hand, and QB Matt Cassel missed the final seven with a hand injury, yet Kansas City was still in a position to win the division on the final Sunday of the season.

What the Chiefs need to improve: Putting points on the scoreboard.

The league average for scoring last season was 22.2. The Chiefs averaged 13.2 a game. Only St. Louis (12.1) was worse. The return of Cassel, Charles and Moeaki, as well as the additions of running back Peyton Hills and right tackle Eric Winston, should help them climb the rankings.

Which Chiefs needs to step up: Matt Cassel, quarterback.

Two years ago he went to the Pro Bowl after throwing for 27 touchdowns with only seven interceptions. Last year he was good for 10 scores and nine picks. A positive for the Chiefs is that Cassel has been as good in even-numbered years as he has been mediocre/bad in odd-numbered years. Consider his touchdown-interception totals the past four seasons: 21-11 in 2008 with New England; 16-16 in 2009 with KC; 27-7 in 2010; and 10-9 in 2011.

Predicted record: 10-6.

The Chiefs are talented and arguably have the best depth in the division. They'll struggle early but make their move midway through the season when they play five of their six divisional games after a Week 7 bye.

What the Chargers do best: Move the ball on offense, particularly through the air.

Since Norv Turner arrived as coach in 2007, Philip Rivers ranks second in passing yards and third in yards per attempt. He'll be tested this year with the departure of Vincent Jackson in free agency and the loss of Vincent Brown (broken ankle) for at least eight weeks. Rivers threw a career-high 20 interceptions last season. If that happens again, San Diego has almost no shot of ending its two-year playoff drought.

What the Chargers need to improve: Getting off the field on defense.

In 2011, San Diego allowed its opponents to convert on a league-high 49.2 percent of their third downs and score touchdowns 59.2 percent of the time they reached the red zone, 29th in the league. New coordinator John Pagano believes the players were doing too much thinking last year, so he has tried to eliminate the gray areas on defense. His goal is to win with better execution rather than complicated schemes.

Which Chargers needs to step up: Melvin Ingram, linebacker.

The defense has been searching for a pass rush complement to Shaun Phillips since 2007, when Shawne Merriman's slide began. Ingram could be the guy. He consistently flashed in the preseason and is being counted on to balance the pass rush.

Predicted record: 9-7.

A favorable early schedule will allow the Chargers to get out to a quick start, and improvements on defense will keep Rivers from feeling like he has to make a play on every possession.

What the Broncos do best: It remains to be seen, but moving the ball figures to rank high on the list now that Manning is directing the offense.

With Tim Tebow at the controls the final 11 games last season, the Broncos finished 25th in scoring and had the most lopsided offense in the league, ranking first in rushing attempts and last in passing attempts. That won't happen with Manning, a four-time league MVP whose Indianapolis offenses ranked in the top four in scoring nine out of his 13 seasons. Manning also attempted 500 or more passes in all but two of his seasons.

What the Broncos need to improve: The run defense.

Denver ranked 22nd against the run last year and allowed five of its final six opponents, including the postseason, to gain at least 140 yards on the ground. New coordinator Jack Del Rio made run defense a point of emphasis during training camp, but the results were spotty in the preseason.

Which Bronco needs to step up: Ty Warren, defensive tackle.

He could be a key to the run defense after missing the past two seasons because of injuries. If Denver can put teams in 3rd-and-long situations, it can turn loose end Elvis Dumervil and linebacker Von Miller, who were central to the unit having the 10th most sacks in the league last year.

Predicted record: 8-8.

The Broncos' early schedule is brutal, as six of their first eight opponents were participants in last season's playoffs. That, combined with limited depth on defense, will relegate them to .500.

What the Raiders do best: Run the ball with a healthy Darren McFadden.

The former Arkansas standout was leading the league in rushing with 612 yards last season before sustaining a season-ending foot injury. In his last 19 games (not including the two-carry outing in Week 7 last season) he has run for 1,769 yards and averaged a staggering 5.3 yards a carry. McFadden also is a talented receiver, and new coordinator Greg Knapp plans to expand his role in that area.

What the Raiders need to improve: The passing game.

Carson Palmer couldn't develop a rapport with two of his top three projected wideouts because Denarius Moore and Jacoby Ford missed most of camp with injuries. Consequently, Palmer was forced to lean on rookies Rod Streater and Juron Criner, who despite their talents are still feeling their way. The only wideout with significant NFL experience is Darrius Heyward-Bey, who led the team in catches (64) and yards (975) last season.

Which Raiders needs to step up: Rolando McClain, middle linebacker.

Oakland's run defense has been porous in recent seasons, and McClain, the eighth pick of the 2010 draft, is part of the reason. After a promising rookie season, he took a step back last year because of injury and off-field issues. He needs a strong season for the Raiders to challenge for the division title.

Predicted record: 8-8.

First-year GM Reggie McKenzie inherited a tough situation. The Raiders were farther over the cap than any other team, and did not have a draft pick higher than the fifth round before receiving two compensatory selections in the third round. Both of those issues hurt Oakland's depth. Look for it to show late in the year.