The Denver Broncos' perch atop the AFC West may be in question this year after a discouraging end to 2014. Which team is most likely to unseat them?
Since the Broncos finished last in an incredibly forgettable 2010 season, they've controlled the AFC West, winning the conference for four straight years. But their crashing end to last season, coupled with the aging of QB Peyton Manning, has them looking more vulnerable than ever. Which team is best poised to unseat them from their throne atop the division? SI.com's NFL staff argues between the Chiefs and the Chargers. (Sorry, Raiders, but going from 3–13 to division champs isn't quite what any of us have in mind.)
Don Banks: San Diego Chargers—It might be forgotten in some quarters, but as December dawned last season, the Chargers stood at 8–4, owned quality wins over the likes of Seattle and Baltimore, and appeared poised to return to the playoffs and make it two-for-two in postseason berths under head coach Mike McCoy. Then came back-to-back home losses to New England and Denver and a Week 17 defeat at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, snuffing out San Diego’s playoff hopes at 9–7.
The late slide stung the Chargers, but they know the Broncos had their own disappointing finish to the 2014 season. Peyton Manning and Co. looked more vulnerable than ever as another one-and-done playoff trip concluded with that dispiriting home loss to Indianapolis in the AFC Divisional round. Mix in the departure of John Fox and his coaching staff, the free-agency departure of a favorite Manning target in tight end Julius Thomas and the ongoing questions about the makeup of the Broncos offensive line, and my sense is Denver can be caught in the division this season.
Chargers QB Philip Rivers played an MVP level in the first half of last season, but his play dropped off once he started getting pounded behind a shaky O-line, and the running game became virtually non-existent, slumping to a 30th overall ranking. That shouldn’t happen this time around, with first-round running back Melvin Gordon my pick to win the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year, versatile third-down back Danny Woodhead returning from a broken leg and the offensive line improved with the free-agent additions of ex-Broncos guard Orlando Franklin and ex-Rams tackle Joe Barksdale. If Barksdale can handle the right tackle slot, D.J. Fluker is expected to slide inside to guard, giving San Diego strength in the interior line and the chance to build a dominant running game.
Denver’s four consecutive AFC West titles rank second in the conference, trailing only New England’s six straight, but the Chargers have traditionally played Manning and the Broncos tough, and a changing of the guard season seems in store in the division.
Chris Burke: San Diego Chargers—The Chargers have Eric Weddle and Philip Rivers's contract situations and that little business of possibly moving the entire team 120 miles north hanging over their heads this season. Should they avoid the distraction land mines, though, the talent is there for this team to make some noise.
It feels like they've been close for ages—9–7 the past two years and no more than nine losses since 2004. So why would 2015 be any different? Well, the offensive line, for one. Orlando Franklin's arrival from Denver plus Chris Watt's return at center has San Diego boasting one of the league's top fronts, on paper. That's great news with rookie RB Melvin Gordon joining the fold. He adds a dynamic element to the backfield missing whenever Ryan Mathews was injured ... which was often. The defense could be pretty good, too, especially if Jason Verrett stays healthy. Even with Verrett missing 10 games and a mediocre-at-best showing from the linebackers, San Diego finished ninth in yards allowed.
San Diego last won the AFC West in 2009. Time to snap the skid.
Ben Eagle: Kansas City Chiefs—Every team in this division is flawed. The Broncos are trying to ease the burden on their aging quarterback, but their offensive line is already a mess. San Diego is a trendy pick, but distractions (a possible relocation to L.A., uncertain contract situations for Philip Rivers and Eric Weddle) could derail the team's season. While the Raiders are improved, they remain at least a year away from contending.
Which brings us to the Chiefs. Is Alex Smith limited? Sure, but this team finished 9–7 with Smith at the helm last year and then went out and signed Jeremy Maclin, who may be the best receiver Smith has ever played with. The defense is still dominant and the combination of Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis can carry this team on the ground. Kansas City is not a sexy option, but in a division full of question marks, I'll take steady and boring.
Doug Farrar: San Diego Chargers—San Diego finished 9–7 in 2014 despite a running game led by undrafted rookie Branden Oliver, who topped the team with 582 yards and three touchdowns on 160 carries. Not to slight Oliver, who was one of the NFL's better stories last season, but the upgrade in first-round pick Melvin Gordon from Wisconsin is pretty sizeable. In 2014, Gordon gained 2,587 yards on the ground, the second-most in a single season behind Barry Sanders in 1988. Gordon has the speed, dynamism and escapability to take San Diego's running game to an entirely new level.
Factor in improvements along the offensive line (primarily the signing of former Broncos tackle/guard Orlando Franklin), and the Chargers could be putting a lot of enemy defenses in a big pickle. And to whatever degree Philip Rivers is happy or unhappy with his current team, this is his contract year, and Rivers has played extremely well under head coach Mike McCoy. Offensive coordinator Frank Reich might want to throw a few more wrinkles in the game plan (especially play-action, which Rivers does extremely well), but the offense is on track to be one of the best. That might be enough to put the Chargers over the top.
Bette Marston: Kansas City Chiefs—The Broncos slid to a frustrating end to the 2014 season after another one-and-done trip to the playoffs and their prized quarterback Peyton Manning showing his age more than ever, and their grip on the throne of the AFC West doesn't look so strong anymore. With no offense to the Raiders, there’s not much of a chance that they can rebound from 3-13 to win the AFC West. So between the Chiefs and the Chargers, who have traded second and third finishes in the division the past two seasons, I’m putting my money on Kansas City to overtake the Broncos.
The Chiefs boast the more complete offense, led by one of the league’s best running backs in Jamaal Charles. They leaned heavily on their run game last year, and barring catastrophic injury, they’ll likely do the same this season. In order to shut down any discussion of another touchdown-less season for the wide receiver corps, Kansas City upgraded their weakest offense position in free agency by bringing in WR Jeremy Maclin, who played for coach Andy Reid when both were in Philadelphia. Sure, QB Alex Smith is less than a sure thing, but his receivers are certainly a step above last year's. And while the Chiefs took a risk with their first-round draft pick, selecting CB Marcus Peters who played at the University of Washington, they have wasted no time getting him involved in OTAs. Reports say that despite his off-field issues, the rookie has meshed well with the remainder of the defense.
On top of that, Kansas City coasts to a finish with their schedule, playing the Raiders twice in the final five games, which should put them in position to make a huge statement by season's end.
Last year, the Chiefs stomped out the Chargers' playoff hopes in Week 17, and this season, they’ll prove to be the Broncos' biggest divisional threat.
Amy Parlapiano: San Diego Chargers—As the possibility of relocation looms over the Chargers this season, it’s more important than ever for them to deliver. They’ve finished 9–7 the last two years, and they certainly have the talent to win a few more.
Philip Rivers, who threw for 4,286 yards, 31 touchdowns and 18 interceptions last season, can play at —forgive me for using the dreaded ‘E Word’ here—an elite level, and if Peyton Manning is truly on the decline (he’s proved us wrong before), then Rivers may very well be the best quarterback in that division (apologies to Perennial Game Manager Alex Smith). The addition of Orlando Franklin to their offensive line helps, and so does their first-round pick of Melvin Gordon, who should help revitalize their running game, which was 30th in the league last year.
On the other side of the ball, the run defense needs to improve, but Brandon Flowers should again make the Chargers' secondary an intimidating one (they were fourth in the league in pass defense last year). The Bolts’ schedule isn’t easy, as the AFC West faces the NFC and AFC North this year, but with Los Angeles waiting in the wings, if there was ever a time for San Diego to piece together a 10 or 11-win season, it’s now.
Eric Single: Kansas City Chiefs—Even if the Broncos fall back to the pack on their own, any team with designs on an AFC West crown will need to steal at least one of its two games against the four-time defending champs. Denver is 17–1 within the division since Manning came to town. The Chiefs' schedule offers them two ideal settings for an upset: They host the Broncos on Thursday night of Week 2, then head to Denver following their post-London bye week before the second half of the schedule opens up considerably.
Set the quirks of the schedule aside, and the Kansas City roster still poses the biggest threat. Incoming receivers Jeremy Maclin (free agency) and Chris Conley (draft) didn't get enough ink during their respective acquisition periods; both represent a marked upgrade over maddening veteran Dwayne Bowe in the context of a passing game led (or in the eyes of his detractors, managed) by Alex Smith.
With a stout defense led by sackmaster Justin Houston that can match the Broncos strength-for-strength and a proven regular season coach, the Chiefs would be a contender in any division, let alone one in which the defending champs look unsteady on their throne.