AFC West preview: Chiefs, Chargers have real shot to dethrone Broncos
In Week 2 of last season, the Kansas City Chiefs faced a third-and-goal on Denver's 2-yard-line, down by seven with less than a minute to play. The Broncos stood up Knile Davis for no gain, setting up the Chiefs' final shot. QB Alex Smith looked over the middle for Dwayne Bowe but Terrance Knighton tipped away the pass and Denver held on for the win.
It was as close as any AFC West team would come to knocking off the Broncos in 2014.
Not that the domination is anything new—Denver has won four consecutive division crowns and is 17-1 against the AFC West over the past three seasons. San Diego scored that lone win during the 2013 campaign; Denver promptly scored revenge by bouncing the Chargers from the playoffs en route to its Super Bowl appearance.
"I just think it’s a testament to all the work that we’ve put in since I got here and all the guys that we have here," said Von Miller, via DenverBroncos.com, after his team clinched last season. "We’ve had a lot of guys come through here, but we’ve done it with a lot of guys that have been here from the beginning. It’s great to work and work and work to become the team that we are now."
The last team other than Denver to win the division? Kansas City, in 2010. The Chiefs have just one playoff berth since then, and they missed out last season despite a 9-7 mark. Much of the blame fell on a lethargic offense than finished 29th in passing and, famously, failed to produce a single touchdown from its wide receivers.
The Chargers enjoyed their own four-peat atop the AFC West earlier this millennium, pulling the trick from 2006-09. They have been stagnant as an average team over the past five years, though, finishing between 7-9 and 9-7 every season since their 13-3 run in 2009, with just one postseason trip. But they will be a popular pick to unseat the Broncos this year, thanks in no small part to Melvin Gordon's arrival at running back. San Diego also possesses what is on paper a stellar offensive line, led by ex-Bronco Orlando Franklin at guard.
Oakland's recent history needs no rehashing. The Raiders took a sharp, stunning downturn following a Super Bowl XXXVIII loss to Tampa Bay in the 2002 season—they won just 19 games total over the next five years and have maxed out with back-to-back 8-8 marks in 2010 and '11.
But things are looking up. The West's longtime bottom-feeder has had a couple of strong drafts consecutively and could be a very physical team in the trenches. A Derek Carr-Amari Cooper combo has the Raiders' fans dreaming big, too.
One subplot to monitor among the AFC West teams: Are either (or both) Oakland or San Diego on its final season in its current city? Los Angeles looms.
What else is on tap for the AFC West in 2015?
Favorite to win: Denver Broncos
Because of how last season ended for the Broncos, with Peyton Manning slumping and a demoralizing home playoff loss vs. Indianapolis, there is a noticeable lack of buzz surrounding this team. Perhaps that's for the best.
Expectations have been through the roof ever since Manning signed before the 2012 season. The Broncos have not necessarily flopped—three of those four straight division titles plus an AFC championship hardly count as massive failure—but the Super Bowl has remained elusive. While the pressure to get over the hump remains internally, external attention has shifted to the Patriots or Colts or the AFC North.
But make no mistake: The 2015 Broncos still have plenty of talent, maybe even enough to end their playoff frustrations.
They need Manning to stay healthy, of course. Now 39, Manning recently revealed to The MMQB's Peter King that he still does not have feeling back in the fingertips on his throwing arm, four years removed from neck surgery. The future Hall of Famer started last season in typical Manning fashion, only to fade late—he threw four picks in a Week 16 loss to Cincinnati and completed just 56% of his passes in the Broncos' playoff loss.
New head coach Gary Kubiak might be able to protect his QB via the run game. Long renowned for his zone-blocking scheme, Kubiak inherits a loaded backfield of C.J. Anderson, Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman. Denver also just signed guard Evan Mathis to a one-year, $4 million deal this week, which should help stabilize a young offensive line.
The defense has a chance to be the real driving force behind any Super Bowl run. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has loads of talent with which to work, including Von Miller, rising star CB Chris Harris and first-round pick Shane Ray.
Already, in two preseason games, Denver's starting defense has had its way up front, first against Seattle and then Houston. The Broncos finished third in total defense last season but just 16th in points allowed. They could be top 10 both places this year.
Dark horse team: Kansas City Chiefs
Speaking of defense, the Chiefs allowed fewer points than every team other than Seattle a year ago.
Paced by 22.0 sacks from Justin Houston and a Pro Bowl effort inside by Dontari Poe, Kansas City took over more than a games on that side of the ball. In its nine wins, K.C. allowed an average of 13.2 points and never surrendered more than 29 points in any game.
Using a first-round draft pick on talented but red-flagged CB Marcus Peters could make that unit even more formidable. Poe's absence as he rehabs off-season back surgery threatens to move the needle back, but he is hoping to return early in September.
Which brings us to the offense. The Chiefs now have playmakers all over the place, from RB Jamaal Charles to TE Travis Kelce to new receiver Jeremy Maclin. Can Smith get them the ball? Will a reworked offensive line prove sturdy enough in front of him? We'll see. If so, this team could be a division-title winner.
Division MVP: Philip Rivers, QB, Chargers
The choice of Rivers over Manning (and Charles and Hali and Miller and ...) assumes one thing: That the San Diego offense is as good as advertised.
Some of the best seasons of Rivers's career came when he had LaDainian Tomlinson alongside him. The Chargers have struggled to recreate that run-pass balance, be it because of underachieving players or injuries. Gordon offers them new life.
"When we are really close to 50-50 (on run and pass plays), that’s when we execute at the highest level," Rivers told ESPN.com's Eric D. Williams. "That’s not to say there hasn’t been games where we’ve thrown it 40-something times, played at a high level and won. And we’ve got to be ready to do that some weeks, too. But I do think that the addition of he [Gordon] and the guys up front is going to give us the best chance to be very balanced run to pass, and that’s when we’ve been the most efficient."
Last season, in spite of a 30th-ranked rushing attack, Rivers managed to complete 66% of his passes for 4,200-plus yards. Unfortunately for the veteran QB, he also led the league with 18 interceptions, the second-most of his career.
Take away some of the desperation San Diego's passing attack had to feel sans a reliable run game, and the turnovers should drop. Conversely, Rivers's peripheral numbers could rise—his career bests in touchdowns, yards-per-attempt, QB rating and interception percentage all came during the Tomlinson era.
Rivers tends to be overlooked among the NFL's top quarterbacks. He shouldn't be. When the offense around him is clicking on all cylinders, few are better.
Potential breakout player: Jason Verrett, CB, Chargers
When the Chargers drafted Verrett to partner with Brandon Flowers at cornerback, they certainly expected more than what 2014 brought them. With Verrett playing in just 10 games, the defense produced all of seven interceptions.
Verrett still has to prove he can stay healthy—he finished last season on injured reserve with a torn labrum. There is no denying his ability. Back at TCU, Verrett produced eight picks and a staggering 36 passes defensed during his final two seasons.
Rookie to watch: Amari Cooper, WR, Raiders
It took just one preseason completion for Carr and Cooper to get people talking. In the first quarter vs. Minnesota, Carr dropped a beautiful deep ball over Cooper's shoulder; the rookie receiver, having blown past cornerback Terence Newman, hauled it in for a 40-yard gain as he tiptoed along the sideline.
This is a process for the Raiders. The repairs necessary to bounce back from years of roster mismanagement will not come overnight. The front office and coaching staff has committed to its young guys at key positions, hence Carr carrying 16 career starts into his second NFL season.
What he and the Oakland offense missed last season was a true No. 1 receiver. In theory, the exceptionally talented Cooper solves that problem
Coach with most to prove: Gary Kubiak, Broncos
Kubiak is nowhere near a hot seat as he enters his debut Denver season. (That is, as head coach—he spent his entire playing career on the Broncos' roster.) But the combination of the franchise's aforementioned expectations and Manning's approaching retirement leave little margin for error.
Kubiak's predecessor, John Fox, went 46-18 in Denver and won the division each of his four years, plus got his team to a Super Bowl. It was not enough, and Fox agreed with the front office on a mutual split.
Everyone involved is counting on Kubiak to hit the ground running, even as he meshes Manning's game with his usual scheme. Many of the key players on the roster are relatively young. There's just very little time left to win a Super Bowl with Manning at QB.
Must-watch divisional game: Kansas City at San Diego, Week 11
The Chiefs play five of their final eight within the AFC West, starting a week prior to this one when they visit Denver. The Chargers face an even more intra-division intensive test: five of their final seven matchups are against either Kansas City, Denver or Oakland.
This game stands out because a) it's a Sunday nighter, and b) it could offer the best glimpse yet as to which team is ready to challenge Denver for first place. The Chiefs and Chargers meet again three weeks later, back in Kansas City. The Week 11 loser could be chasing not one, but two teams by then, loading up the December pressure.