Lenny Ignelzi
September 01, 2015

DENVER (AP) The Denver Broncos have owned the AFC West since Tebowmania swept the NFL in 2011.

They've won the division by an average of 3.67 games behind Peyton Manning, who hasn't had any feeling in the fingertips on his throwing hand since undergoing neck fusion surgery while with the Colts.

''Well, if I threw for 5,400-something yards and 55 touchdown passes, I wish my fingers would have been numb, too,'' GM John Elway said.

Despite dominating their division for four years, the Broncos are a team in transition.

Tired of watching his team bow out with a whimper in the playoffs, Elway replaced coach John Fox with Gary Kubiak, his longtime backup and one-time offensive coordinator, last winter.

Kubiak brought with him the blueprints that helped Elway cap his Hall of Fame playing career with two Super Bowl titles.

It starts with a dominant defense and includes a powerful ground game based on the zone-blocking scheme, all designed to lighten the burden on an aging quarterback.

''John was very unselfish, knowing that his stats wouldn't be the same,'' former coach Mike Shanahan recalled. ''Ultimately, he knew quarterbacks get judged by winning championships. And I think one of the reasons John is going in the direction he's going in is it's the formula he had for winning the Super Bowl.''

The Broncos, who again drafted a defensive player - Shane Ray - with their top pick, gave Manning, 39, lots of rest this summer to keep him fresh. The only player who's been in the league longer is Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri.

While the long-term benefit is supposedly a fresher mind and body in December, things might not be so smooth in September. With four new O-linemen this season, zero snaps with both of his Pro Bowl receivers this summer and more time off than he's ever taken, Manning was understandably rusty in the preseason and failed to find the end zone.

''Well, maybe it's not what he's used to,'' Elway said. ''But I just think that at 39 years old, he can't work like he used to work. And he's got to be able to save that. He may not be as far along as he wants to right now because he hasn't had that work, he'll be much farther along in December by taking this time off, when we're really going to need him.''

Elway added that with a new coaching staff, ''there is going to be some growing pains early in the year.''

''I think we can still win games as we're developing the identity,'' Manning said.

A look at the rest of the AFC West:

ROUGH ROAD: The Chiefs signed Jeremy Maclin to upgrade an offense that featured zero touchdown catches from their wide receivers last season, a big reason they jettisoned Dwayne Bowe and his albatross contract.

Like the Broncos, Kansas City's strength is its defense.

Justin Houston is back with a big new contract after his 22-sack season and he's joined by Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Johnson and tackle Mike DeVito, both of whom tore Achilles tendons in the opener and missed the rest of 2014. They also get back Eric Berry, who was diagnosed with lymphoma in December and was declared cancer-free this summer after several rounds of chemotherapy.

The problem: a brutal schedule. The Chiefs play eight of their first 11 games away from Arrowhead Stadium, one of which is their London game.

RAIDER JACK: The Raiders hired Jack Del Rio as their ninth coach since 2003 in hopes of ending their 12-year playoff drought.

Oakland gave Derek Carr some needed options in the passing game with the additions of Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree in hopes he can improve on his NFL-worst 5.5 yards per attempt as a rookie. An improved running game behind Latavius Murray also should help take pressure off Carr.

The defense has major questions in the secondary, but should be much better equipped to pressure the quarterback with second-year rusher Khalil Mack playing more as a defensive end than linebacker.

CHARGING CHARGERS: San Diego is a popular pick to unseat the Broncos thanks to the arrival of running back Melvin Gordon, a stout offensive line featuring former Denver left guard Orlando Franklin and a contract extension for Philip Rivers.

Gordon is expected to help take some pressure off Rivers, who was sacked three dozen times last season and played through back and chest injuries.

San Diego has consecutive third-place finishes under coach Mike McCoy, including being swept by Denver and Kansas City last season.

''We've got to win games in our division to win the division,'' Rivers said. ''You can't go 3-3 or worse in your division games and expect to win the division. We've gone way too long. Winning the West is what we've talked about and what our mindset is.''

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: Broncos, Chiefs, Raiders, Chargers.

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AP Sports Writers Dave Skretta, Josh Dubow and Bernie Wilson contributed.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

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