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AFC West Preview: No One Can Touch the Champs

The Chiefs are set to run away with the West (again), but which of the other three teams is ready to make a playoff push?
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Once you’ve summited the mountain, what comes next?

After the Eagles won the Super Bowl in 2018, they doled out a spate of high-profile extensions, locking up some of the NFL’s best players into the early ’20s in hopes of a dynastic run. Two years later, the idea that Philadelphia would put a stranglehold on the division (and perhaps the conference) seems like an obvious stretch.

This offseason the Chiefs engaged in the same type of long-term planning, inking defensive tackle Chris Jones to a four-year, $85 million deal and quarterback Patrick Mahomes to a 10-year contract worth nearly a half-billion dollars. Most of their best players are signed for the foreseeable future, as is 62-year-old coach Andy Reid. The same chorus of dynasty in the making that was heard in Philadelphia is echoing in Kansas City, but this time, it seems more believable. At 24, Mahomes is a transcendent talent who is only beginning to develop all the savvy that quarterbacks who don’t have his superior arm strength rely on. Reid’s catalog of play calls gets only deeper and deeper, and his designs are simultaneously a chart for the league’s future and an encyclopedia of its past. One can only imagine what designs Reid will conjure for his newest weapon, first-round pick Clyde Edwards-Helaire; the versatile 5' 7", 207-pound running back had 1,414 rushing yards and caught 55 passes last year at LSU.

The NFL changes quickly, of course. At this time last year, few believed anyone in the NFC West could challenge wunderkind Sean McVay’s Rams. Then the 49ers surged, the Cardinals developed a terrifying arsenal of playmakers, the Seahawks found a spark on defense and the 2018 NFC champs receded into the pack.

Now, can anyone in the AFC West overtake K.C.? There is no obvious candidate. The Raiders, who will be leaving Oakland to play their first season in Las Vegas, have done an impressive job at overhauling a roster (though some didn’t think it need to be overhauled in the first place). Still, their collection of young talent, including first-round pick WR Henry Ruggs III from Alabama, second-year RB Josh Jacobs and 2019 breakout TE Darren Waller, plus the continued maturation of QB Derek Carr, makes them potentially formidable. The Chargers are beginning a rebuild after moving on from their quarterback of 16 seasons, Philip Rivers, now in Indianapolis, and they will likely spend the season transitioning from veteran QB Tyrod Taylor to rookie Justin Herbert, the sixth pick from Oregon. The Broncos and second-year quarterback Drew Lock present the widest range of possibilities. Lock played well down the stretch as a rookie in 2019, going 4–1 as a starter while completing 64.1% of his passes. But this offseason the team puzzlingly parted ways with talented offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello in favor of former Giants coach Pat Shurmur.

Most likely, the Chiefs will be ruling this roost for a while. Having one team dominate for a long stretch can be a frustrating proposition, as the non-Patriots fans of the AFC East can attest. But at least we know that with the creativity of Reid and the charisma of Mahomes, Kansas City will be fun to watch.

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KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
PROJECTED RECORD: 12-4
BEST-CASE SCENARIO: While other teams struggle to get their new players up to speed, Reid, who has 10 offensive starters back, can focus on revving up an attack that was already running in high gear. Edwards-Helaire shows why he was the first RB to be drafted, and the gap between the Super Bowl champs and the rest of the league only widens.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: Complacency strikes. Not every 24-point deficit against a quality team is magically transformed into a 20-point lead. Every now and again Reid outsmarts himself rather than the opposition. We are reminded that repeating as champion is tough: The NFL hasn’t had back-to-back Super Bowl winners since the Patriots in 2004 and ’05.

LAS VEGAS RAIDERS
PROJECTED RECORD: 9-7
BEST-CASE SCENARIO: Jon Gruden finally gets credit for designing clever offensive concepts, and rookie speedster Ruggs hauls in one long touchdown after another. Third-rounders Bryan Edwards (South Carolina) and Lynn Bowden Jr. (Kentucky) also contribute, and as the entire Las Vegas offense opens up, so changes the landscape of the AFC West.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: Gruden is exposed for believing he creates more clever offensive concepts than he actually does. With rookie camps canceled because of the pandemic, it turns out that 2020 was not the ideal year to have five picks in the first three rounds, and the Raiders struggle in their first Las Vegas season to develop the haul they received for Khalil Mack.

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
PROJECTED RECORD: 8-8
BEST-CASE SCENARIO: Herbert doesn’t see the field at all in 2020, and that’s fine, because coach Anthony Lynn’s faith in Taylor is rewarded with a surprise playoff berth. The pair formed a strong bond in Buffalo, and Lynn’s belief in Taylor, who hadn’t started since Week 3 of 2018, is rewarded. Tight end Hunter Henry plays all 16 games for the first time in his career.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: After Taylor falters, Herbert is thrust into action early and struggles, setting back his long-term development. The hasty turn to Herbert also consumes time that could have been spent expanding the offense and wastes part of the prime of WR Keenan Allen. Departed RB Melvin Gordon is missed as a complement to Austin Ekeler.

DENVER BRONCOS
PROJECTED RECORD: 6-10
BEST-CASE SCENARIO: All the Denver fans excited by Lock’s solid end-of-2019 play have their optimism justified. With rookie receivers Jerry Jeudy (Alabama) and KJ Hamler (Penn State) joining WR Courtland Sutton and TE Noah Fant, Lock leads an electric passing game, while free-agent signee Melvin Gordon joins Philip Lindsay to form a potent ground tandem.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: Lock regresses under new coordinator Shurmur. Despite the addition of Gordon, the ground game is not enough to sustain the offense with the air attack faltering. LB Von Miller, whose sack total dipped to eight in 2019, declines further in his 10th NFL season. GM John Elway decides it is time for another hard reset in Denver.