The AFC west is so strong that when any of its teams loses a road game within the division, it will not be considered an upset. Not only is this the league's premier collection of teams, but it also has shed the finesse label that dogged it for so long. Players hit here. Hard. "I get the air padding in my helmet pumped up a little extra for these games," says Seattle Seahawk safety Eugene Robinson. "We're trying to rip each other's heads off."

It was a very busy off-season for the Los Angeles Raiders, who will be even stronger than last year, when they finished second in the division. The team released defensive end Greg Townsend and fullback Steve Smith, and tight end Ethan Horton departed for the Washington Redskins. The Raiders used the salary of defensive lineman Howie Long, who retired after last season, to sign free-agent defensive tackle Jerry Ball and defensive end Scott Davis, who returned to the team after a two-year venture into private business. Then the Raiders signed five other key free agents: tight end Jamie Williams, a Super Bowl veteran with the San Francisco 49ers; Albert Lewis, at 33 still a strong cover corner; guard Kevin Gogan, a veteran of two Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys; running back Harvey Williams; and fullback Tom Rathman.

Left in place after these changes are players who remember only too well what befell them on a bitterly cold January day in Buffalo. The Raiders were coming off two impressive wins over the Denver Broncos—the regular-season finale and the wild-card playoff game—in which L.A. had rolled up 75 points. But in the divisional playoff game against the Bills, the Raiders sputtered to a 29-23 loss. "This just proves to you what I've been talking about all year, about how important home field advantage is," coach Art Shell told his team after the game. "Next year, instead of us going to Buffalo, make them come to us."

That is the Raider mantra this season: Make them come to us. "Every man on our team left the stadium that day feeling we should have won the game,' " says Shell. "So our focus now has to be: Win our division, win our home games, win home field."

The man most entrusted with carrying out those directives is quarterback Jeff Hostetler, who has grown into the team leader that, in his nine years with the Giants, no one in New York thought he could be. "Jeff came in and answered every question that needed to be answered about playing quarterback for the Raiders on and off the field," says Long. Tim Brown is Hostetler's favorite target, but faster-than-speeding-bullets James Jett, Daryl Hobbs, Alexander Wright and Rocket Ismail will have some huge Sundays this fall. "I'd love to have another 80-catch, 1,100-yard season," Brown says. "But if they double-team me and single our other guys, we're going to be pretty dangerous."

L.A. has the offensive firepower to win the division, and Lewis and Davis should strengthen a defense that was too easily bent late last season, allowing 20 or more points in each of the last five games. The schedule is friendly too: The Raiders do not have a cold-weather game this year, unless Kansas City is frigid on Nov. 6. But the conference's best team has to do better than finish 5-3 at home, which is all the Raiders have managed two years in a row.

"If I had to leave Dallas, and I had playing in the Super Bowl in mind, I came to the right place," says Gogan.

Just win at home, baby.

Last year the Kansas City Chiefs reached the AFC Championship Game even though quarterback Joe Montana missed five starts and 48 practices. The offensive coordinator, Paul Hackett, installed the old San Francisco 49er offense in the Chiefs' classroom, but it was up to Montana to implement it on the field. Far too often that difficult task fell to now departed backup Dave Krieg, who was still trying to learn the complex system himself. "It's amazing to me that we had only two guys [in the whole organization] who knew the offense last year and we got to the final four," vice president of player personnel Lynn Stiles said in training camp. "We're considerably ahead of where we were offensively last year."

It can't be assumed that the 38-year-old Montana will play any more than he did last season; the Chiefs will be lucky to get 11 starts out of him again. But the team is deeper at quarterback after acquiring 49er understudy Steve Bono. He'll be more than Montana's Missouri drinking buddy. Bono will be solid insurance, as he was when he filled in at quarterback for the Niners in 1991, playing nine games and finishing as the NFL's fourth-rated passer.

The Chiefs also helped themselves at running back, drafting Greg Hill, who gained 3.262 yards in his career at Texas A&M. Hill and Marcus Allen will split the ball-carrying chores.

Now for your Chief quiz: Who can name the Kansas City rookies who will challenge Willie Davis and J.J. Birden at wideout? If you said Lake Dawson and Chris Penn, you are one pathetic fantasy-leaguer.

The Chiefs' offense may be a bit stronger than it was last year, but you can't love the rest of this team—not yet, anyway. In July defensive tackle Tony Casillas walked out on his four-year, $6 million contract, leaving a gaping hole in the run defense. Now that Arrowhead Stadium is carpeted with real grass for the first time, linebacker Derrick Thomas could suffer; of his 66 sacks over the past five seasons, only 10.5 have come on grass fields. And in the secondary, former Giant Mark Collins will get burned by the likes of Brown and Jett in this division because he is a physical corner with only mediocre speed. What's more, the Chiefs' special teams will be missing four of their five leading tacklers from '93, and the kicking game will be weaker with the losses of placekicker Nick Lowery and punier Bryan Barker.

The Denver Broncos appear to be an updated version of the early-'80s San Diego Chargers. At quarterback the Chargers had Dan Fouts; the Broncos have John Elway—very close. At receiver the Bronco trio of Anthony Miller, Mike Pritchard and light end Shannon Sharpe is a notch below the Charger team of Charlie Joiner, Wes Chandler and Kellen Winslow. Denver running backs Leonard Russell, Rod Bernstine and Glyn Milburn are a shade better than the San Diego tandem of Chuck Muncie and James Brooks. "I've never been on a team with more weapons," Elway says.

The Broncos should battle the 49ers for the NFL scoring lead this season, but the defense is in trouble, just as those old Charger defenses were. On the very first play of the preseason, in a game against the Raiders, Denver safety Darryl Hall bit on a Jeff Hostetler play-fake, and James Jett zoomed past the secondary and walked in with a touchdown bomb. Really, now. How can you play the Raiders and not be mindful of a bomb on the first play of the game? Coach Wade Phillips stands by his defense—"What gripes me is no one remembers we gave up the fewest points in our division last year," he says—but he's counting on top-of-the-line contributions from guys who have been only run-of-the-mill pros: Hall, cornerback Randy Milliard and defensive tackle Ted Washington, a consistent disappointment in San Francisco. The Broncos will be playing a lot of 31-28 games this year.

The nicest story in the league might be that of wide receiver Mark Seay, who has earned a starting job with the San Diego Chargers. Seay was shot in the chest six years ago while shielding his niece from gang gunfire in Long Beach, Calif. But nice stories don't put teams in the playoffs. If the Chargers are going to make it to the postseason—and they will certainly contend, largely on the strength of a terrific defensive front seven—they will have to overcome the loss of wideout Anthony Miller to the Broncos and try to get by with a receiving game that features Seay and Shawn Jefferson. The decision not to match the offer that Denver made to Miller will haunt the Chargers, and if they struggle to score points, general manager Bobby Beathard will find himself in the fans' frying pan.

San Diego does lead the league in one regard: long-term salary-cap planning. Quarterback Stan Humphries may allow the club to restructure his contract, a move that would give the Chargers an extra $750,000 to spend this season. Already they have every key player on the team, with the exception of safety Stanley Richard, signed through the end of 1995.

Here is a telling scene from the training camp of the Seattle Seahawks: First-round draft pick Sam Adams, a 6'3", 290-pound defensive tackle, darts around 320-pound guard Jeff Black-shear in a pass-rushing drill, leaving Blackshear scrambling to catch him. A few plays later Adams runs right over Blackshear, nearly leaving tread marks on the frantically backpedaling guard. Nearby, Cortez Kennedy, who will team up with Adams to anchor the Seattle defensive line, looks on appreciatively. Kennedy's sack production fell from 14 in his All-Pro 1992 season to 6.5 last year because he didn't have anyone like Adams playing beside him to absorb some of the pressure. "Last year was so frustrating," Kennedy says. "One time against the Cardinals, I looked up on a pass play and there was a guard, a tackle and a running back blocking me all at once. I said to [tackle] Luis Sharpe, 'Sharpe! What are you doing to me!' He said. 'Tez, we got no choice.' "

If Adams and Kennedy mesh, the team won't miss cornerback Nate Odomes as much as it might have. Odomes, a Bill for seven seasons, signed a lucrative free-agent deal with the Sea-hawks in February, then tore up his knee in a charily basketball game. He will miss the entire season, which leaves Seattle paper-thin at cornerback. The Seahawks are nearly as shaky at wide-out, offensive line (even with the addition of free-agent tackle Howard Ballard, another former Bill) and defensive end.

The team's brightest spot—and the main reason the Seahawks might find themselves still alive in January—is quarterback, where Rick Mirer has shown poise beyond his years. "Besides being far along in the maturation process," coach Tom Flores says of Mirer, "he has a burning desire to succeed that you rarely see in any player. You can't create it. I don't know where it came from, but I just know Rick has it." If Mirer falters or is injured, look for Seattle to fall well behind the pack.

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PHOTOPETER READ MILLERDenver and San Diego will rise or fall on the strength of their passing games. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERUnder pressure from two rookies, Birden is trying to hang on to his job.

prediction

L.A. RAIDER

11-5

KANSAS CITY

10-6

DENVER

9-7

SAN DIEGO

8-8

SEATTLE

8-8

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)