2006 AFC West Football Preview

The AFC West stacks up as possibly the NFL’s best division in 2006, with Denver coming off a 13-3 season, Kansas City looking strong after Larry Johnson’s outstanding second half, and San Diego still talented despite the loss of quarterback Drew Brees. Since the move to eight divisions in 2001, no division has ever placed three teams in the playoffs in the same year. The AFC West has a good chance to do so this year.

(2005 Regular Season Records in Parentheses)

Kansas City Chiefs (10-6)

It seems almost every year that the Chiefs are a trendy pick to make some noise in the AFC, and every year they disappoint. For such a storied franchise, it’s hard to believe that this team has made exactly one AFC Championship Game appearance in thirty-six seasons (a 1994 loss to Buffalo). With Larry Johnson’s torrid finish a year ago, fantasy football fans are fighting for the top draft choice and the Chiefs’ already impressive offense seems ready to compete with the Colts for the title of the NFL’s best. With Johnson, Trent Green, Tony Gonzalez, and a deep veteran receiving corps, the Chiefs will try to once again lead the NFL in offense, as they did in 2005.

The defense has been the Chiefs’ Achilles heel in recent years, but that may be changing. A veteran secondary, led by free agent acquisition Ty Law, has depth, size, and speed. The front seven is undersized but talented, led by former Steeler Kendrell Bell and first-round pick Tamba Hali. Defensively, the Chiefs finished in the middle of the pack a year ago. With the addition of Law, simply duplicating that feat should be reachable, and may be enough to let their offense carry them into the playoffs, and the AFC West title.

The Chiefs, and their division counterparts, will benefit from playing the NFC West and AFC North in 2006; trips to Pittsburgh and Miami and a home date against Seattle represent the worst of the Chiefs’ non-divisional schedule. While there are some question marks, as always – particularly at left tackle, where future Hall of Famer Willie Roaf has retired, perhaps temporarily – the Chiefs look positioned to make a run at an AFC West title and the top seed in the AFC. While the Chiefs and the Colts appear to be the AFC’s top two teams, it seems like the Colts’ year, and the Chiefs will fall short – again.

2006 Prediction: 13-3, AFC West Champions, loss in AFC Championship Game

Denver Broncos (13-3)

Lost in the coverage of the Colts’ 13-0 start in 2005 was just how good the Denver Broncos were. After a stunning blowout loss at Miami, the Broncos went 13-2, losing only at the Giants and Kansas City, by a total of five points. They then ended the Patriots’ season – after knocking them off in Week 6 – before falling apart at home in the AFC Championship Game against Pittsburgh.

Not surprisingly, the Broncos made little change in the off-season. They traded for Packers WR Javon Walker and let go leading rusher Mike Anderson; undrafted rookie Mike Bell has been named the starter in a scheme that seemingly churns out 1,000 yard rushers off the street. The defense returns ten starters from a unit that was fifth in the NFL in takeaways and tied for third in points allowed last season. Mile High (we’re not calling it Invesco) remains a formidable home-field advantage; the Broncos are 20-5 in Denver over the past three seasons. Denver is seemingly always in the playoff hunt, and it should be no different this year.

The question for the Broncos is whether they can win their own division. With Kansas City looking strong, and the Chargers dangerous, the AFC West will be the conference’s best division in 2006. With a slightly tougher schedule, by way of their first-place finish last year, the standard difficulty of defending an NFL division title, and a slight drop in production from QB Jake Plummer, the Broncos will have to settle for a wild-card berth.

2006 Prediction: 12-4, wild card berth, first-round loss

San Diego Chargers (9-7)

What to make of the Chargers? Last year’s trendy Super Bowl pick struggled against a tough schedule, and finished out of the playoffs, comforted only by a Week 15 win in Indianapolis that ended the Colts’ unbeaten run. Philip Rivers takes over at starter for Drew Brees; while much has been made of the Chargers’ decision to let Brees head for New Orleans, this team is built on its running game and its defense. Those pieces still remain, as LaDainian Tomlinson and all eleven defensive starters from 2005 return in 2006.

The biggest problem for the Chargers a year ago was that they couldn’t get it done in close games; they were 0-5 in games decided by five points or less. (Their only true close victory came against the hapless Jets in Week 9.) Perhaps the Chargers have coaching issues, or lack leadership; it may be, that in 2005, they were simply unlucky. Certainly, they were an excellent team, and stayed in playoff contention for most of the season despite the league’s toughest schedule.

The Chargers’ biggest concerns are at quarterback and wide receiver. Rivers is physically more gifted than Brees, but must go through the standard struggles of first-year NFL quarterbacks. The lack of speed and depth behind Eric Parker and Keenan McCardell at wide receiver will hamper Rivers; but he does have TE Antonio Gates and Tomlinson, the league’s best pass-catching running back. Still, Rivers will struggle to be an average NFL quarterback.

The good news for the Chargers is that an average quarterback, combined with a solid defense and a star running back, should be enough. The Chargers pick up a much easier schedule in 2006, and ten wins is a distinct possibility. The rise of the Chiefs and the talent of the Broncos means they are facing a tough division, but a wild card berth is in reach. It bears repeating that no division since the 2001 realignment has had three playoff teams; the AFC West has a real shot to break that streak this season.

2006 Prediction: 10-6, wild card, loss in divisional playoffs

Oakland Raiders (4-12)

New coach, new quarterback, same struggles for the Oakland Raiders. Former Raider lineman and head coach Art Shell returns to a team that has talent on paper, but has struggled on the field. New quarterback Aaron Brooks is the poster boy for those problems – a talented quarterback with shaky decision-making skills, a player whose measurables haven’t translated to team success. With Randy Moss and LaMont Jordan, Brooks will have weapons, but there’s little depth at the skill positions. The offensive line struggled a year ago; the return of tackle Langston Walker from injury should help, but not enough. The Raiders finished 23rd in points scored a year ago, and don’t look to improve on that significantly this season.

On defense, Warren Sapp moves back inside to tackle, and first-round pick Michael Huff will fight for a starting spot in the secondary. But a unit that, like the Oakland offense, finished in the bottom third of the league in 2005 will, like the Oakland offense, probably stay there.

There’s little doubt that Shell’s old-fashioned tactics will be a good fit for a club that has struggled with discipline and penalties for years. But, this season, the Raiders look destined for fourth in a tough, deep, AFC West.

2006 Prediction: 4-12

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