NFL Division Preview: AFC West Reemerges from the Shadows

In the good old days of the AFC West, it was old-fashioned 38-35 shootouts, gunslingers like Dan Fouts and John Elway, fans wearing ridiculous oversized orange cowboy hats (you know you did so admit it) and wideouts with names like Winslow and Smith.

Man, have times changed. Now the AFC West is all about what you might have seen in the old NFC North, the Norris division. It’s bruising running backs taking north-south routes to paydirt and burly O-linemen not taking any crap from anybody.

It’s no surprise, then, that the top two in the AFC West feature offenses with running games. The Denver Broncos have a unique but effective system in which two or three backs usually share the brunt of the carries in an attempt to wear down the opponent. It has been effective, leading to several Super Bowls, even during days when Elway played. The running back has been and will be a focal point for any Denver offense, so long as coach Mike Shanahan has anything to say about it. The list of running backs who have been successful in Denver’s system is long: Terrell Davis, Mike Anderson, Clinton Portis and now the Bell brothers, Mike and Tatum. There are likely more, but no team has produced more 1,000-yard rushers in the modern era than the Broncos.

Now other teams are copying the blueprint. The Kansas City Chiefs, who were at one time a bruising team with the likes of 260-pound Christian Okoye, the “Nigerian Nightmare” in the early 1990s have now reverted to that style, employing Larry Johnson in that role. Johnson has done well, carrying for 1,750 yards and 20 touchdowns last year. San Diego has a smaller version of the bruising NFL back, but LaDainian Tomlinson is no less fearsome, running for 7,361 yards in just 5 years as the feature back for the Chargers.

The only team that hangs on to the old AFC West style of play is the Oakland Raiders, who haven’t had a solid rusher since Marcus Allen and Bo Jackson donned pads for the silver and black. And not surprisingly, since teams in this division truly are beat up in the trenches, the Raiders have not tasted success of late. This year will mark a change in the AFC West, however, as the Chiefs and Chargers are inching toward the Broncos, who have long held top billing in what is arguably the toughest division in football.

Denver 10-6
Kansas City 9-7
San Diego 8-8
Oakland 4-12

DENVER (13-3, 1st AFC West)
OFFENSE
The Denver offense relies on a solid running game to open up the vertical passing routes for Jake Plummer. Without that passing game, the Broncos are strictly a one-dimensional team and when Plummer is hurried, bad things usually happen. Plummer is in a make-or-break year at the quarterback position; his understudy, Jay Cutler, is just waiting for him to make a mistake. Cutler has a stronger arm, is taller and bigger and in the preseason he threw for 180 yards and 2 touchdowns in the finale. But even Cutler knows Plummer has that intangible, that Joe Montana-esque/Brett Favre-like quality you don’t see everyday: Jake the Snake is a winner. And as long as Plummer continues to win games not just with his arm, which can be accurate (he had a 60 percent completion percentage with 18 TD’s last year) but also with his feet, Denver should be the top team in the division. The running back position is somewhat up in the air with Mike Anderson gone, but the Bells, namely Mike and Tatum, will pick up the void. Tatum rushed for 921 yards and 8 scores last year and fullback Cecil Sapp will be called upon to clear room for the duo. At wideout Javon Walker joins the Broncos after several successful years in Green Bay hauling in passes from Favre. Walker hopes to have fully recovered from his injury and be back at full strength for the Broncos. Rod Smith returns to the team for his 13th season, having caught 85 passes for 1,100 yards. It’s hoped that Walker is able to take some pressure off of Smith and the Bronco tight end is always a vital part of the offense. Though Stephen Alexander has seen success as an NFL tight end, he has yet to see much in Denver (170 yards, 1 TD) despite playing in all 16 games last year. Two rookies to watch would be big Tony Scheffler (6’5″) and Chad Mustard, who other than Pacman Jones, has one of the more unique names in the league. Will he cut the mustard? We’ll just have to wait and see. And there’s good news in the Bronco O-line; they’re all back and ready to go. If this unit stays healthy, gets production from its running game and gives Plummer time to pick apart defenses, Denver could have its best offensive season in years.

DEFENSE
After a season in which the Broncos made massive changes to their defensive line, the entire group returns. Ebenezer Ekuban is poised to make a run at the league’s defensive elite after years of speculation and successful but not breakthrough stops in Dallas and Cleveland. Courtney Brown is another player who hasn’t lived up to his potential. To boot Michael Myers and Gerard Warren are good run-stoppers but they too have not had their star turn. That said, the group goes two-deep and even with injuries, the backups are capable of filling in (veterans Kenard Lang and John Engelberger). Linebacker is a bit more flashy in terms of playmaking ability and D.J. Williams is getting better and better at outside left. Al Wilson holds up the middle and the ferocious tackler enters season eight. At right outside Ian Gold had his second-finest statistical season in the league last year and experience is the motto for this group. If any of the three are hurt, this group is thin thereafter so they can’t afford any injuries. The defensive backfield is among the best in the league and so you really don’t want to pick on them. The best of the bunch are Champ Bailey (8 picks) and John Lynch (4). This veteran crew doesn’t take kindly to throws across the middle and they’re good enough cover men that it’s hard to throw deep. The up-and-comer of the bunch is Nick Ferguson (5 INTs last year) who after 6 years blew up in a big way. But we’re not done. The backups can come in and four had interceptions last year in spot duty, including one (Domonique Foxworth) who had two.

SPECIAL TEAMS
From a stat standpoint Jason Elam did not have a stellar year, but a bad year for Elam is usually a good year for most kickers. Elam has been so good for so long that it’s amazing he has been on the same team for 15 seasons. That kind of longevity is usually but not always reserved for punters. Veteran punter Todd Sauerbrun is back for his second season in a Bronco uniform. And Mike Bell joins D.J. Williams as the feature return man in Denver.

IN SUM
You know the Broncos will score points in bunches, because they always do (388 points in the past three years on average) but the variable to the equation is whether or not the defense will hold steady. It usually does (258 points last year) but this defense is getting up there in terms of age and though they are two-deep at most positions, an injury or two could throw things off. For starters, Denver has arguably the toughest schedule of any team in the league (at an improved St. Louis team, vs. Kansas City and at New England and that’s just to open the season). After a bye week, they host Baltimore, a Super Bowl darkhorse. They get a little break the nest two weeks then are home to Indy and go to Pittsburgh. It’s entirely possible that by midseason the Broncos could only be a .500 team. After that, it’s no cakewalk, either as Denver hosts Seattle and Cincinnati in addition to their division rivals (San Diego twice and Kansas City). But they’ll find a way to rise above the adversity and win the division in the final weeks of the season.
PREDICTION: 10-6, 1st AFC West

KANSAS CITY (10-6, 2nd AFC West)
OFFENSE
Trent Green is back and for Kansas City opponents that means your defense may give up 300 yards in the air. That much is true, however, with the Chiefs new emphasis on the running game and Larry Johnson (1,750 yards, 20 TD last year) it means NFL defenses will have to worry about the Chiefs air and ground games at all times. In an off year last season, Green still ended up throwing for more than 4,000 yards so it will be frightening if both he and Johnson can up their output. And though the Chiefs receivers aren’t flashy they are a scoring machine by committee (3 different receivers combined for 11 TDs last year). Then if you factor in the one player every team worries most about, tight end and perennial Pro Bowler Tony Gonzalez, you also know his numbers (905 yards, 2 TD) were down from where they usually are. So should Kansas City have better production in both the running and passing game, they could make things interesting in the AFC West. There is more cause for optimism in the offensive line, as the Chiefs were able to acquire tackle Kyle Turley from the Rams, filling four of five spots in the line. The fifth spot will be filled by Kevin Sampson, a second-year man out of Syracuse, though the Chiefs line goes two-deep.

DEFENSE
Jared Allen fronts the defensive line with his 11 sacks which led the team last year. Rookie Tamba Hali takes over at left end, so you can bet the line will receive some tutelage from another former defensive specialist, new head coach Herm Edwards. Having taken over for his former coach and mentor, the legendary Dick Vermeil, Edwards has to be thrilled to provide leadership to someone as talented as right outside linebacker Derrick Johnson, who is fast becoming a star in the league. Two veterans start alongside Johnson in Kawika Mitchell and Kendrell Bell. Between them, the defensive backfield combined for 12 interceptions last season and they got even better with the addition of Ty Law, who had 10 interceptions for the Jets, Edwards’ old team, last year. Though the defense goes about two-deep, several recent injuries to the bunch could play a major factor in the Chiefs’ season.

SPECIAL TEAMS
Lawrence Tynes is back, the third-year kicker having only missed one attempt inside 40 yards last season and is fast becoming a player to watch. Dustin Colquitt also returns for his sophomore season. But the real gamebreaker in the unit is Dante Hall, well known for his playmaking ability. With Hall around, it’s anybody’s game, including his.

IN SUM
The Kansas City Chiefs enter a new era under Herm Edwards, a tough but fair leader who expects a lot but gives a lot back in return. This kind of environment should add years to Green’s career and provide Johnson the stability he is accustomed to under his old college coach, the legendary Joe Paterno. The addition of Edwards as well as Law makes the Chiefs a force to be reckoned with immediately (they barely missed the playoffs last year) and a favorite for a Wild Card spot in the highly competitive AFC. Though they probably aren’t on the same level as the Denver Broncos, the Chiefs have taken big steps in the draft and the free agent market to get there someday soon. The thing about the Chiefs is they didn’t hurt themselves in free agency and they were able to keep all of the necessary pieces. That equates to a winning formula. Also, the Chiefs do not have to contend with a brutal schedule.
PREDICTION: 9-7, 2nd AFC West

SAN DIEGO (9-7, 3rd AFC West)
OFFENSE
A rough offseason just keeps getting worse for a team that seemed to be in control of its own destiny. First, the Chargers said goodbye to a good signal caller in Drew Brees and allowed backup Philip Rivers to assume the position. And despite only throwing 30 total passes in two years of pro football, Rivers will finally get his chance. The good news for Chargers fans is that Pro Bowl running back LaDainian Tomlinson is back and that means about 1,500 yards and 15 TDs if all goes well. But Rivers will have to be somewhat successful in his passing game, or defenses will be all over the run. And though we will be in the throes of “Marty Ball,” referring to the run-heavy style of play which coach Marty Schottenheimer likes to employ, teams like Denver and Kansas City will stack the middle, waiting for L.T. and they will likely be successful. So Keenan McCardell and Eric Parker will need to make their limited action count. If L.T. were to go down with an injury, it would likely be catastrophic to the team. But the rising star in the league happens to play tight end. And expect Antonio Gates to help welcome Rivers into the league by grabbing a lot of passes from play-action. His 1,100 yards and 10 touchdowns were enough to garner a Pro Bowl invitation and hopefully he and the receivers are able to give L.T. a few breathers, not that he needs too many. And he’ll get help from his offensive line, a mammoth front averaging 310 pounds that will all be back. The only concern is that it’s not deep; three positions have no backup.

DEFENSE
Per usual, there are no pampered stars in a Marty Schottenheimer-coached defense. The three-man front is led by Luis Castillo, a second-year man form Northwestern. The linebackers are led by one of the best young talents in Shawne Merriman, who led all rookies with 10 sacks last year and was named defensive rookie of the year. Veteran runstopper Donnie Edwards heads up the middle. The other big name on defense is Quentin Jammer, at left cornerback. The defense is deep and looks to have another big year.

SPECIAL TEAMS
In his third year, Nate Kaeding has emerged as one of the best young kickers in the league. His 88 percent field goal accuracy and perfection from inside the 40 gives the Chargers another weapon besides the many they feature on offense. Punter Mike Scifres had a 71-yard punt last year and a 44 percent per punt average on the year. Michael Turner, Mike Curry and Keenan McCardell will share the punt and kick return duties.

IN SUM
A lot of skeptics are still wondering why the Chargers sent Drew Brees to New Orleans. That question will be answered in a hurry when Rivers dons the pads for their week one encounter in Oakland. The schedule looks okay for the Chargers until the fourth and fifth weeks when they face Baltimore and Pittburgh. In all the Chargers will face six playoff teams from last year and both Super Bowl participants. Even so, San Diego will use “Marty Ball” to its advantage, though like Kansas City last year, they will come up just short of the playoffs.
PREDICTION: 8-8, 3rd AFC West

OAKLAND (4-12, 4th AFC West)
OFFENSE
If you’re the Oakland Raiders, you might be asking yourself the same question: Why am I in the AFC West? Because all the good teams are in the AFC West right now, running the ball over and over again. And all Oakland wants to do is pass. Why? The Raiders have managed, in successive years, just 9 wins and allowed 825 points. To change this they have a new quarterback, Aaron Brooks and a new head coach in Art Shell. Well, Shell isn’t exactly old, but he was the Raiders coach when Bo Jackson ran all over opponents, so Shell knows Bo and even Bo knows the Raiders need help. They’ll get it from Brooks, who is as nimble-footed as he is adept at throwing the ball on a tightrope. Brooks is a poor man’s Michael Vick, but with receiver Randy Moss he may well become the next Michael Vick and I’m not joking. If Brooks can execute the long ball offense Al Davis loves to play, in a few short years it will be Oakland having the last laugh and not the NFL. The other thing is Oakland has a good running back in Lamont Jordan, a throwaway from the New York Jets several years back who like lots of Raiders came to Oakland and found a home. Though he barely topped 1,000 yards the thought of a solid ground game should bring fear to opponents since Moss alone can stretch out a defense. The other side of wideout ain’t bad either. Jerry Porter was the Raiders No. 1 until Moss. And his 942 yards receiving nearly equaled Randy’s 2005 output. Courtney Anderson is a decent tight end prospect with 342 yards last year, though he’s still young. But the real issue this year could be the offensive line and this is why there won’t be much improvement from Oakland. Of the five projected to start, only one player has more than three years of NFL experience. This must be a delicious thought for all of the Raiders opponents.

DEFENSE
The best player in Oakland’s defensive line is not Warren Sapp, the monstrous sackmaster and runstopper of yesteryear. He was good, but he was no Derrick Burgess, the Pro Bowl end who came over from Philadelphia after four disappointing seasons and managed to rack up 16 sacks. The linebacking slots are more troublesome as Oakland will surround middle linebacker Kirk Morrison with Sam Williams, a third-year man who didn’t play last year and rookie Thomas Howard. The defensive backfield is in better shape than the linebackers, but there are no world beaters in the lineup. Expect a season filled with learning experiences for the Oakland defense.

SPECIAL TEAMS
Sebastian Janikowski is back for season seven, but you have to think that he must improve his 66 percent field goal accuracy to stay on the field. Shane Lechler continues to be one of the better punters in the league, following the Oakland tradition of Ray Guy. Chris Carr and Alvis Whitted will split the punt and kick return duties.

IN SUM
Oakland continues to rebuild the franchise after the retirement of quarterback Rich Gannon and defection of former coach Jon Gruden who is now in Tampa Bay. The team has not been the same since and it is just starting to show signs of its old self. Expect to see more of the bruising running game and vertical passing attack for which the organization is known and respected. The defense is still a long way from complete and so there should be significant movement in the free agent market after the season. There will be some improvement on the field but it will not show up in the win column. The division is just too tough for the Raiders to win many games. In addition the schedule has no letup until the end of the season.
PREDICTION: 4-12, 4th AFC West

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