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Don't look now, but the AFC West is better

The AFC West is not the struggling division it was a year ago when 8-8 was good enough to win it. Getty Images

A funny thing happened this season: The AFC West improved.

OK, we have not seen a return to the division’s heyday of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when it was known as “the AFC Best.” It’s not there yet. But it looks like the AFC West has emerged from a trip to the depths of the league. In 2008, the division was routinely known as “the AFC Worst.”

“The division is better,” San Diego linebacker Shawne Merriman said recently. “There is a lot of pride here. I think all four teams are working really hard to get better. You can see it.”

In 2009, the four teams in the AFC West have combined for 21 wins. Each team has played 11 games. After a full 16-game slate last season, the division combined for only 23 wins. It should easily surpass that paltry amount this season.

The AFC West’s 21-win total heading into Week 13 is tied with the AFC East and the AFC North, two divisions expected to be much better overall than the AFC West. The NFC West has 17 wins, the worst in the NFL.

San Diego (No. 4) and Denver (No. 10) are in the top 10 of ESPN.com’s power rankings. Individually, there are outstanding performances in the division as well. San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers and Denver linebacker Elvis Dumervil should be in the mix for postseason honors.

All of the postseason talk in the division after last season revolved around major change. Three teams -- Denver, Kansas City and Oakland -- hired new permanent coaches. Had San Diego not squeaked into the playoffs, coach Norv Turner probably would have been shown the door. Now, Turner is considered a Coach of the Year candidate with his team riding a six-game win streak.

Last season’s 23 wins was the second-lowest total in the NFL (the NFC West had 22). Five other divisions had at least 30 wins. Even though the NFC West had one fewer win than the AFC West, the AFC West was considered by many as the worst division because NFC West representative Arizona made it to the Super Bowl.

But it’s difficult to say the AFC West is the worst division in football this season. Both San Diego (8-3) and Denver (7-4) are legitimate playoff contenders.

San Diego is on pace for the No. 2 overall seed in the AFC and a first-round bye. Denver, which has far exceeded expectations in its first season under 33-year-old head coach Josh McDaniels, is on pace for the No. 5 seed, the top wild-card berth.

Prior to the season, the thought of two playoff teams coming from the AFC West seemed silly. After all, each team picked in the top 16 in the April draft, with Kansas City and Oakland both picking in the top seven.

The AFC West caused pundits to wonder if the NFL should change its playoff format and not automatically allow division winners a playoff berth. San Diego and Denver both finished 8-8, with the Chargers winning the tiebreaker and earning the division’s playoff spot.

Both teams should easily surpass the .500 mark this season. The improvement, though, is division-wide from last season.

San Diego has tied its 2008 win total. Denver is one victory off its 2008 pace with five games to go. Kansas City (3-8) already has won more games than it did last season, when it was 2-14. Oakland is 3-8 and could reach the 5-11 record it achieved last season.

Yes, the Chiefs and Raiders are both still bottom-feeders, but the teams have shown glimpses of life this season.

Oakland has beaten Philadelphia and Cincinnati, teams with serious playoff designs. Kansas City looks as if it is on the way up. Its season highlight thus far was an upset over defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh. That win gave the organization a major dose of hope.

After the Chiefs beat the Steelers and the Raiders defeated the Bengals on the same day, Turner took the opportunity to notice the improvements in the division.

“I’ve been coaching in this league a long time in the same division and you start believing some things that have been true. Sometimes you say it and you wonder if it still is true,” Turner said. “A couple of the things that I’ve always talked about is how hard it is to play in Kansas City and the talent that Oakland has, particularly on their defensive front and their overall ability. When you go beat a team like that, sometimes people assume, ‘You went to Kansas City and you should beat them because they’re not very good,’ or ‘You beat Oakland because they aren’t [very good].’ Then you turn around and see Kansas City beat Pittsburgh and Oakland beat Cincinnati, two pretty good football teams, then it starts to reconfirm some of the things I believe. Maybe I haven’t lost it completely in terms of understanding completely what this league is all about.”

Expect the division to continue to get better as a whole. There are five games remaining in the season, and the improvement in the AFC West is clear. There is good, young talent on every roster in the division, and after another offseason, the AFC West should be stronger in 2010 than it was this season. In the meantime, the Chargers and the Broncos are fighting to bring back some postseason respectability to the division now.

The division may not be the AFC’s best yet, but the AFC West is no longer the league’s worst division, either.