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Friday, November 7, 2008
A look ahead in the shaky AFC West

By Bill Williamson
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

At the halfway point of the NFL season, the AFC West certainly hasn't been the showcase division. In fact, it has been a disaster.

Here is a look at some of the key issues for the division as the AFC West staggers out of the first half.

The chase between the Chargers and the Broncos: It is not the greatest playoff chase in the NFL, but it may be one of the most entertaining. Will this be the first time a team wins the division with a losing record? With Denver at 5-4 and San Diego at 3-5, it could happen. Oakland is 2-6 and Kansas City is 1-7.

The Chiefs and Raiders probably need a minor miracle to win the division, but if San Diego doesn't find its consistency, and if Denver can't get healthy or play better defense, anything is possible in this division.

San Diego has five of its eight remaining games at home. Only three of Denver's remaining seven games are at home.

The Chargers should have an easier schedule than Denver does. After playing the Chiefs at home Sunday, San Diego enters its toughest remaining stretch. It plays at Pittsburgh, and then hosts Indianapolis and Atlanta. If the Chargers can win two of those games, they will be in good shape. They then host Oakland to end a three-game home stretch and then they play at Kansas City.

The Chargers end the season at Tampa Bay and then host Denver in what could be a division-deciding game. Denver has not had much luck in San Diego in recent years, and the Chargers will be licking their chops to get another chance at Denver after the infamous Ed Hochuli game in Week 2.

Denver, which looked good on offense and bad on defense in a 34-30 win at Cleveland on Thursday night, plays Atlanta in Week 11, and then plays Oakland at home and goes on the road to play the Jets.

The Broncos host Kansas City in the first week of December. And if Denver is going to win this division, it can't be swept by the Chiefs. The Broncos have a tough three-game stretch to end the season. They go to Carolina, then host Buffalo, which will likely be playing for a playoff spot, and then they go to San Diego.

Neither of these teams' remaining schedule is brutally tough. The schedule may favor the Chargers because they have more home games left.

The injury factor: Injuries will likely play a role in this race. Denver is decimated by injuries. Five defensive starters are hurt and most of them are going to be out several more weeks.

The Broncos are missing their two best players on defense in left cornerback Champ Bailey and weakside linebacker D.J. Williams. While Denver is strapped by injuries, San Diego is getting healthier. The Chargers had a slew of injuries in the offseason, which was a factor earlier in this season.

But this team seems to be getting healthier. Running back LaDainian Tomlinson is a huge key. He was hampered for about seven weeks by a turf toe injury suffered on opening day.

Before the Chargers' last game, against New Orleans, Tomlinson said he thought he was near 100 percent healthy and then he had a 100-yard game. If Tomlinson can regain his old form and Antonio Gates continues to shake off the rust, the Chargers will be in very good shape to make a final push.

Can Tyler Thigpen change the Chiefs' plans? With a 1-7 record, the Chiefs are certainly planning for 2009 and beyond in the next couple months. Kansas City must find out who will and who won't be in its future in the next eight games as it heads for a certain high draft pick.
The biggest question centers on Thigpen.

He must show Kansas City that he can be the quarterback next year. It would be a great, unexpected bonus for a team to have its third quarterback develop while former starters Brodie Croyle and Damon Huard are out with injuries. If Thigpen can show he can be a legitimate NFL starting quarterback, the Chiefs won't have to draft or trade for a young quarterback next year.

Thigpen showed in the last two games he can be a very exciting player. Thigpen reminds me of a young Drew Brees because he's very game and has a lot of confidence. He has eight games to show that he can be a winning quarterback.

Is there any hope in Oakland? The Raiders clearly put their high-priced veteran players on notice this week with the release of DeAngelo Hall eight months after he was signed to a $72 million contract.

Raiders management is blaming the players for the losing. Oakland tried to end a five-year playoff dry spell by spending $255 million in contracts and bonuses this offseason. But the big-dollar players have not panned out. Players such as Javon Walker, Gibril Wilson, Tommy Kelly and Kwame Harris could also be in trouble down the road.

It will be interesting to see how the Raiders' players react. Will this team play with a new sense of urgency or will it be scared to make mistakes?

If this team does not show any improvement in the second half, expect another coaching change and the departure of several of the high-dollar players who were brought in to turn around the team. It may not be for the right reasons, but Oakland will be worth watching in the second half of the season.