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Friday, September 18, 2009
Things looking up in the AFC West?

By Bill Williamson
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com’s Bill Williamson

Is one week of improved play enough to get excited about a division?

Probably not. But in the AFC West, we’re not very patient. If we see a sliver of progress, we’re jumping on it even though I realize ESPN’s John Clayton thinks Denver, Oakland and Kansas City will struggle once the schedule gets tougher (and it will).

Remember, this is the division that had two teams tie for the division lead with a .500 record in 2008. It was also the division that had two teams combine for seven wins. And it was the division that had three teams draft in the first 12 picks in April.

After a kinetic offseason, not much improvement was expected. Yet on Sunday, the three bottom-feeders in the division -- Denver, Kansas City and Oakland -- all showed unexpected signs of life. Here are seven reasons, based on Week 1 observations, why there may be some rays of sunshine in what was expected to be the worst division in the NFL.

The Raiders appear to have balance: The Raiders looked good in their 24-20 home loss to San Diego, which was supposed to blow past its AFC West competition. San Diego needed a  touchdown with 18 seconds left to beat Oakland. The Raiders played well on both sides of the ball and controlled the trenches much of the game. The Raiders displayed a lot of confidence and had the feel of a team that is ready to be in every game.

Denver’s defense: The Broncos looked to be much better on defense than they were the past two years, when they were horrendous. Under the direction of new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, Denver made several big plays and didn’t allow any points until the final drive of the game in Cincinnati. The Bengals don’t exactly have a weak offense. There is better talent in Denver. The Broncos will stay in a lot of games if their defense plays the way it did Sunday.

Haley’s coaching: Todd Haley is a tough-love type of guy. He believes in coaching hard and he has shown, with the demotions of Dwayne Bowe and Derrick Johnson, that he will do what it takes to get players’ attention. It is working. The Chiefs hung with Baltimore nearly all game and played hard throughout. That’s what Haley vowed would happen this year. Kansas City, which has won only six games since the start of the 2007 season, will eventually have success if it continues to translate Haley’s coaching into the field.

Kansas City’s spunk: The Chiefs didn’t give up. They were outclassed by Baltimore, but the Chiefs kept coming back.  Considering Kansas City was playing without starting quarterback Matt Cassel, and that fact that Baltimore had more than 500 yards of offense, this should have been a blowout. But it wasn’t. The Chiefs were in the game until the final minutes. They don’t look like they are going to be an easy out.

Richard Seymour: He instantly became one of the best players in this division Monday night. Seymour makes Oakland a much better defense. Without any practice with the Raiders, he played all over the defensive line against San Diego and made a huge impact. He was a beast against the pass with two sacks, and he was a big reason why Oakland only gave up 77 yards rushing. Oakland was 31st in the NFL against the run last year. Seymour will make all of his teammates on the D-line better. Oakland now has two premier defenders in Seymour and left cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.

Confidence in Denver: The Broncos had a long, trying offseason. Negativity surrounded the start of Josh McDaniels's tenure. For Denver to come back and win on receiver Brandon Stokley’s miracle play at the end of the game gives this team great confidence. It played well enough to win until Cincinnati scored late. But Denver’s victory produced a new sense of excitement surrounding McDaniels. The Broncos have a tough 10-game stretch beginning in Week 4, but the Broncos are feeling good as they host Cleveland on Sunday in McDaniels’ home opener.

Oakland’s youngsters: San Diego linebacker Shawne Merriman made an excellent point in the locker room Monday night as he was praising Oakland for being vastly improved. Merriman said all of the Raiders’ early drafting  the past six years is paying off. Oakland is compiling some good talent. Running backs Darren McFadden and Michael Bush, tight end Zach Miller and receivers Louis Murphy and Chaz Schilens (when he returns in a couple of weeks from a foot injury) give Oakland very intriguing talent at the skill positions. If top pick Darrius Heyward-Bey develops as a receiver, he will be just another weapon for quarterback JaMarcus Russell. Although Russell has a long way to go, having so much young talent around him will only expedite his learning curve.