'What if' game relevant in AFC West

April, 3, 2012
4/03/12
1:00
PM ET
Peyton Manning/John ElwayJustin Edmonds/Getty ImagesThe health of Peyton Manning is the most pressing "What if" for Denver and possibly the division.

The AFC West was the tightest division in the NFL in 2011.

The Broncos, Raiders and Chargers finished 8-8 with Denver prevailing as division winner via a tiebreaker. Kansas City was a game behind at 7-9. The Chiefs were a blocked field goal attempt against Oakland in Week 16 away from winning the division.

Each team marches toward 2012 with hopes of winning the division. While there is still some work to do in terms of the draft, let’s play the “what if” game. Below is five ways each team in the division could win the AFC West in 2012 if certain things occur. Hat tip to the reader who suggested the idea:

Denver

If Peyton Manning is fully recovered from a neck injury that kept him out of the entire 2011 season: Manning’s health is the key to Denver’s entire season. The team and Manning think he will be fine. If he is, the Broncos will be in great shape.

If Demaryius Thomas develops into a true No. 1 receiver: The third-year player has great potential and he showed great flashes last season. Playing with Manning should spark his career.

If Denver gets a running mate for Willis McGahee: McGahee had a great season in 2011, but he was dinged up a lot and he needs some help. If Denver can draft a player such as Miami’s Lamar Miller, Boise State’s Doug Martin or Virginia Tech’s David Wilson in the second round, they should be in great shape.

If Denver improves at defensive tackle: The Broncos need some help at the position and it is their most pressing need. Watch for Denver to take a defensive tackle at No. 25 in the first round and that player needs to contribute right away.

If the change at defensive coordinator is smooth: With Dennis Allen now the head coach in Oakland, former Jacksonville head coach Jack Del Rio is Denver’s seventh defensive coordinator in the past seven seasons. This change could be seamless, though, because Del Rio has previously been a coordinator on John Fox’s staff, and Fox plays a major role as a defensive coach.

Kansas City

If quarterback Matt Cassel plays better than he did in 2011: Cassel took a step back last season after a strong 2010 season. Instead of replacing him, though, the Chiefs gave Cassel more weapons. He has everything a quarterback needs to succeed. Now, he has to be a success.

If the Chiefs’ injured stars are recovered from serious knee injuries: Running back Jamaal Charles, safety Eric Berry and tight end Tony Moeaki all suffered torn ACL’s in their knees in September. All are expected back. If they are all fully recovered, the Chiefs should be fine.

If the Chiefs get an impact defender in the first round: The Chiefs have a strong defense, but they can use another stud. Memphis defensive tackle Dontari Poe or Boston College inside linebacker Luke Kuechly would both be solid fits.

If Stanford Routt fits in the defense: The Chiefs opted to sign former Oakland cornerback Stanford Routt and let Brandon Carr walk. Kansas City thinks Routt will flourish as the No. 2 cornerback next to Brandon Flowers. If Routt struggles, the defense will suffer.

If Romeo Crennel’s late influence is intact: Crennel went from the interim coach to the permanent coach because he sparked the Chiefs in the final three weeks of last season. His team played very hard for him and went 2-1. Let’s see if the good vibes continue.

Oakland

If quarterback Carson Palmer adjusts well to the West Coast offense: Palmer is both trying to re-energize his career and adjust to playing in a West Coast offense. The Raiders and Palmer believe it is a good fit.

If receivers Darrius Heyward-Bey, Denarius Moore and Jacoby Ford continue to develop: I think these three players have showed flashes. If they continue to develop well, the Raiders will have a lot of firepower.

If running back Darren McFadden can stay healthy: McFadden has missed a total of 19 games in four NFL season and he has missed, at least, three games in all four seasons. He missed the final nine games of last season with a foot injury. With backup Michael Bush now in Chicago and Oakland having young backups, it is imperative the special McFadden stays healthy as much as possible in 2012.

If the defensive front can stay healthy: The Raiders’ defensive line is their best aspect of a defense in transition. It must stay healthy and be an anchor to the unit.

If rookie coach Dennis Allen can have fast success: At 39, Allen, who has just one year of experience as a defensive coordinator, is the youngest head coach in the NFL. He must prove quickly that he is up to the task.

San Diego

If quarterback Philip Rivers can avoid the interception bug: He threw a career-high 20 interception in 2011. Rivers threw a total of 22 interceptions in the previous two seasons combined.

If running back Ryan Mathews can take the next step: San Diego coach Norv Turner recently said he expects Mathews to have a breakout season in 2012, his third in the NFL. He has shown flashes, but he needs to be more consistent.

If the receivers, as a unit, can make up for Vincent Jackson loss: The Chargers like their receiving crew even after Jackson signed with Tampa Bay. San Diego added Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal and already has Malcom Floyd and Vincent Brown. Jackson is a star and he will be missed, but the Chargers think they have made up for his loss by having a deeper rotation.

If the Chargers' defense can be better on third down: San Diego had the worst third-down defense in the NFL last season. Improving in that area is a point of emphasis for new defensive coordinator John Pagano.

If the Chargers can add an impact pass-rusher in the first round: The Chargers need a young pass-rusher to emerge. It will be their top priority with the No. 18 pick.

Bill Williamson | email

ESPN Oakland Raiders reporter

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