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Thursday, July 24, 2014
NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- AFC West

By ESPN.com staff


It seems like a football eon ago that then-Denver Broncos coach Josh McDaniels sized up the potential AFC West race and called the San Diego Chargers “kind of the measuring stick.”

That statement came before the 2010 season as the Chargers had won the previous four division titles. It’s also right about the time the winds of change began to roar in earnest in the division, when the foundation was set for what has happened since.

The Kansas City Chiefs won the division in '10. Broncos owner Pat Bowlen fired McDaniels after a 4-12 season marred by Spygate and hired John Elway as the Broncos’ top football executive.

Since then, the Broncos have won three consecutive division titles, one featuring the national phenomenon that was a Tim Tebow-led read-option offense, and two with future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning. And the Broncos' crushing February Super Bowl loss notwithstanding, they are coming off a record-setting 2013 with Manning returning and a free-agency haul that included pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib, safety T.J. Ward and receiver Emmanuel Sanders. The Broncos are poised to be in the league’s championship conversation again.

The Chiefs think they are ready for more, the Chargers were the only team in the division to beat the Broncos last season, and the Oakland Raiders, after a flurry of offseason moves, believe -- at least LaMarr Woodley believes -- they can be a playoff team.

NFL Nation reporters Jeff Legwold (Broncos), Eric D. Williams (Chargers), Adam Teicher (Chiefs) and Paul Gutierrez (Raiders) look at how the AFC West division race will shake out this season.

First Down

What will the Broncos' record be and why?



Jeff Legwold: Look at the Broncos' depth chart, and on paper -- yes, the dreaded "on paper" distinction -- they are better than they were when they finished 13-3 and played their way into Super Bowl XLVIII last season. After the crushing loss in the title game, they didn't go quietly into the offseason. They put together a solid draft class with two potential immediate contributors in cornerback Bradley Roby and wide receiver Cody Latimer. They were also one of the most aggressive teams in free agency, reeling in Ware, Talib, Ward and Sanders. If Ware and Talib, in particular stay healthy (Talib has never played 16 games in a season), Denver's defense will be vastly improved alongside a record-breaking offense that figures to again pile up points. The Broncos finished with five defensive starters on injured reserve last season, and many of the players who were starting on defense down the stretch will be backups this season. Their trek through the NFC West to go with road games against the Patriots, Jets and Bengals gives them a potentially brutal schedule. They could be better than they were last season and not have the record to show for it. That is why 12-4 would be a quality piece of work.

Eric D. Williams: Denver will take a natural slide from its impressive 2013 campaign, but still come out on top of the AFC West at 11-5. Like the rest of the division, the Broncos face a much tougher schedule, with the season opener at home against Indianapolis and games at Seattle, at home against San Francisco, at New England, at St. Louis and at Cincinnati all potential losses outside the division. Though the defense should be better, free-agent additions Talib, Ware and Ward still have to mesh with the rest of that unit. Offensively, Denver's revamped line must do a better job of protecting Peyton Manning.

Adam Teicher: 12-4. It's a bit much to expect the Broncos to match their 13-3 record of last season. A schedule that includes two games against the Chiefs and Chargers and singles against all teams from the NFC West plus New England, Indianapolis and Cincinnati almost guarantees that Denver won't get to 13 wins. But a slightly diminished regular-season record doesn't mean the Broncos won't win the AFC or play in the Super Bowl again. From this vantage point, it's an upset if any team but the Broncos represents the AFC in the Super Bowl this season.

Paul Gutierrez: Sure, no one takes a Super Bowl beating like the Denver Broncos, whose five losses on Super Sunday are by a combined score of 206-58. But in the modern world of the rich getting richer, the defending AFC champs simply got better. Adding a trio of big-name free agents in Ware, Talib and Ward will only make the defense more sound. And the addition of Sanders, who will replace the departed Eric Decker, should help the Broncos' record-setting offense continue to hum along under the direction of Manning. The Broncos are primed for another division title with a 12-4 record, with tough games at Kansas City, at San Diego (the Chargers won in Denver last season), at New England (the Patriots won in OT last season) and at Seattle (remember that 43-8 pasting the Seahawks put on the Broncos in the Super Bowl?).

@Jeff_Legwold @ESPN_NFLNation 19-0

— Walden Cash (@WC_83) July 21, 2014

Second Down

What will the Chiefs' record be and why?



Legwold: There is an air about this team; the Chiefs seem comfortable with where the roster was at the end of the 2013 season going into 2014. They were not all that active in free agency, though they took some swings at a wide receiver or two, including Emmanuel Sanders. If they are the team that went 9-0 before the bye last season, then standing pat is just fine, but if they are the group that went 2-5 down the stretch, then they are not catching the Broncos. They have shuffled the offensive line and seem likely to lean on running back Jamaal Charles again on offense, but they lack pop on the outside, especially if receiver A.J. Jenkins can't lift his game. The defense is solid in the front seven, but in a division with quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers, cornerback Brandon Flowers' release might be the move that eventually stings the most, especially if young cornerback Marcus Cooper, a player Manning targeted repeatedly last season, is not up to the challenge. It all has the look of a step back from last season's 11-5 to 9-7 with the NFC West on everybody's schedule in the division.

Williams: I predict Kansas City falling to 8-8 in 2014 for a couple reasons. The Chiefs lost two of their five starters along the offensive line in Branden Albert and Geoff Schwartz to free agency -- a position group that depends on continuity. Kansas City could struggle to protect quarterback Alex Smith, along with getting enough push to spring loose the talented Charles. Second, look at this season's schedule. Last season, Kansas City vaulted to a 9-0 record in part by facing backup quarterbacks like Jeff Tuel, Case Keenum and Terrelle Pryor. This season, four of Kansas City's first six games are on the road, including stops in Denver, Miami, San Francisco and San Diego. The Chiefs will be fortunate to be at the .500 mark after that treacherous stretch.

Teicher: 8-8. Kansas City faltered down the stretch last season, winning two of its final eight games. The Chiefs then watched several significant regulars leave through free agency. The Chiefs have holes at wide receiver and in the defensive backfield that they failed to adequately address. That doesn't mean they won't be playoff contenders. Despite the lousy record, the Chiefs quietly finished last season as one of the NFL's better offensive teams. They might be able to score enough points to overcome a shaky defense that couldn't hold a 28-point lead in last season's playoff loss against Indianapolis.

Gutierrez: Are the Kansas City Chiefs the team that made history by becoming the first in NFL modern annals to follow up a two-victory season by winning its first nine games the following season, or are they the club that lost six of its last eight, including a heartbreaking 45-44 wild-card loss to the Indianapolis Colts? Momentum being what it is, and with the Chiefs having a so-so draft coupled with departures of the likes of Albert, defensive end Tyson Jackson and receiver/returner Dexter McCluster, plus a tough schedule, they seem to be on the way back down. As in a 7-9 record. Tough stretches that include games at Denver, against New England, at San Francisco and at San Diego early, and against Seattle, at Oakland, against Denver, at Arizona and at Pittsburgh late will truly tell the Chiefs' tale, even as Charles continues his ascent as one of the game's best all-around backs.

@adamteicher 9-7 would be a great accomplishment. Schedule is nails, but if OL gels and backend D is in place, it's doable. O will score

— Lou Montagna (@LouMontagna) July 21, 2014

Third Down

What will the Chargers' record be and why?



Legwold: In his first year as Chargers coach, Mike McCoy helped get quarterback Philip Rivers back on track -- though Rivers never really conceded to being off track -- and the Chargers were able to fight through injuries, hand the Broncos their only home loss of the season, and earn a playoff spot. McCoy figures to try to keep Rivers cocooned in a low-risk approach on offense -- their leading receivers in terms of catches last season were a tight end (Antonio Gates) and a running back (Danny Woodhead) -- with a heavy dose of starting running back Ryan Mathews if he can stay healthy. Defensively, new cornerbacks Jason Verrett and Brandon Flowers should help the secondary. As they continue their makeover in the second year of the current regime, most personnel people in the league believe the Chargers are still lacking enough athleticism, especially on defense, to make a significant push in the division race. Add up four games against the NFC West to go with New England and Baltimore and it looks like a 7-9 campaign.

Williams: If they can stay relatively healthy, the Chargers should finish at 10-6 and return to the postseason for a second straight season. San Diego is the only team in the AFC West projected to have all 11 starters on offense return in 2014. Rivers will be given even more freedom to call plays at the line of scrimmage and run the no-huddle offense, which should result in more favorable matchups for the Chargers. But we know San Diego's offense can put points on the board. The key for the Chargers will be improved play in a revamped secondary that includes first-round selection Verrett and free agent Flowers, along with a more potent pass rush with the healthy return of Dwight Freeney and Melvin Ingram.

Teicher: 8-8. The Chargers might be the division's most interesting team. San Diego is the team most capable of catching the first-place Broncos, but also has the best chance of getting caught by the last-place Raiders. If Rivers plays as well as he did last season, it's not out of the question that San Diego wins the AFC West. Like Denver, San Diego might have a better team than it did last season. Signing Flowers filled a big need. But a tougher schedule will keep the Chargers out of the playoffs this time.

Gutierrez: San Diego, under a rookie head coach in the offensive-minded Mike McCoy, won four straight games to end the regular season and sneak into the playoffs at 9-7, and another 9-7 campaign seems to be in the works, even if the Chargers look to be better in 2014. Some of McCoy's moves did have many fans scratching their heads, but there is no debating he was instrumental in Rivers' NFL Comeback Player of the Year Award-winning season. The Chargers added bruising running back Donald Brown to join lightning-quick Ryan Mathews and are excited to see what their receiving corps, highlighted by second-year wideout Keenan Allen, can do if Malcom Floyd is healthy. No, it's not the halcyon and high-flying days of Air Coryell, but with tough games at Arizona, Oakland, Denver, Baltimore and San Francisco, and with New England coming to San Diego, the Chargers will take it.

@eric_d_williams 11-5 & make the playoffs if we stay healthy, 9-7 & miss the playoffs if we don't. And we'll beat Denver.

— Shea Duggan (@SDsportskid86) July 22, 2014

Fourth Down

What will the Raiders' record be and why?



Legwold: Rookie linebacker Khalil Mack has the look of a potential foundation player in the Raiders defense. If things go as the Raiders hope, he should be in the running for Defensive Rookie of the Year because he's going to get plenty of snaps. But overall this team has put its immediate fate in the hands of veterans with far less of their career in front of them than in their past, led by quarterback Matt Schaub. Raiders coach Dennis Allen keeps saying Schaub is a top-10 passer in the league, but Schaub has always seemed to lack that kind of confidence in himself. But front-seven additions LaMarr Woodley and Justin Tuck, and running back Maurice Jones-Drew are certainly risk-reward moves the Raiders need to work. Tuck is 30, Woodley is 29 and Jones-Drew, who has missed 11 games combined in the past two seasons, just turned 29. The depth chart is still thin, particularly on defense, and an injury or two will have a ripple effect. The schedule's second half also includes two games against the Broncos, two against the Chiefs, and games against the 49ers and the Rams. It all looks like a potential 5-11.

Williams: With the addition of several quality veteran players in free agency on both sides of the ball, Oakland has a chance to reach the .500 mark for the first time since 2011, but I have them finishing 7-9. With an emphasis on running the football led by backs Jones-Drew (who is returning home to Oakland) and Darren McFadden, Schaub should play better. Defensively, with the addition of first-round selection Mack and veteran defenders Antonio Smith (defensive line), Tuck and Woodley, the Raiders should be improved. The concern for this veteran team will be how consistently it finishes teams in the fourth quarter in order to preserve wins in close games.

Teicher: 6-10. The days of hopeless desperation are coming to an end in Oakland. The Raiders won't be the pushovers they were last season. But they are still not ready to compete with their AFC West rivals. Schaub won't be the answer at quarterback. Instead, he will be another in a long line of failures. Going to rookie quarterback Derek Carr won't solve their problems, at least not this season. By 2015, the Raiders will be a factor in the AFC West race. But despite a major free-agent spending spree, they will still drag the bottom in 2014.

Gutierrez: In the immediate aftermath of the NFL schedule being released back in April, I saw a 5-11 season for the Raiders. Now, after the draft, organized team activities and minicamps? I'll go 6-10. Doesn't sound all that impressive, I know, but it would, technically, be improvement for third-year coach Dennis Allen after consecutive 4-12 seasons. Yes, the Raiders did rebuild both lines with talent and, on the defensive side of the ball, championship pedigree. And they are going with a new quarterback in the battle-tested Schaub. Plus, the veterans Oakland brought in via free agency all have chips on their shoulders. Truly, this is the most talent Allen has had at his disposal. Still, Oakland has the toughest strength of schedule in the NFL, and until it proves differently, it's hard to imagine the Raiders winning more than six games. Where might they scratch out six victories? Let's start with home games against Houston, Miami (in London), San Diego, Arizona, Kansas City and Buffalo and go from there.

@PGutierrezESPN 8-8 because they have a tough schedule and with the talent they have will improve a bit..DA gets fired & Gruden in 2015

— AK (@AaronK510) July 21, 2014
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