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Friday, October 8, 2010
How the Chiefs can win the AFC West

By Bill Williamson

Chiefs
Coach Todd Haley has the Chiefs off to an unexpectedly fast 3-0 start.
The Kansas City Chiefs (3-0), stunningly the league's only remaining unbeaten team, are one of the top storylines of the young NFL season.

After winning a total of 10 games in the past three seasons, Kansas City is playing timely football on both sides of the ball and has one of the league’s more exciting young cores. We'll find out a lot about Kansas City in the next two games, at Indianapolis on Sunday and at Houston on Oct. 17.

But there are signs that this team will be in the mix all season in a wide-open AFC West. Here are 10 reasons, in no particular order, why Kansas City could win the AFC West, including the Chiefs' strong points and shortcomings of the other three division teams:

Kansas City’s schedule: The Chiefs will be in the race no matter what they do in the next two games. Even if the Chiefs get blown out by the Colts and Texans, they’ll be 3-2 and in decent shape. If the Chiefs lose both games but are competitive, their confidence will soar. If the Chiefs are 4-1 or 5-0 after the next two games, they’ll be cruising.

Kansas City's schedule is very manageable after the fifth game, with just two games against 2009 playoff teams (San Diego and Arizona) in the final 11 games. Of course, the Cardinals, with undrafted rookie Max Hall starting at quarterback, don't look anything like a playoff team.

The Chiefs’ attitude: Head coach Todd Haley and his fine staff have the team believing it can win.

Said linebacker Derrick Johnson after the Chiefs walloped the 49ers in Week 3: "Each win, we're getting more and more confident."

The team has bought in to Haley’s ways and is having fun. Haley had 14 players act as coaches during bye-week practices last week. The response from the players was very favorable. It seems the Chiefs can’t wait to get to work every day, a feeling that can carry a team.

Denver’s run offense: The Broncos (2-2) look better than expected and were competitive in both their losses. But Denver’s running game is a mess, ranking last in the NFL and averaging 2.2 yards a carry and 55 yards a game on the ground. While quarterback Kyle Orton has been terrific and is leading the NFL’s best passing game, the Broncos won't win consistently and be a legitimate contender if the running game doesn’t improve.

San Diego’s early-season slop: The Chargers (2-2) are not worried, and they shouldn’t be because they've dug themselves out of early-season holes the past three years. San Diego lost 21-14 at Kansas City on opening night because it made too many turnovers (2 to the Chiefs' 0) and played poorly on special teams (including a 94-yard punt return by Chiefs rookie Dexter McCluster). San Diego improved in all areas, especially on special teams, in the 41-10 Week 4 trouncing of Arizona. But if the Chargers falter on special teams, it will negate great play on offense and defense and they will lose more games than they should.

Kansas City’s defense: The Chiefs are playing well on defense, especially against the run (75 yards per game, No. 5 in the NFL). Kansas City also has found a pass rush (tied for 16th in sacks, with 8) for the first time since Jared Allen was traded after the 2007 season. The Chiefs' opportunistic defense has scored 24 points off turnovers, and new coordinator Romeo Crennel has made a major impact on the young unit.

"Romeo Crennel has come in here and really changed our identity and the things we're doing,” linebacker Tamba Hali told reporters after the San Francisco game.

Oakland’s early start: The Raiders and Chiefs were supposed to be similar teams going into the season. Young, talented, probably on the rise. So far, the Chiefs have far outperformed Oakland, which is 1-3 and already has benched its Week 1 starting quarterback, Jason Campbell. Anything can happen, but if the Chiefs simply focus on themselves and continue to win, the Raiders won’t be a factor. Oakland has talent, but the Raiders must quickly turn around their fortunes if they are to make a serious playoff run.

Charles
Jamaal Charles is boasting an impressive 7.0 yards per carry through three games.
Kansas City’s running game: The Chiefs’ running game is strong, averaging 160.7 yards per game and ranking No. 3 in the league. Good running teams win a lot of games. As long as Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones play well, the Chiefs will be able to dictate the tempo.

San Diego’s late schedule: The Chargers have traditionally handled their late-season schedule well. But there will be challenges. The Chargers have road tests at Houston, Indianapolis and Cincinnati and they play New England at home. Because they have already lost two games and the Chiefs haven’t lost yet, a few more stumbles could make it difficult for the Chargers to win their fifth straight division championship.

Kansas City’s coaching staff: This is a stellar group. Crennel has the defense making plays in the passing and running game. Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis is making good use of the Chiefs’ young core. After struggling in the first two games, quarterback Matt Cassel made strides against the 49ers, completing 16 of 27 passes for 250 yards and three touchdowns. This team is very organized and has shown good discipline. There is no doubt Haley benefits from having two coordinators with head-coaching experience. The Chiefs are a well-run team, and well-coached teams don’t often fade down the stretch.

Kansas City will improve: Regardless of what the three teams trailing Kansas City do in the final three quarters of the season, the biggest reason why the Chiefs can stay in this race is that they will get better as the season wears on. This is a team built for the future. It should be better in 2011 and even better in 2012. The truth is, this team has arrived early, helped by tremendous efforts from rookies such as McCluster, safety Eric Berry, defensive back Javier Arenas, tight end Tony Moeaki and defensive back Kendrick Lewis. Assuming these rookies don’t fade toward the end of the season, the Chiefs are going to be even tougher as this team continues to jell.