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NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- AFC West

4/3/2014

Let’s turn back the clock, way back to, say, 2011.

John Fox is in his first season as coach of the Denver Broncos, and John Elway in his first season as the team’s top football executive. After five weeks, the Broncos are 1-4. Kyle Orton gets benched, the Broncos put Tim Tebow in at quarterback, and Denver goes 7-4 to finish 8-8 and win a tightly clustered AFC West on the basis of tiebreakers.

The San Diego Chargers also finished 8-8, as did the Oakland Raiders. The Kansas City Chiefs were 7-9.

All four teams piled together in a bit of a mediocrity club. Not too good, not too bad.

And then, in March 2012, the balance of power didn’t just shift, it was tilted by the weight of a future Hall of Famer when the Broncos signed Peyton Manning. The Broncos have followed with two more division titles, back-to-back 13-3 finishes and one Super Bowl appearance.

In all, the Broncos have gone 33-10 since moving Tebow and then Manning into the starting lineup. But the Broncos lost a Super Bowl by 35 points, looking physically overwhelmed while doing it, and Manning just turned 38. The clock is ticking on his storied career, and three teams with head coaches and general managers all hired since 2012 hope there is opportunity.

“You know they’re working their tails off to change things," Fox said. “We’re working hard to keep going, but your first goal always is to win the division; that’s the only guaranteed way to get in the tournament."

The Broncos were the most active of the four AFC West teams in free agency in recent weeks, but as Chargers coach Mike McCoy put it, “We’re grinding away. That’s the solution, just keep grinding."

The four writers who cover the AFC West for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation -- Paul Gutierrez in Oakland, Jeff Legwold in Denver, Adam Teicher in Kansas City and Eric D. Williams in San Diego -- offered their insights on closing the gap on the Broncos and some other key offseason topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out if they saw the issues differently.