Fourth & Forever: Previewing the AFC West
The AFC West is a unbalanced division. As it stands right now, the power rankings isn't kind to this division, as only one team eclipses the top five. That team is the power-house Denver Broncos. With a early-second round lost to the Super Bowl Champs Baltimore Ravens, the Broncos have added more weapons to their arsenal. The Broncos are sitting number two in the power rankings and with the New England Patriots and Ravens trying to fill holes with a variety of unproven players, this maybe the year of the Broncos. The other three teams in this division are fighting not to be last. The Oakland Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs, and the San Diego Chargers. All three are ranked near the bottom of the league. The Chargers are ranked 21st, followed by the Chiefs at 26th and the Raiders at 31st. All have up-graded and has the potential to move out of the bottom half of the rankings. This by far is the weakest division in the AFC, although with this being a sport with injuries popping up every day... one injury can make an under-the-radar team a playoff team.
The Denver Broncos, were embarrassed by the Seattle Seahawks on Saturday losing 40-10. For a team like the Broncos, who are considered a top tier team, offensively and defensively the team didn't show up. I know this is the pre-season, but a blow-out like that shouldn't happen. We all-know what Peyton Manning can do and with him being in his second season with Denver, he will be more familiarized with the team and play-book. With the addition of Wes Welker, the Broncos have one of the best receiving cores in the league. With Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker on the outside, the holes should open up for the running back. Question is, who is going to lead the Broncos back-field? Willis McGahee is gone and Knowshon Moreno is inconsistent. So this makes a crowded back-field with Ronnie Hillman and second round pick Montee Ball in the mix to start. They both had descent yardage on the carries they received on Saturday, but both showed why the door is wide open. Hillman had 34 yards on 13 carries, but lost a fumble. Ball had 28 yards on six carries, but he was over-powered on a blitz and caused Manning to get hit hard. Both have the ability to run, but are still raw when it comes to security. In the end Ball wins the job. He is a work-horse putting up all kinds of big numbers in Badger country. He has major upside and is a tough target to bring down. On defense the Broncos are considered one of the best. The aging Champ Bailey may have lost a step, but he still is a ball-hawk. They have a great defensive line, even after losing Elvis Dumervil to free-agency. They drafter defensive tackle Sylvester Williams, an athletic 320 pounder who can make tackles behind the line of scrimmage, having 13.5 tackles for a loss his last year at North Carolina. They also have defensive end Quanerus Smith a fifth rounder who had 12.5 sacks in his senior year at Western Kentucky. Derek Wolfe maybe out for awhile after a spine injury, but the Broncos have depth. They also added outside linebacker Shaun Phillips, who had 9.5 sacks last season with the Chargers. Plus linebacker Von Miller on the other side makes this a stingy defense. He just needs to be on the field and not on the sideline suspended.
The Oakland Raiders are the laughing stock of the NFL. Usually any team who has the Raiders on their schedule, should check it as a win. They are ranked 31st for a reason. Last year they had a quarterback who didn't care. A running back who runs nowhere and receivers who turns around and see the ball in intercepted. With little expectations coming in this season, the Raiders would be happy to finish at .500. With the addition of quarterback Matt Flynn, holes may open up for, " I carry the ball 30 times for 60 yards," Darren McFadden. Flynn brings athleticism to the pocket, accurate throws and has a big arm. This was a good trade for the Raiders, because Flynn learned from the best quarterback in the game. He was underneath Aaron Rodgers for four years before signing with the Seahawks in 2012. He then was traded to the Raiders, where he is finally expected to be the starting quarterback. This help McFadden find holes in between tackles. In the past quarterback Carson Palmer, wasn't a threat. He has skills, but is known for over-throwing his receivers or throwing to the opposing team. Matt Flynn changes that. Expect McFadden to average more than three yards a carry and a production of more than three total touchdowns. Only thing is he has never played a full season, because of injuries. That needs to change for this team to compete. Flynn has receivers Denarius Moore and Jacoby Ford. Not much to brag about, but Moore is the number one option. Having 600 yards receiving on 41 reception and five touchdown. Ford is not a reliable number two option. In three years he has three touchdowns. Mostly used as a kick returner, Ford will have to fill the shoes of departed Darrius Heyward-Bey, another disappointment. Expect a shaky passing attack. On defense the Raiders drafted cornerback D.J. Hayden, the 12th pick out of Houston is a ball-hawk. Having 127 tackles in two years is just the beginning. He suffered a gruesome life-threating injury in practice in 2012, which limited his season. If he comes back as the same player, he will help a torched secondary, which gave up 235 passing yards. Add him with two more ball-hawks, Charles Woodson and Tyvon Branch. Woodson can be used all over the field. I even seen him play linebacker in Green Bay once. This guy has great defensive skills winning the defensive player of the year in 2009. Branch is the same, a hard-hitting safety with a sense for where the football is thrown. Posting 200 tackles the last two seasons. I like this secondary, but the offense is just going to hurt them.
The Chiefs are breathing a little easier now that running back Jamaal Charles is back at practice after hurting his foot in practice earlier in the week. The Chiefs know, they go as far as Charles will carry them. He averages 5.8 yards per carry. The most for a running back with a minimum of 500 carries in history. Last year the Chiefs relied more on passing the ball than running the ball. At nearly 51 percent passing the Chiefs finished 2-14. Averaging under 14 points per game. With a back like Charles, the Chiefs should rely heavily on the run, which will open up the field for passing lanes. This starts with the quarterback. Last year Matt Cassel was calling the shots and he was really bad at it. Playing in only nine games last season. He had a quarterback rating of 66.7. Averaging 6.5 yards a pass and fumbling the ball nine times. That guy was terrible, so everybody and the coach was in the box stopping the run, because the quarterback couldn't do anything. This year the Chiefs brought in former Eagles coach Andy Reid and former 49ers quarterback Alex Smith. Reid is a hall of fame coach, who will bring his pass-happy offense to the team. This will create holes for Charles and it will make Charles be utilized in the passing game. With a quarterback like Smith, turnovers should be kept at bay. He is a good passer, but not a deep passer. He throws short to mid-range passes and he did it completing 70 percent of his passes. Charles and Smith will benefit from each other and they will benefit from second pick overall all-American right tackle Eric Fisher. He will help in the run game and pass-protection. Receivers Dwayne Bowe, Jon Baldwin, and Donnie Avery will see a lot of action, as well as tight-end Anthony Fasano. The Chiefs added new defensive Coordinator Bob Sutton and he is keeping the 3-4 defensive scheme. His schemes bring a lot of pressure to the opposing quarterback. Its a lot movement up front a lot of shifting and the best perk about it is not everyone is going to be rushing the quarterback. Some rush and the others drop back, so it should keep everyone on their toes. Everything sounds good on paper, but it will take a year or two for players to get comfortable the schemes. I do expect the 26.6 opposing points to go down. Especially with veteran Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali. Between both of them they had 176 tackles and nine sacks. But their secondary has got to create more turnovers. Between safety Kendrick Lewis, safety Eric Berry, cornerback Brandon Flowers and cornerback Sean Smith, they had a total of six picks. Not good, but I expect better with the pressure upfront.
The Chargers are a throw your hands up team in this division. You never know what you're going to get with them. They go as quarterback Phillip Rivers goes. Now entering his 10th season. Rivers has established himself as a quarterback who is inconsistent. The four time pro-bowler has thrown 53 touchdowns and 35 interceptions in the past two seasons. Mediocre numbers, but not the numbers the Chargers hoped for when they invested in Rivers with the fourth overall pick. Compared to former Charger quarterback Ryan Leaf numbers,( 14 touchdowns and 36 interceptions for career) Rivers was a blessing, but now at 31 he needs to lead his team to the Super Bowl. The cast around him are respecatable. Running back Ryan Matthews can be a solid back, but he is always hurt. Since he came into the league in 2010 he has never played a full season. What makes it worse is that he only had one touchdown as the starting running back last season. He needs to help Rivers with the ground game and touchdown production. Rivers and Matthews are the reason former GM A.J. Smith, and former coach Norv Turner were fired. Going in a new direction with new GM Tom Telesco and coach Mike McCoy; If Rivers and Matthews don't perform well. They should invest in a new duo and just start over. Rivers had a good receiver in Vincent Jackson and now a veteran who is just coming around in his eight season Malcolm Floyd (Bad Coaching). He has a aging tight end in Antonio Gates, who is getting less productive each year. The ship is sinking for this offense. I say rebuild the offense. On defense they drafted inside linebacker Manti Te'o, a solid pick-up, a good run stuffer and work ethics minus the hoax. They also picked up former defensive end Dwight Freeney and I don't know why. He has played 4-3 his whole career and now he is learning to play linebacker at the end of his career. That's not a good fit for the team. The best player on the defense is safety Eric Weddle. Last season he had 97 tackles four tackles for loss, one sack, two force fumbles and three picks and one returned 52 yards for a touchdown. He is a beast in this secondary. A ball-hawk who does a little of everything. It also looks good that he has played every game for the past three seasons. The defense is solid, they only gave up 21.9 points a game and was fifth against the run, although the offense is still going to sink this team.
The Broncos should win this division. They have too much talent on offense and once they figure out who is going to be the featured back, this team will be scoring from every position. My concerns are with the defense. They looked extremely bad on Saturday against the Seahawks. Giving up 33 points by half-time. The defense is going to need to step us to be a contender, or Manning is going to be in shootouts. The defense should also prepare not to see Von Miller for at least four weeks due to substance abuse. The Raiders are just looking to rebound from a 4-12 record. The quarterback is different, the defense has added new pieces. I'm excited about this team, but I know it is a rebuilding process. I'm just looking to see if the presence of quarterback Matt Flynn is going to open up running lanes for Darren McFadden. I say 8-8. The Chiefs are another team who is going to open up eyes. Reliable quarterback Alex Smith, with new defensive schemes and a future hall of fame coach. This team will make big steps, but not leaps. The Chargers need to run the ball to open passing lanes for Phillip Rivers. They ran the ball 41 percent of the time and it should be equaled out. It doesn't help that the feature back is always hurt. I'm still scratching my head at the signing of Dwight Freeney, I'm not sure at 33 he has a lot left in the tank. I won't be surprise if this team came in last place in this division.