The AFC West is arguably the most competitive division in the AFC. How do these teams stack up?
The Sports Quotient’s annual Divisional Preview series returns! Over the next two weeks, we will look at each division and separate the contenders from the pretenders. This week, the focus is on the AFC West. Today, we’ll analyze if the Chiefs can defend their title with a new quarterback under center in Patrick Mahomes.
Kansas City Chiefs
After capturing their 10th AFC West title (second in three years) in 2017, the Chiefs were unable to carry their momentum into the postseason, as they were knocked off by the Tennessee Titans in the Wild Card round. Kansas City concluded the year with a 10-6 record and the league’s top running back in terms of rushing yards in Kareem Hunt (272 carries, 1,327 yards). However, they squandered a 21-3 halftime lead over the Titans en route to a 22-21 loss, ultimately bringing a disappointing end to an otherwise successful season.
Biggest Strength: Rushing Attack
As previously mentioned, Hunt led the NFL in rushing yards in 2017 as just a rookie, and Kansas City as a team appeared to feed off of his success. In games in which Hunt eclipsed 100 rushing yards, the Chiefs were an astonishing 6-0. Now with a healthy Hunt back in the backfield, their offensive line intact from a year ago, and a mobile Mahomes in the mix, Kansas City seems poised to continue their dominance on the ground in 2018.
Biggest Weakness: Pass Defense
Although they had Marcus Peters, who finished the season with five interceptions and nine passes defended, he was without much help, as Kansas City finished with the 29th-ranked passing defense (247.0 passing yards surrendered per game) in 2017. Now with Peters as well as veteran safety Ron Parker gone, and a current secondary group consisting of Kendall Fuller, Steven Nelson, David Amerson, and Eric Berry, I expect the Chiefs to continue to struggle against the pass.
Fuller is young and talented, and Amerson could still offer some potential in his sixth year, but neither are on the level of Marcus Peters, who had 19 interceptions in three seasons in Kansas City. And while Eric Berry is back, he is coming off a season-ending Achilles injury (his third season-ending ailment after an ACL tear in 2011 and Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2014), and is unlikely to have the physical capability to carry a secondary in 2018.
X-Factor: Wide Receiver Sammy Watkins
Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce are sure to become Mahomes’s top two go-to targets this season; however, they can’t be his only two options. We saw how teams such as the Giants, Cowboys, Steelers, as well as the Titans in the playoffs, were able to limit the Chiefs’ passing attack when they keyed in on either Hill or Kelce. Now add Sammy Watkins. If Watkins can return to a level similar to how he performed during his first two NFL seasons in Buffalo, it would open up the middle of the field for Kelce, and allow Hill to continue to stretch the field deep.
NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) May 24, 2018
The Key Number: Three Fumbles
We all know Andy Reid prides himself on his players minimizing their turnovers, which is probably why Kansas City only had three total fumbles all of last season, good for second fewest in the NFL. Replicating this number in 2018 would be quite impressive, especially with a young quarterback in Mahomes. Nonetheless, it’s a good bet that Reid and company will be winning the majority of their turnover battles this year.
Playoff Status: On The Bubble
The Chiefs have the talent and potential to make another run at the AFC West title. Nevertheless, they do reside in arguably the toughest division in the AFC. The Chargers found their rhythm down the stretch, the Broncos have a new signal-caller under center in Case Keenum (who led the Vikings to the NFC Championship game in 2017), and the Raiders are operating under new head coach Jon Gruden. Leapfrogging these teams, as well as potential wild card teams such as the Ravens, Titans, Colts, and Texans could prove to be a daunting task for Kansas City.
The Broncos endured a very disappointing 5-11 season in 2017, cycling through different quarterbacks (Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler, and Paxton Lynch). They ultimately never found the answer under center, which resulted in their second straight year missing the playoffs since they were crowned Super Bowl champions in 2016.
Biggest Strength: Linebacker Core
The Broncos selected Bradley Chubb with the fifth overall pick in the 2017 draft to give them another dominant rusher opposite Von Miller (already one of the best rushers in the NFL). Combine these two powerful outside linebackers with two productive inside linebackers in Brandon Marshall and Todd Davis, and Denver has one of the more solid, well-rounded linebacker corps in the league.
Denver doesn’t have one really definitive weakness; however, their tight end position seems to be the one that raises the most questions. Although they are confident in who they have with Jake Butt and Jeff Heuerman, both have had injury issues in the past. Butt, a 2017 fifth-round pick, missed all of last season with a torn ACL suffered in his final collegiate game (2016 Orange Bowl), while Heuerman also sat out his rookie year (2015) with a torn ACL.
Should one of these tight ends go down with another unfortunate injury, it would leave the Broncos very thin at the position, one that has been key to their offensive success in the past.
X-Factor: Cornerback Bradley Roby
After the loss of Aqib Talib, who was traded to the Rams for a 2018 fifth-round pick, Roby’s role becomes that much more important. Roby has played predominantly nickel corner in his first four seasons, but with the departure of Talib, he will likely be asked to play more outside in 2018.
If Roby can develop into a solid outside corner, it will allow defensive coordinator Joe Woods to move players around to their most comfortable positions, especially with the recent signing of veteran Adam “Pacman” Jones.
The Key Number: 52 Sacks
Denver’s offensive line surrendered a whopping 52 sacks in 2017, the third most in the NFL. Granted, they battled numerous injuries to starters and key backups along the line, but a repeat performance would certainly hinder a bounceback season. With a new quarterback in town, and two young running backs in rookie Royce Freeman and Devontae Booker, a healthy offensive line will be vital to their success.
Playoff Status: On The Bubble
While the Broncos’ first- and second-round picks in Chubb and Sutton have proved to be immediately beneficial, there are still injury questions surrounding their tight ends and offensive line. Don’t get me wrong—if everyone remains healthy, Denver shouldn’t have any issues reaching the playoffs in Keenum’s first season in the mile-high city; however, if history is correct a crushing injury would certainly cause problems in Denver.
Derby for the Denver Broncos with one of the filthiest catches of the season thus far. pic.twitter.com/4Udiga90dI— Aaron J. Fentress (@AaronJFentress) October 1, 2017
Los Angeles Chargers
Following a disappointing 0-4 start last season, the Chargers made an impressive late season push, winning nine of their final 12 games, en route to a second-place finish (9-7) in the AFC West in 2017. Nevertheless, it was not enough to overtake the Chiefs for the division, nor was it enough to secure a Wild Card spot, as Los Angeles missed out on the playoffs for a fifth consecutive season.
Biggest Strength: Passing Attack
Even at 36 years old, Philip Rivers has displayed that he can clearly still sling the ball around with with profound accuracy and efficiency. The Chargers concluded the year with the top-ranked passing offense in the NFL in terms of passing yards per game (277 YPG). The effective season allowed Keenan Allen to enjoy a career year, as he finished with 102 receptions for 1,393 yards and six touchdowns.
Keenan Allen is a PROBLEM.pic.twitter.com/T4OrmPsOlq— LeadingNFL (@LeadingNFL) November 23, 2017
With Allen and 2017 first-round pick Mike Williams back healthy, as well as Tyrell Williams and Travis Benjamin in the mix, Rivers and company are poised to take the league by storm once again in 2018.
Biggest Weakness: Pass Defense
With the loss of starting corner Jason Verrett (out for the season with a torn Achilles), the Chargers’ secondary play will certainly take a hit in 2018. The good news for Chargers fans is that they lack an evident weakness on both sides of the ball; they have the necessary depth at every position. Trevor Williams and Desmond King should be able to mitigate the loss of Verrett, but if there’s a position that could slightly hinder Los Angeles’s success, it’s their secondary.
X-Factor: Safety Derwin James
The Chargers were both shocked and grateful that James fell to them at 17 in the 2018 draft, and now he has a chance to be an immediate impact player for head coach Anthony Lynn. With Verrett out for a second consecutive year—he suffered a torn ACL in 2017—James’s role in Gus Bradley’s defense becomes that much more important. His superb versatility and playmaking ability will be key components for a Chargers’ defense looking to improve on last year’s 15th-ranked overall defense (328.4 yards allowed per game).
The Key Number: 18 Sacks
Los Angeles’s offensive line ranked first in the NFL in sacks allowed in 2017. The unit allowed opposing defenses to get to Philip Rivers a mere 18 times throughout the season—a comforting stat, considering Rivers isn’t getting any younger or more mobile. If the Chargers’ offensive front can continue their stellar play this season, it would allow Rivers maximum time in the pocket, but it would also create more running lanes and opportunities for fourth-year running back Melvin Gordon.
Playoff Status: Automatic
Should they avoid anymore unfortunate injuries, Anthony Lynn and company are destined to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2013; they have the necessary talent on both sides of the ball to do so. In a potential make-or-break season, considering Rivers’ age, I expect the Chargers to capture the elusive AFC West title.
The Raiders fought through an up-and-down 2017 campaign on their way to a lackluster 6-10 record and a last-place finish in the AFC West. Derek Carr experienced his worst season since his rookie year, throwing for just 3,496 yards, 22 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. Meanwhile, Amari Cooper, who was coming off two straight 1,000-yard seasons to begin his career, also had a disappointing year, hauling in 48 catches for 680 yards (both career lows) and seven touchdowns.
Needless to say, the Raiders missed out on the playoffs for the 15th time in 16 years (their only appearance during that time coming in 2016) in 2017.
Biggest Strength: Passing Attack
Although Carr and most of the Raiders offense endured a tough season in 2017, their offensive line was battling a number of injuries, while Carr battled a spinal fracture for a few weeks. With Amari Cooper preparing for a breakout season, Oakland’s front office swapped veteran receivers, allowing Michael Crabtree to sign with Baltimore, and signed Jordy Nelson to a two-year, $15 million deal.
Moreover, even though they released Martavis Bryant, the Raiders still have Jared Cook, Jalen Richard, and Deandre Washington. The weapons are there; Oakland just has to produce once again in the passing game. If they can, Carr will surely return to his 2015-16 form that had him in the center of MVP discussions.
Biggest Weakness: Secondary
For a team that didn’t record their first interception in 2017 until week 12 against the Broncos, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Oakland allowed 241.1 passing yards per game last season, good for 26th in the NFL. With no big-time offseason acquisitions or draft picks involving the secondary, it’s tough to expect anything different in terms of results in 2018.
X-Factor: Head Coach Jon Gruden
Oakland signed Gruden to a 10-year, $100 million contract for good reason: They believe he can right the ship, and return the Raiders to being Super Bowl contenders. Whether trading former Defensive Player of the Year winner Khalil Mack to the Bears was a good idea has yet to be seen; however, the Raiders’ front office clearly have full confidence in Gruden and his methods.
With over 10 years of coaching experience, Gruden has established himself not only as a quality broadcaster, but also as an excellent old-school NFL coach. With Gruden at the helm, look for Derek Carr and Amari Cooper to produce bounce-back, career seasons in 2018.
Derek Carr to Amari Cooper on the first snap of the game: pic.twitter.com/wMvISgU4xM— Dieter Kurtenbach (@dkurtenbach) August 25, 2018
The Key Number: 114 Penalties
The Raiders committed a whopping 114 penalties in 2017, resulting in 1,009 penalty yards, good for ninth and seventh most in the NFL, respectively. Matching this these numbers in 2018 would certainly not result in a rebound season; therefore, we can expect Gruden to be working with both the offensive and defensive units to correct these mistakes.
Playoff Status: On The Bubble
Even though Oakland’s offense seems destined for a much-improved season in 2018, there are still questions looming on the defensive side, particularly in the secondary, and now along the line with the trade of Mack. I expect the Raiders to still contend in the tough AFC West, but overtaking the Chargers, Chiefs, or Broncos for the division seems unlikely at this point.
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