Can Peyton keep Kansas and San Diego at bay? We find out in our AFC West 2014 Preview

Last season the AFC West provided three playoff teams, with the Chiefs, Broncos and Chargers all making it past Christmas. Will Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos reign again in the west, or will last year’s improvement from San Diego and Kansas City carry over into 2014?

Denver Broncos:

Hillman will have to add some threat to the Denver backfield
Hillman will have to add some threat to the Denver backfield

After an embarrassing Super Bowl shellacking at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks, the Denver Broncos approached this pre-season with a vengeance. Eric Decker, Knowshon Moreno, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Champ Bailey were all allowed to walk, with big-name free agents Aqib Talib and TJ Ward signed to bolster the secondary, while the addition of DeMarcus Ware to a healthy Von Miller makes for a formidable pass rush. The loss of Danny Trevathan to injury and Wesley Woodyard to the Titans creates problems at linebacker but, with a cadre of young LBs waiting to plug the gap, the Denver defense should still take a step up from last season. On offense Decker’s targets should be handled by Emmanuel Sanders, while Wes Welker’s concussion scare in Presseason Week 3 appears to be nothing serious. Questions remain about the backfield however. Manning has never had a problem making mediocre running backs look good (just look at Moreno last year) but with only Ronnie Hillman and CJ Anderson backing up 2nd-year back Montee Ball, depth is an issue, and if Ball goes down Denver could find its offense becoming more predictable. Still, with an improved D and Peyton under centre, it’s hard to see the Broncos not topping the division and making another run at the Super Bowl.

Prediction: 1st

San Diego Chargers:

A surprise package from last season, the Chargers not only made the playoffs but were also the only team to topple the Broncos at Mile High Stadium, The emergence of Keenan Allen as a dynamic playmaker, the canny acquisition of versatile running back Danny Woodhead and Ryan Matthews finally reaching his potential as the team’s bell cow all contributed to a multi-threat attack that Philip Rivers could really marshal down the field. The addition of Donald Brown adds veteran insurance to the backfield while the impressive form down the stretch of TE Ladarius Green should allow the offense to show multiple looks and keep defenses guessing. The problems came on pass defence, where the team ranked a paltry 29th in completions allowed, yards per game and total yards in 2013. The off-season acquisition of Brandon Flowers and a D-heavy draft class featuring cover corner Jason Verrett should improve this side of the ball. The rest of the defense is only average, but can compete enough to keep the team in touch. Rumours coming out of camp suggest that the team has moved to an up-tempo offense under new co-ordinator Frank Reich following Ken Whisenhunt’s departure to Tennessee. San Diego has the versatility and personnel on offense to make the most of such a Rivers-led, audible-heavy approach, and the intelligence and experience of their QB will be an invaluable asset. Expect another playoff run.

Prediction: 2nd

Kansas City Chiefs:

Smiths contract will be a worry for Chiefs front office staff
Smiths contract will be a worry for Chiefs front office staff

Although QB Alex Smith still has yet to be pinned down to a new contract, the Chiefs did seal a deal with offensive centrepiece Jamaal Charles this offseason. They’ll need another huge year from the Pro Bowl RB because they failed to add any weapons of note for Alex Smith to play with next season. While the offensive line is uncertain given the losses of Brandon Albert, Geoff Schwartz and Jon Asamoah in free agency, they still have 4 top-75 draft picks slated to start. The unit has looked like the worst unit in the NFL in preseason, so that potential will need to be reached extremely quickly if they’re to give Smith any chance of being productive. Factor in their lacklustre receiving corps and the team will be hoping for Donnie Avery to find some consistency and exciting TE Travis Kelce to carry his playmaking preseason form into September, especially with Dwayne Bowe set to miss the first game through suspension. On defense the losses have been less damaging. Last year’s excellent linebacker corps remains, while their defensive front should still be strong with Mike DeVito and the superb Dontari Poe. KC has an average secondary after Eric Berry though, and even naming their starting cornerback duo is a challenge. The Chiefs also have a much tougher schedule than a year ago, so it’s easy to see Andy Reid’s team regressing in 2014. They absolutely won’t start out 9-0 again. In fact, Kansas City will do well to stay relevant in the AFC playoff race, and they’ll need a lot of improvement, particularly on offense, if they hope to overtake either San Diego or Denver in the division

Prediction: 3rd

Oakland Raiders:

The Raiders continued their policy of bringing in big-name free agents this offseason, with

1st Rounder Mack will add some play making to the Raiders D
1st Rounder Mack will add some play making to the Raiders D

names like Justin Tuck, LaMarr Woodley, James Jones, Maurice Jones-Drew and Matt Schaub arriving in the Bay Area over the summer. After another miserable sub-.500 season the Silver and Black needed help all over the field, and got upgrades at CB with former 49ers Carlos Rogers and Terrell Brown joining DJ Hayden, while their pass rush was boosted by the arrival of outside linebacker Khalil Mack with the fifth pick of the draft. They remain, however, the only team in the division with a question at QB. For anyone who watched Matt Schaub implode in Houston last season this will not be a surprise, and second-round pick Derek Carr might be thrown into the deep end sooner than the organisation might have hoped. If they feel that the rookie isn’t ready, Matt McGloin looked more than competent in a bad situation last season, and has been impressive again in preseason play, so he could also be in the mix. The Raiders have added quality veterans, no doubt, but the haphazard and slapdash approach, doubling down on injury-prone running backs, a benched QB, ageing secondary and linemen and Green Bay’s fourth receiving option, does not inspire confidence. This team needs to break six wins if they are to even be considered a work in progress this season, and given their division and their tough schedule, it’s difficult to project even that much improvement. It looks as though GM Reggie McKenzie and head coach Dennis Allen will be looking for work come 2015.

Prediction: 4th

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