It’s been over six months since anything even remotely resembling football has been on television (unless, of course, you live in Canada, where their bastardized rendition of the Great American Game starts in July, has three downs, 10 extra yards and literal acres of end zone). It’s August and we’re all tired of the 162-game baseball slog; it’s time to start talking football again, and this week we're talking AFC West.
Denver Broncos (8-8)
If you want to talk about divergence you need look no further than the Denver Broncos; they’ve gone from a conservative, run-oriented offense with just a hint of wildcat to an air-’em-out passing game in the span of six months.
The most obvious reason for the departure is under center; where Tim Tebow once stood now stands one of the greatest to ever hold court, Peyton Manning. One lost season and four neck surgeries later, he’s probably not the same guy he’s been for the past decade, but he has intangibles you just can’t teach. On the receiving end (literally) of Manning are wide-outs Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas, capable receivers who complement each other; while Decker is more a midfield route runner, Thomas is a legitimate downfield, posting 35 receptions and an absurd 106 YPG over the final seven games, an average of 21.3 yards per catch. In the backfield RB Willis McGahee will benefit from more trips to the end zone and fewer TDs taken by Tebow. All in all, things are looking up.
2012 Expectations: Or are they? Fact of the matter is Manning is one bad hit away from the end of his career (luckily he gets rid of the ball better than anybody, being sacked only 40 times in his past 48 games). The Broncos project to have one of the league’s toughest schedules (opposing teams going a combined 139-117 last season), and outside a capable pass rush, their defense leaves a lot to be desired. Last year’s 8-8 record was enough to win a wild, wild West, but even with Manning we’re expecting regression. 6-10, 4th in the AFC West.
Kansas City Chiefs (7-9)
All things being equal, 7-9 is not a terrible record for a team that averaged just above 13 points a game. In fact, one might say it’s commendable considering the Chiefs broke off a 1-5 streak in which they were outscored 45-135 and never scored more than 10 points a game. From that perspective, 7-9 is something of an accomplishment.
Maybe we shouldn’t be so hard on the Chiefs. They played the entire 2011 season without RB Jamaal Charles, severely limiting their already one dimensional offense. 2012 should be better (it can’t really get much worse). Charles is back and he’ll be joined by Peyton Hillis, who if you’ll remember ran for 1,177 yards and 63 catches a few years ago in Cleveland under the watchful eye of offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. Daboll’s in Kansas City now too, so if he can get even half of that production out of Hillis, the Chiefs should have one of the better back combos in the league.
2012 Expectations: The Charles/Hillis tandem gives the Chiefs more options offensively, but it’s still very one dimensional. QB Matt Cassel is little more than a game manager, and no wide receiver stands out as a guy who will break 1,000 yards (Dwayne Bowe only did it last year because they had nothing else). The Chiefs will rely heavily on the top five defense to keep them in games and hope Charles and Hillis are talented enough to break through defenses who know they’re coming. 8-8, 3rd in the AFC West.
Oakland Raiders (8-8)
Some say the price paid for quarterback Carson Palmer (two premium draft picks) was too high, a king’s ransom for a 32-year-old malcontent on the downside of his career. But we’re giving him a pass; not only did Palmer have to adapt to a new playbook, he had to do it midseason (no training camp, coming in cold) and without the added benefit of an excellent short yardage pass catcher in RB Darren McFadden. Even after all that, Palmer still managed to pass for 293 yards per game, 13.8 yards per completion (second highest in the league) and 13 TDs in nine starts.
That’s not to say it’s all coming up roses; Palmer also managed to put more passes into enemy hands than any other QB who started at least half the 2011 season. But that number should come down under new offensive coordinator Greg Knapp. Gone are the days of Hue Jackson’s free-wheeling, fire-at-will offense in Oakland; Knapp will put McFadden’s excellent hands to good use in short yardage situations and will probably convert WR Denarius Moore into more of a route runner. Outside, he’s still got downfield options in Darrius Heyward-Bey and Jacoby Ford, so this is an offensive that could be explosive.
2012 Expectations: Here’s the dirty little secret no one wants to admit: Oakland might be the most underrated team in the NFL. Even at 32, Palmer is no slouch under center and we’ve yet to see him play a full year with Darren McFadden. If the latter stays healthy, he’s capable of an Arian Foster–type season, and with a trio of weapons at their disposal downfield they’ll be a nightmare for secondaries to keep up with. Seriously, guys, Oakland. 9-7, 2nd in the AFC West.
San Diego Chargers (8-8)
To say things went sideways in San Diego last season would be something of an understatement; no one could have predicted a team as offensively gifted as this one (top five in scoring in the past five years, averaging over 280 yards per game and second only to the Saints last season on third down) would implode so dramatically.
The numbers don’t really add up; QB Philip Rivers was uncharacteristically bad over his first 11 games (61 percent pass completion and a league-high 17 picks), but he straightened it out over the last five (67 percent competition and an 11-3 TD to INT ratio). The Chargers did spend most of the season dealing with injuries to RB Ryan Mathews and TE Antonio Gates, their short yardage guys and a huge part of Norv Turner’s offense, but they still managed to convert and their defense finished mid-pack so there is no real reason, save the 17 interceptions, that this team underperformed other than maybe a little bit of bad luck.
2012 Expectations: That should change in 2012. Given his track record, Rivers’ early season returns in 2011 look more like an anomaly than a trend. With Malcolm Floyd, Vincent Brown and Robert Meachem (replacing Vincent Jackson) downfield, the Chargers look to have just as explosive an air attack as they have in past years. There are injury concerns with Gates and Mathews, who they’ll be calling on a lot more as both a runner and a receiver with Mike Tolbert in Carolina, but if they can stay healthy these guys could be real contenders for more than just the West. 11-5, 1st in the AFC West.
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