AFC West Preview

By The Rex Factor

AFC West preview: One more year for Manning to rule the roost – can Chargers or Chiefs make playoffs?

With Peyton Manning entering his fourth season in Denver and nearing age-40, it would seem that this could be the “now or never” season for the Broncos to break through and win a Super Bowl. They fell short to Seattle two years back after winning the AFC, and with defensive upgrades across the board, appear poised to have another shot to represent the conference in Super Bowl 50.

Denver’s hopes will be riding on the fading right arm of No. 18, but new coach Gary Kubiak has vowed to bring some more balance to the offense and eliminate some of the burden from the passing game. Two solid runners are there to help as the backs will be in a one-cut zone scheme, something Manning hasn’t run effectively in about a decade, since his mobility has long abandoned him. The Denver O-line is totally rebuilt, so it will be interesting to see if a backup plan is in place should the Broncos falter early on offense. Still, they get the call to win a top-heavy AFC West that could see three playoff teams come January.

San Diego signed quarterback Philip Rivers to a four-year extension in the offseason. The Chargers are buying in that the 33-year old Rivers can keep them in the hunt for the elusive Super Bowl appearance. The Chargers have long been a “very good” team under Rivers, but have yet to graduate to “elite” since the 2006 team went a league-best 14-2 in the regular season (and lost to New England in the first playoff game).

San Diego drafted a running back in the first round to take some pressure off Rivers and his passing game, and the secondary has made some upgrades that should counter the expected struggles in the pass rush – if there a weakness, that’s probably it for the Chargers. Still, San Diego has a top-notch punter, a capable kicker and no real glaring weaknesses.

The first three weeks should tell us a lot about San Diego – the Chargers face 2014 playoff teams Detroit, Cincinnati and 2015 expected playoff contender Minnesota, the latter two on the road. Come through that stretch 2-1 and you can pencil in Diego as a top-10 team in the league by the end of September.

Kansas City will try to make it back to the playoffs after missing out after a 9-7 season in 2014 on the heels of a first-round loss at Indianapolis the season before. The Chiefs were the first team since 1964 to not have a wide receiver catch a touchdown pass. In today’s modern passing era, that statistic is borderline incredible. It also spoke to the only real weakness on the KC roster.

So coach Andy Reid went out and did something about it, snaring free agent Jeremy Maclin, who was drafted by the Eagles when Reid was still the coach there. Maclin has field-stretching speed and could be just what quarterback Alex Smith and running back Jamaal Charles need to get defenses to give them space to operate.

On the other side, Mike DeVito and Derrick Johnson return from season-long injuries and immediately help bolster the defense, which could be downright ferocious at times. Safety Eric Berry returns after battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma last fall and there are no real weaknesses on that side of the ball.

Oakland second-year quarterback Derek Carr had a decent rookie season for the dreadful Raiders, especially considering he had few options in the passing game. Credit the front office for nabbing standout receiver Amari Cooper from Alabama in the draft. Those two and running back Latavius Murray will have to do all they can to put up points, because the defense is still going to be porous.

The Raiders had only 22 sacks last fall. New coach Jack Del Rio has a good history of building aggressive defensive fronts so if he is given time, perhaps the Raiders can move up in the pecking order in this division in 2016 or 2017. But there are three really good football teams in front of them, on paper.

The Rex Factor AFC West predictions

1. Denver

2. San Diego

3. Kansas City

4. Oakland

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