When Peyton Manning’s retirement left the Broncos vulnerable, the Kansas City Chiefs pounced, ending Denver’s five-year reign atop the AFC West last year.
While the Raiders’ return to relevance was the division’s big story, the Chiefs took home the crown thanks to two relatively easy wins over Oakland.
Many expect the young, up-and-coming Raiders to take another leap and surpass Kansas City, but the Chiefs still possess one of the most well-rounded rosters in the league.
However, in what could be the NFL’s most competitive division, do the Alex Smith-led Chiefs have enough ammunition to hold their rivals at bay? Here are the contenders for the AFC West title:
The Silver and Black are back, and the NFL is all the better for it.
While the pain of the looming relocation to Las Vegas will linger over the franchise for the next two or three years as it awaits the move, the Raiders are well-primed to give Oakland a fitting sendoff.
To challenge the Chiefs, however, the Raiders’ investments in their defense must pay off. Last season’s struggles can be attributed to a unit full of new faces trying to mesh, but it’s impossible to ignore the way Smith and an unimposing Chiefs offense sliced through them at will.
Another gargantuan leap in performance from Derek Carr would allow the defense some breathing room, as would a running game reinvigorated by Marshawn Lynch. However, neither of those developments is a lock.
Oakland is the obvious challenger to Kansas City, but the Raiders’ splash on offense needs to be complemented by some sturdiness on the other side of the ball, especially considering the quality of divisional defenses.
Just because the Broncos are no longer kings doesn’t mean they can’t retake the AFC West crown.
Maintaining an elite defense for anything more than a year or two is incredibly difficult, but Denver has managed it. Competing with the Chiefs means the defense can’t slip, however, not even a little – which could be easier said than done thanks to the loss of coordinator Wade Phillips and pass rusher DeMarcus Ware.
And even if the defense remains among the league’s best, it won’t matter if Denver picks the wrong man to line up under center. Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch are set to battle during training camp for the right to lead the Broncos; both would be the worst starter in the division, and they’re polar opposites in terms of style.
Siemian fits the Broncos’ defense-first mentality, but his limitations were one of the main reasons behind the team’s regression last year. Lynch, meanwhile, has shown few signs he’s ready to translate his enviable physical skill set into actual NFL-level production.
Denver rode its stellar defense all the way to a Super Bowl a year-and-a-half ago. Repeating the Herculean effort without an improved offense could be too much for Von Miller and Co. A division crown wouldn’t shock us – and neither would Denver finishing at the bottom of the West.
Los Angeles Chargers
If the Chargers resided in any other division in the AFC, they’d be a lock for double-digit wins. Instead, they have to fight their way out of the uber-competitive AFC West.
In some ways, Los Angeles was the antithesis of the Raiders last season. While Oakland won the majority of its close games in 2016, the Chargers blew fourth-quarter lead after fourth-quarter lead.
While those losses were tough, the Chargers’ performances in close games will likely slide back to the league average. And they may avoid those situations as reinforcements arrive for the long-suffering Philip Rivers in the form of the returning Keenan Allen and a revamped offensive line.
Knocking off the Chiefs is a tall task, but Rivers has some magic left in him, and Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram are arguably the top pass-rushing duo in a division stocked with edge talent.
On paper, L.A. has the talent to stand with anyone in the division, but too often the Chargers fail to fulfill their potential.
Also from this series
- Can anyone unseat the Cowboys in the NFC East?
- Can anyone unseat the Packers in the NFC North?
- Can anyone unseat the Falcons in the NFC South?
- Can anyone unseat the Seahawks in the NFC West?
- Can anyone unseat the Patriots in the AFC East?
- Can anyone unseat the Steelers in the AFC North?
Copyright © 2017 Score Media Ventures Inc. All rights reserved. Certain content reproduced under license.