Wednesday, August 6, 2014

2014 NFL Divisional Previews - AFC West

The Denver Broncos dream season ended in the most ugly fashion possible, being thrashed by 35 points in the Super Bowl. The offense couldn't do anything against the Seahawks defense, but the Broncos focused their off-season on improving on the defensive side of the ball. The Kansas City Chiefs started 9-0 under new coach Andy Reid, but then started facing teams with a pule and limped down the stretch, capping their season by blowing a 28 point second half lead to the Colts in the playoffs. The San Diego Chargers and most notably QB Philip Rivers enjoyed a career resurgence under Mike McCoy and are hopeful that they can return to their years of annually making the playoffs. The Oakland Raiders shockingly have the same coach for a third season but all Dennis Allen has proven so far is that he is good at leading them to a 4-12 record.

1. Denver Broncos

2013 Record: 13-3, AFC West Champs, AFC Champs
Head Coach: John Fox (4th season Denver, 115-91 career)
Key Additions: WR Emmanuel Sanders, C Will Montgomery, DE DeMarcus Ware, CB Aqib Talib
Key Losses: RB Knowshon Moreno, WR Eric Decker, G Zane Beadles, DE Robert Ayers, DE Shaun Phillips, OLB Wesley Woodyard, CB Champ Bailey, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, S Mike Adams

2014 Outlook: The Broncos and Peyton Manning ran roughshod over the NFL last season. Manning set a new record with 55 touchdown passes and it looked like he was well on his way to claiming his second Super Bowl. But then the Broncos dream season turned into a nightmare, as they were lambasted by the Seahawks 43-8 in Super Bowl XLVIII. The off-season saw Denver make some pretty big changes on both sides of the ball. On offense, they let Knowshon Moreno and Eric Decker walk. Montee Ball will take over as the lead back as the Broncos hope he works out some fumbling issues that plagued him his rookie season. Denver signed Emmanuel Sanders away from Pittsburgh to take Decker's place. Demaryius Thomas is Manning's favorite target and should be in line for another huge season. Wes Welker showed some signs of slowing down last season but also developed a rapport with Manning very quickly. Manning also found a new target in TE Julius Thomas, who was nearly impossible for defenders to stop with his massive size. The Broncos are pretty good at offensive line, although Manning's ability to get rid of the ball so quickly could make almost any line look good. The line did have its problems with Seattle and will be facing some tougher defensive lines this season than they did last season. Denver made some huge splashes on defense by signing veterans DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib. Ware has been injury prone recently and the Broncos are taking a bit of a risk bringing him aboard. There is no question that Ware is one of the best defensive players in football when healthy but his health has turned into a major question mark. Joining Ware on the line is DT Terrance Knighton who gained fame for being nickname "Pot Roast". The Broncos should have LB Von Miller all year this season as he isn't facing drug suspensions or injuries at this time. Talib replaces Champ Bailey at cornerback. He is definitely an upgrade over Bailey, but much like Ware there are questions about his durability. Kicker Matt Prater and punter Britton Colquitt are two of the best in football but the Broncos won't have Trindon Holliday returning kicks, as they allowed him to leave via free agency. Holliday was electrifying, that is when he could avoid fumbling. The Broncos schedule appears to be more challenging this year than last, but as long as Manning is under center, it's hard not to expect the Broncos to remain the class of the AFC. Manning is getting older and while I don't expect him to throw 55 touchdowns this year, he isn't showing any signs of slowing down. I think Ball will step in well for Moreno and I think the moves on defense will pay off for Denver and make them a more well rounded team on both sides of the ball.

Prediction: 13-3

2. Kansas City Chiefs

2013 Record: 11-5, 2nd in AFC West
Head Coach: Andy Reid (2nd season Kansas City, 151-108-1 career)
Key Additions: LILB Joe Mays
Key Losses: WR/KR Dexter McCluster, OT Branden Albert, G Geoff Schwartz, DE/DT Tyson Jackson, CB Dunta Robinson, S Quintin Demps

2014 Outlook: If you want to run with the lazy narrative then the reason that the Chiefs went from 2-14 to 11-5 last season was because of the additions of Andy Reid and Alex Smith. Those two played a part but if you looked deeper at the Chiefs season you would find that they were successful due to an easy schedule, Jamaal Charles, and an opportunistic defense. Two of those things could remain in play for 2014 but with the AFC West drawing the NFC West this season, an easy schedule will not be one of them. Alex Smith will be facing some tougher defenses and might be required to actually throw the ball further than 5 yards this year. He has pretty much the same weapons back that he had last year. Dwayne Bowe seems like a shell of his former self, and it was almost like Donnie Avery emerged as Smith's favorite target at times. The Chiefs offense will pretty much cease to exist if Jamaal Charles is hurt and misses anytime this season. Charles is an incredible talent and it was a huge blow to the Chiefs when he had to leave their playoff loss against the Colts. Charles and Smith could be in for some troubles this season as the offensive line saw some pretty major changes. Branden Albert and Geoff Schwartz are gone, so the Chiefs are hopeful the 2013 #1 pick Eric Fisher has a better season at his natural position of left tackle. The Chiefs defense was one of the best in the league during the first half of the season but along with the rest of the team they fell off a cliff in the second half of the year. Injuries were partially to blame, but tougher opposition also had something to do with it. The defense reached its nadir in the playoffs when KC blew a 38-10 second half lead against the Colts. Kansas City is strong at linebacker but the rest of the defensive areas are filled with question marks. Dontari Poe stuff things up front, but edge rushers Mike DeVito and Allen Bailey are only serviceable at best. To get any pressure on the quarterback the Chiefs count on their fearsome linebackers. Justin Houston, Joe Mays, Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali give the Chiefs one of the best linebacking groups in football. Eric Berry is fantastic at safety but the rest of the back four are major question marks. The leash might be thin for kicker Ryan Succup, who couldn't be counted on to make field goals of any sort of long distance. Dustin Colquitt is decent as a punter, and the Chiefs will miss Dexter McCluster's presence in the return game. I think the Chiefs we saw in the second half of the season is closer to the real thing than the team that started 9-0. The Chiefs have to pray they don't lose Charles at any point or Smith and the rest of the offense will be exposed badly. While I expect the Chiefs to put together another winning season, I think all the question marks mean anoter season without a playoff win for Kansas City.

Prediction: 9-7

3. San Diego Chargers

2013 Record: 9-7, 3rd place AFC West
Head Coach: Mike McCoy (2nd season San Diego, 10-8 career)
Key Additions: QB Kellen Clemens, RB Donald Brown, CB Brandon Flowers
Key Losses: QB Charlie Whitehurst, FB Le'Ron McClain

2014 Outlook: Philip Rivers became rejuvenated last season and with his increase in effectiveness the Chargers fortunes improved as well. Rivers seemed to thrive under the new leadership of coach Mike McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt. Whisenhunt left to coach the Titans, so we should find out this year whether McCoy or Whisenhunt was more responsible for Rivers improved play. Another offensive player that improved in 2013 was RB Ryan Mathews, who finally got through a season healthy. The Chargers and the world finally saw glimpses of why Mathews was a first round draft pick. The Chargers are pretty deep at running back with Mathews, Danny Woodhead and the addition of Donald Brown from the Colts. Another reason for Rivers finding renewed success was rookie WR Keenan Allen. Allen was tremendous in making plays after the catch and finding separation. Any time Rivers was in trouble he could count on Allen bailing him out and making a play. Eddie Royal also became a favored target of Rivers in the red zone. Malcom Floyd is returning from injury and Vincent Brown is slotted as the #2 receiver. Antonio Gates remains Rivers starting tight end but seems to be a shell of his former self, as age has begun to catch up to him. The Chargers are strong up front, which is especially important with Rivers inability to move much in the pocket. King Dunlap was surprisingly effective at left tackle last season, and Nick Hardwick remains one of the best centers in football. The Chargers defense showed improvement as the season went on last year but its mostly a unit of unknowns. No one on their defensive line really puts any fear into their opponents. DE Corey Liuget had 5 1/2 sacks last season, and fellow defensive end Kendall Reyes had 5, but neither are guys that an offense has to plan to stop. Playing in a 3-4, the Chargers rely on their linebackers to pressure the quarterback, but Jarrett Johnson and Dwight Freeney are getting up there in age. Manti Te'o was just average in his rookie season, so this year will be big for him as far as showing the Chargers he can make a leap. Eric Weddle is excellent at free safety, and helps carry a back four that is average at best. The Chargers added Brandon Flowers after the Chiefs gave up on him but he is currently slotted third on the depth chart at corner. Nick Novak is the latest in the line of former Redskins kickers that has found more success elsewhere. Mike Scifres is strong at punter and good at pinning opposing teams within the 20. The Chargers come into the 2014 season looking mostly the same as they did last year. I don't expect them to take a major step back but I also don't expect a huge leap out of them either. I think San Diego is a mediocre team that will just miss out on the playoffs.

Prediction: 8-8

4. Oakland Raiders

2013 Record: 4-12. last place AFC West
Head Coach: Dennis Allen (3rd season Oakland, 8-24 career)
Key Additions: SLB Khalil Mack, QB Derek Carr, QB Matt Schaub, RB Maurice Jones-Drew, WR James Jones, LT Donald Penn, RG Austin Howard, LG Keith Boothe, DE Justin Tuck, LDE LaMarr Woodley, CB Carlos Rogers, CB Tarrell Brown
Key Losses: RB Rashad Jennings, DE Lamarr Houston, CB Mike Adams, CB Tracy Porter, CB Phillip Adams

2014 Outlook: The 2013 season started promisingly enough for the Oakland Raiders. They started the year with Terrelle Pryor at quarterback and he turned heads with an impressive Week 1 performance at Indianapolis. Even while sitting at 4-6 after 10 games, they were still right in the thick of the Wild Card chase. But then they closed the season with six straight losses, giving coach Dennis Allen his second straight 4-12 campaign. Pryor turned out not to be the answer at quarterback and is now in Seattle and once again the Raiders are hoping that a veteran quarterback with his best days well past him can lead them back to the playoffs for the first time in twelve years. That veteran is Matt Schaub, who the Houston Texans couldn't get rid of fast enough. Schaub completely lost his confidence last season and went through a terrible string of throwing pick 6's in consecutive games, setting an NFL record. The Raiders went and added James Jones at wide receiver but Jones doesn't strike me as a guy that is a #1 receiver like he will have to be on Oakland. Rod Streater and Denarius Moore round out the Raiders underwhelming receiving corps, and some guy named Mychal Rivera is their starting tight end. Darren McFadden was brought back on a cheap one year deal, and the Raiders also added Maurice Jones-Drew. Jones-Drew seemed to have nothing left in the tank last season but fits the Raiders penchant for picking up former stars that are past their primes. The Raiders have some decent pieces on the offensive line including center Stefan Wisniewski and free agent pickup Keith Boothe. The Oakland defense was atrocious so they went out and added a bunch of new pieces. Keeping with the theme of picking up players past their prime, they signed Justin Tuck and LeMarr Woodley. The Raiders are expecting instant production from strongside linebacker Khalil Mack who they drafted fifth overall in the 2014 draft. Carlos Rogers and Tarrell Brown were added from San Francisco, so they could fortify things a bit, but incredibly old Charles Woodson is still in Oakland playing safety. Sebastian Janikowski is coming off one of his worst seasons as a pro and Marquette King, while having an awesome name, is a pedestrian punter. Taiwan Jones will be returning kicks and I only have heard him because for one week he was a waiver wire wonder at running back in fantasy football. The Raiders have finally let a coach hang around for more than a year or two but it doesn't appear that Dennis Allen will be able to solves the Raiders woes. If the Raiders had signed some of these players three or four years ago then you might be looking at a playoff team. Instead, I expect another 4-12 debacle to come out of Oakland this season.

Prediction: 4-12

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