The AFC West has belonged to Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos since the day Mr. Manning packed his bags for the mile high city in 2011. Last season Denver managed to finish 12-4 during the regular season and completed a sweep of the division at 6-0, but came short of a repeat Super Bowl appearance, losing to the Colts in the divisional round. The rest of the West didn’t fare nearly as well, with the Kansas City Chiefs finishing 9-7 on the year, splitting divisional games 3-3. The San Diego Chargers matched that overall record, also going 9-7 while managing just a 2-4 record in the AFC West. The division basement was once again inhabited by the Oakland Raiders, who ended the year 3-13 with a 1-5 divisional record.
As long as Peyton Manning’s neck doesn’t evaporate, the odds will ever be in Denver’s favor. Heading into the 2015 season, the Broncos are +199 to take the AFC West, but things could get interesting this year. A new coaching staff could give Denver a slow start while they find their rhythm in new offensive and defensive schemes, but player turnover was low in the offseason. The Broncos were able to retain wideout Demaryius Thomas and may have finally found a solid starter at running back after C.J. Anderson had a strong finish to his 2014 season. Denver’s defense should remain one of the better units in the league with defensive ends DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller rushing the quarterback, but they lack talent in the secondary necessary to stop the big plays downfield.
Kansas City Chiefs
Last year, quarterback Alex Smith didn’t throw a single touchdown pass to a wide receiver. As astonishing as that seems, it’s a good statistic for the Chiefs. Running back Jamaal Charles is one of the best in the league and the offense thrives when he gets enough carries and is a big reason why Kansas City is +400 to win the division. The offense lacks quality receivers and Smith is the textbook definition of a game manager. That’s enough to put the workload squarely on Charles’ shoulders. The Chiefs defense will need to continue to play at a high level to give the low scoring offense a chance to stay in games. The defensive line is stacked with Pro Bowler Dontari Poe and free agent signing Vance Walker lined up together. The secondary, while lacking big names, has been solid and will need to be again if they plan on competing for the division with the Broncos.
San Diego Chargers
Everyone’s favorite perennial underachievers, the Chargers just can’t seem to get over that hump, which is why they’re just +497 favorites to win the AFC West. Quarterback Philip Rivers is still a better-than-average quarterback, but some offseason drama regarding his contract and a potential trade could leave him unfocused. Their no. 1 running back, Ryan Matthews, left via free agency and their starting tight end Antonio Gates recently tested positive for PEDs. The good news is that they drafted college standout and running back Melvin Gordon to take up the slack. Considering the receiving core lacks explosive players, the focus could now be squarely on the running game. San Diego has done well to build a good defensive line, resigning Corey Liuget and developing young pass rushers like Tenny Palepoi to do the dirty work.
Hopes are high after the Raiders managed to end a bad season with so many positives. Second-year quarterback Derek Carr hopes to improve upon his surprise rookie season and benefit from his first full offseason at work. This should serve to build chemistry with free agent signing Michael Crabtree and rookie Amari Cooper. Oakland picked up Trent Richardson in hopes that he can shake the draft bust label at running back as well as Roy Helu, Jr. from Washington to replace Darren McFadden who left in free agency. While the youngsters on offense continue to gel, the defense could be an eye opener this year. Second-year lineback Khalil Mack showed real promise and could have a breakout year while the secondary could see improvement with D.J. Hayden, Carlos Rogers and former DPOY Charles Woodson roaming the field. They may not be ready to compete this year, but the Raiders could be on their way to building that future.
How Will the AFC West Teams Rank for the 2015/16 Season?
It would take a lot for the Broncos to finish anywhere but first in the AFC West, but don’t expect them to be as dominant as they have been in the past. Manning has shown definite signs of aging, which could complicate things on offense. The Chiefs may not have many playmakers on the roster, but what they have in Charles along with the collective efforts of a solid defense should be enough to edge out the Chargers for second. San Diego feels like an aging team that could use some new blood. They could be just a year or two away from a total rebuild and will rightfully hold their spots as third best in the West. As for the Raiders, optimism should be high. Just not this season, as they’re likely to finish dead last in the AFC West yet again.