NFL 2009 – AFC West preview
The AFC West battle went right down to the wire last season with the charging San Diego Chargers finally squeaking past the Denver Broncos thanks to a week 17 blitz of their divisional rival - a rare moment of West class in the conference's weakest league.
The offensively minded rivals both batted .500 through the season and it was purely down to San Diego's better divisional record that they were able to claim the #4 seed with an 8-8 record and get home advantage in the wild card round - something they certainly made count with a brilliant, and convincing, victory over Peyton Manning's previously streaking Colts.
There seems to be a few suggestions flying around that the West is on course for another year of dross but, whatever the standard, someone has to claim the play-off berth. So who will it be?
Denver Broncos - 15/2
Mike Shanahan's last act after 13 consecutive years in Denver was witnessing a sickening collapse over the last three games of the season. Sat on 8-5 they knew just one win was needed for their year to continue but, as we all know, it never came. The time was right for Shanahan to go and it's now time for former New England Patriots Offensive Co-ordinator Josh McDaniels to make a name for himself.
McDaniels' task has been made all the more difficult though with the off-season outgoings of several key players - most notably Jay Cutler to the Chicago Bears. The young quarterback's ability to make plays and go deep will be severely missed and his replacement, Kyle Orton, may end up sharing time with Chris Simm if the wins aren't coming. Keep an eye out for first round draft pick Knowshon Moreno who could make a real impact in his first year out of Georgia.
Denver's major issue last year was a porous defence that was terrible at stopping the rush and even worse at breaking up passing plays, and it could get even worse this time. Corner, Dre' Bly is another who'll be missed sorely, especially if the magnificent Champ Bailey once again struggles with fitness. Brian Dawkins is an interesting pick-up but is also nowhere near enough to remedy some terminal issues.
Prediction: 3rd - the collapse continues
Kansas City Chiefs - 7/1
There was little to smile about in Kansas last season with the Chiefs' only boast being their conference leading worst record at 2-14. A lack of an ace at quarterback is never likely to help but, even if they'd had Peyton Manning, their defence was so bad that winning became close to impossible. At least they still had arguably the best ever tight end Tony Gonzalez to marvel at - they don't even have that this time.
To be fair to GM Scott Pioli he has done a job in the off-season by bringing in some top class talent and experience into the franchise. Matt Cassel, in particular, didn't come cheaply after impressing in his temporary role as the Patriots quarterback, but he could prove to be worth every penny. He'll be especially welcomed by the fast emerging Dwayne Bowe and, if he remembers the lessons taught by Tom Brady, then the Kansas offence will be potent.
It's on the defensive side that most changes have happened though with some big names and personalities giving the Chiefs a far more impressive look. Tough as nails Mike Vrabel guarantees unrivalled experience while linebacker Monty Beisel will be delighted to return to where it all began. It's a quick fix, short-term solution but it may be enough to make an impact in the West.
Prediction: 2nd and could be looking at a winning season
Oakland Raiders - 12/1
Tom Cable is the latest to sit in Damocles' chair, leading to more talk about when he'll be chopped as Oakland's head coach than what the Raiders' play-off hopes look like. The forever rebuilding Raiders were shocking once again last season and any hopes of finally realising a winning season look to be severely misplaced this time around.
There are positives on the offence with Justin Fargas and Darren McFadden both offering genuine pace and power on the rush but, as for the rest, it isn't looking so great. JaMarcus Russell is never going to be a premier quarterback and his cause isn't helped by a complete lack of receiving talent. It's hard to see Darrius Heyward-Bey warranted using up an important first round draft pick when he'll likely add little in his rookie season.
The defence has at least been buoyed by the free agency acquisition of Greg Ellis. The former Dallas defensive end is an elite pass rusher and one of only two top talents in the unit - the other being star corner Nnamdi Asomugha. Trevor Scott will also aid the pass rush ably but the loss of Kalimba Edwards is a big negative.
Prediction: 4th - avoid like the plague
San Diego Chargers - 2/9
Little has changed in San Diego after their impressive end-of-season run was ended by the Pittsburgh Steelers - something that could prove to be an excellent move by the management. The Chargers took ages to get going last season but, once they hit their stride, they showed they were heads and shoulders above the rest in the West.
A lot of the early season struggles can be attributed to a lack of rushing options due to LaDainian Tomlinson's injury woes. Darren Sproles and Jacob Hester contributed and LT still managed 12 TDs but there was a noticeable lack of zip from what was seen in 07. This issue has been resolved though. Tomlinson is back fit, as is Antonio Gates and Phillip Rivers can look forward to posting even better stats than last year's impressive effort.
The name Shawne Merriman is the buzz word in San Diego right now and, if he returns at 100%, his impact from the outside could be immeasurable. Add in the potential of rookie linebacker Larry English and you're talking about a wealth of pass rushing options - they definitely need them. Pro-Bowl corner Antonio Cromartie will be looking for another big season as well.
Prediction: 1st - far too much talent to be struggling again