Just because all four AFC West teams finished at or just below .500 last season doesn’t mean the division lacked variety. It featured the Chargers’ outstanding passing attack and the Broncos’ retro-chic running game, a Chiefs team whose defense couldn’t compensate for crippling offensive injuries and a Raiders team whose offense couldn’t keep pace in 38-24 and 38-35 losses. Off the field, the front-office intrigue in Oakland was a sharp contrast with the death-do-us-part constancy in San Diego. Somehow, all roads led to an average record.
This year, expect more of the same, only different. Peyton Manning brings Super Bowl credibility to the Broncos, but even he cannot make a team great by himself. The Chiefs are healthier on offense and have more coaching stability. The Chargers met the enemy long ago, and it is them. The war of secession is over in Oakland, and the team has enough talent to be feisty. One of these teams will break the .500 logjam and win nine games. Problem is, it could be any of them.
Kansas City Chiefs
Tweet-sized Preview: Better physical, mental health allows the Chiefs to upstage Peyton Manning.
Biggest Change from 2011: With Romeo Crennel as head coach, the Chiefs will no longer ride Todd Haley’s Bipolar Express. Players are now allowed to express opinions and have emotions without fear of consequences. Crennel’s staff looks so much like his staff from the 2005-08 Browns that they should all wear orange sweatshirts. Matt Cassel, Eric Berry and Jamaal Charles return after missing large chunks of last season. Free agency brought drive-blocking right tackle Eric Winston and backup quarterback Brady Quinn, another charter member of Romeo’s Browns.
Overblown Story: The Bowe Show. Dwayne Bowe, who held out for most of camp after getting franchise-tagged, made Bowe-spotting a spectator sport in greater Kansas City, with fans and reporters alike trying to determine if he was in town, when, and why. Now Bowe is back, and the Chiefs are suddenly loaded at receiver, with Steve Breaston, sophomore Jonathan Baldwin and converted running back Dexter McCluster vying for roles. Add Charles and a pair of quality tight ends, and the Chiefs may have the best skill position talent in the division.
Undersold Story: Cornerback Brandon Flowers suffered a heel injury early in camp and has not been seen on the practice field since. Flowers made up half of the Brandon & Brandon cornerback tandem that kept the team competitive when the offense went kablooey last year, but Brandon Carr now plays for the Cowboys. Flowers and Berry are supposed to make the secondary one of the Chiefs’ strengths, but there is not much depth behind them.
Telling Stat: The Chiefs’ defense played well for most of last season, but it was stuck defending a short field. The average opponent’s drive started on the 31.3-yard line, the best starting field position (for opponents) in the NFL. If Brian Daboll’s offense produces a few more first downs, Crennel’s defense will look much better.
Breakout Player: Tony Moeaki was developing into a very good vertical threat before he got hurt last season. In 2010, he threw 31 passes that traveled 10 or more yards downfield. Moeaki won’t produce Jimmy Graham numbers, but he should score six or seven touchdowns in a tight end-friendly offense.
Bottom Line: Crennel’s even-keeled approach will eliminate the mood swings, and the 48-3 blowouts that went with them last year. There are few signs of greatness in Kansas City, but adequacy goes a long way in the AFC West. PREDICTION: 9-7.
Tweet-sized Preview: At least the meeting to decide whose picture went on the cover of the media guide was brief.
Biggest Change from 2011: No team in NFL history has undergone the strategic whiplash the Broncos face as they distance themselves from the Tim Tebow-led leather-helmet attack and try to build around Peyton Manning’s rhythmic passing. The Broncos also added some aging former Pro Bowlers on defense (Tracy Porter, Keith Brooking) while getting rid of another (Brian Dawkins).
Overblown Story: Manning is a big, big deal; his story only became “overblown” when television networks began broadcasting his every training camp scratch and burp. The prediction that Tebowmaniacs will stage some kind of grassroots protest if Manning doesn’t deliver does not give the intelligence of the organization or the fans much credit, though a televangelist or two may speak up.
Undersold Story: Are the Broncos saddling up for a Super Bowl run or rebuilding? Manning, Porter, Brooking and Champ Bailey suggest “saddling up.” The decision to trade out of the first round of the draft and get younger on the defensive line and at safety, however, suggest a stealth rebuild. In the AFC West, where a 10-6 record sticks out like the Mount Kilimanjaro, it’s possible to have it both ways. But for a team that spent a small fortune to lease a Hall-of-Fame quarterback, the Broncos didn’t show a lot of “all in” urgency with their other roster moves.
Telling Stat: Peyton Manning has only been sacked on 3.1 percent of his career pass attempts, the lowest rate of any quarterback to start more than 50 NFL games. No quarterback does more to make his offensive lines look good than Manning. At the same time, the Broncos’ line must do its part; even a single sack could have devastating consequences.
Breakout Player: Receiver Eric Decker was off to a fine start, with 20 receptions and four touchdowns in the Broncos' first four games, before Tebow Time limited wide receiver opportunities to one or two weather balloons per game. Decker can be very effective on short-timing routes, making him a top contender to be the guy Manning throws to a dozen times per game.
Bottom Line: Last season was so strange that it is hard to tell what the Broncos really have. As long as they have a healthy Peyton Manning, however, it’s hard to predict a sub-.500 finish. PREDICTION: 8-8.
San Diego Chargers
Tweet-sized Preview: Norv Turner and A.J. Smith try to forestall the end of an era that wasn’t all that great in the first place.
Biggest Change from 2011: Receiver Vincent Jackson and tackle Marcus McNeill, veterans who engaged in long contract squabbles against Smith (which is like arguing with a poison dart frog) are gone. Robert Meachem, Eddie Royal and Roscoe Parrish give the Chargers a three-for-one replacement package for Jackson, with incumbent Jared Gaither replacing McNeill. John Pagano replaces Greg Manusky as defensive coordinator, though the schematic change will be minimal. Turner has more lives than a litter of kittens, but owner Dean Spanos’ comments at the end of last season indicate that, despite appearances, there is no such thing as tenured faculty in San Diego.
Overblown Story: Philip Rivers’ 20 interceptions last season prompted rumors that he was hiding an injury (he wasn’t) or that he has lost velocity on his deep passes (maybe a bit). Rivers threw 12 touchdown passes and just three interceptions in his last six games. His high interceptions totals were caused by good defense, bad blocking, some bad throws and a little bad luck, not a sudden change in his skill set. He will rebound this season.
Undersold Story: If the offensive line play doesn’t improve, it won’t matter if the young Dan Fouts is playing quarterback. Right tackle Jeromey Clary blew seven blocks last season that led to sacks or penalties. Gaither washed out of Baltimore and Kansas City because of nagging injuries and inconsistency before playing well down the stretch last season. Guard Tyronne Green is a mistake-prone mauler. There is no depth. Rivers has a million-dollar arm but dollar-store legs; this patchwork group has to somehow keep his pocket clean.
Telling Stat: The Chargers had the worst third-down defense in the NFL, allowing a 49.2 percent conversion rate and a 66.4 percent pass completion rate on third downs. The completion rate is more remarkable when you consider some of the opponents the Chargers faced: Tebow and Blaine Gabbert aren’t known for their ability to fire lasers into tight windows on third-and-10. Pagano’s first assignment is to generate more pass pressure; rookie Melvin Ingram should give opponents more to worry about than just Antwan Barnes and Shaun Phillips.
Breakout Player: Curtis Brinkley, running back. Brinkley will be part of a committee backfield until Ryan Mathews returns from a neck injury, and his quickness and versatility could land him a role when Mathews returns. Brinkley is a special teams ace and a true survivor -- he was shot in a mistaken-identity situation three years ago and plays with a bullet lodged near his heart -- who can provide some of the production the Chargers lost when Darren Sproles left town.
Bottom Line: The signature Chargers season consists of one or two winning streaks, one or two losing streaks, a stream of angry quotes from veterans during the aforementioned losing streaks, a late playoff surge, a disappointing performance with everything on the line in late December or early January, and a season-ending announcement that Turner will return next year. This will be a signature Chargers season, except for that last item. PREDICTION: 7-9.
Tweet-sized Preview: The daytime soap opera is canceled, and we can finally take the quotation marks off the word “organization.”
Biggest Change from 2011: Reggie McKenzie is a general manager with personnel authority, a radical new job description for the Raiders. New head coach Dennis Allen, whose specialty is a multiple-front defense, replaces Hue Jackson, whose specialty was advancing the career of Hue Jackson. New owner Mark Davis knows he lacks his father’s football acumen and plans to keep his hands off football operations. Most of the team’s free-agent moves reflected McKenzie’s need to sift through a roster cluttered with leftovers from the last few regime shifts.
Overblown Story: Some speculated that assistant offensive line coach Steve Wisniewski’s sudden resignation before the start of camp was a sign of yet another power struggle on the Raiders’ coaching staff. But Wisniewski wanted to pursue interests beyond football, and planned his departure for weeks; the late-July formal announcement was only “sprung” on reporters and fans. Wisniewski may still have an informal role with the team, above and beyond being the uncle of the starting center. Coaches quietly retiring to family life without a whiff of scandal? These really are the new Raiders.
Undersold Story: The adjustment to new offensive and defensive schemes is going to take time. Carson Palmer, a drop-back passer for his whole career, spent camp getting used to Greg Knapp’s rollout-heavy offense. Allen has not installed many 3-4 looks because the Raiders don’t have the personnel to suit the scheme. The Raiders are laying a foundation for the future, but that means they may still be a hard-hat zone at the start of the season.
Telling Stat: The Raiders set the single-season penalty record last year with 163 fouls -- 181, if you count the ones that were declined or offsetting. The penalty tally includes 31 holds and 19 false starts. Those are the kinds of numbers that will make an assistant offensive line coach retire to private life.
Breakout Player: Brandon Myers, tight end. Myers had an excellent camp before missing the first two preseason games with a shoulder injury. He is healthy again, and a perfect fit in an offensive scheme that calls for dependable blocking tight ends who can also catch play-action passes in the middle of the field.
Bottom Line: McKenzie must overhaul a roster filled with late-era Al Davis projects and impetuous Hue Jackson acquisitions, and he barely had any draft picks to work with this year. He is doing the right thing by ignoring last year’s illusory 8-8 record and taking the long-range approach, but doing the right thing often looks ugly in the short term. PREDICTION: 7-9.
All stats provided by Football Outsiders.