This article is part of The Intermission’s 2018 NFL Preview. Click the link to visit the centralized page that’s home to all related NFL Preview content.
Very recently, the AFC West was considered the toughest division in football. With the majority of teams now facing some probable regression, the “wild West” is no longer as wild. The Chiefs overachieved, as they usually do, finishing 10-6 to win the division, only to flame out (at HOME) in the first round of the playoffs. The Chargers finished at 9-7, but missed the playoffs when the Bills got all of the gifts from the football Gods. The Raiders and Broncos went backwards, winning only six and five games, respectively. In 2018, the Chargers are in position to ride the hype express all the way to the top of the division, while the Chiefs and Raiders could be left to battle it out for second place. The Broncos, despite bringing in a new quarterback, are a little too unbalanced to be good.
1. Los Angeles Chargers
2017 record: 9-7
2018 Projection: 11-5
The Chargers will be one of the best teams in the league this season. They have stars and depth on both sides of the ball. The offense, which attracts most of the attention, should be dynamic once again. Melvin Gordon is a workhorse, Keenan Allen is healthy (and coming off an excellent season), Mike Williams is turning all kinds of heads in preseason and though I’ve expressed my distaste for Philip Rivers in the past, he continues to be a near-automatic 4,300 yards and 30ish touchdowns every single season (ironic, as this is close to the number of children he has fathered). If he keeps his turnovers down in ’18, the output should continue and the Chargers will be one hell of a unit to slow down. Defensively, the Chargers are criminally underrated. The pass rush featuring Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram on the ends could cause fatalities on the way to producing the most sacks in the league as a tandem. The secondary has two star playmakers in Casey Heyward and Jason Verrett. The guys in the middle are solid. After taking the 2017 season to settle in Los Angeles, the Chargers have reached “dangerous” status in a progressively weak AFC West. The City of Angels now has the Chargers and the Rams with an opportunity to put together an all-LA Super Bowl.
Best case scenario: The offense and defense both finish Top 5 in the entire league and the Chargers roll through the regular season, taking advantage of a weaker division in seasons past, claiming the division and a playoff spot. With the AFC door wide open, the Chargers make a run to the Super Bowl.
Worst case scenario: The offense sputters as Rivers begins to decline and the interceptions (he did lead the league on two separate occasions) get out of control. The defense is underrated on paper, but becomes overrated on the field. The Chargers can’t make the expected leap and one of the other AFC West teams advances ahead.
Bottom line: I think the Chargers are the cream of this division, with the most talent on both sides of the ball. I expect the Chiefs to slightly regress, which opens the door for a division title and subsequent playoff appearance. After that, I consider a run through the AFC to the Super Bowl a more “probable” scenario than “questionable,” if you feel me.
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2. Kansas City Chiefs
2017 record: 10-6
2018 Projection: 9-7
For the 2,149th straight season, I have the Kansas City Chiefs somewhere between 7-9 and 9-7. Like most years, in ’17, they made me look bad en route to finishing with a 10-6 record and winning the division. For consistency sake, I’ll say that this will be the season they regress, albeit not by much. They traded Alex Smith in the offseason, in favor of second year man Patrick Mahomes, who’ll have some heavy pressure on him right away. But he certainly has weapons. Kareem Hunt took the league by storm last season to lead the NFL in rushing, Tyreek Hill is arguably the most dangerous receiver/returner combination guy in the league and Travis Kelce is the model of consistency (and probably the best all-around tight end in the game the past two seasons). While the team didn’t have a first round pick in the draft, they did add Sammy Watkins, hoping he can revive any star potential that might be left in the tank. Outside of Justin Houston, Eric Berry and Chris Jones, the defense is nothing spectacular (Pro Football Focus projected the Chiefs pass rush at 26th overall heading into the season).
Best case scenario: The Chiefs do things slightly differently with Mahomes at the helm instead of Smith, but the offense still thrives and they eek out a couple of tough road games and repeat as AFC West champions. The defense develops some depth alongside it’s stars and plays above expectations. This time, they don’t blow a home game to the Titans in the first playoff round.
Worst case scenario: Mahomes isn’t ready yet and his style of play proves to be more reckless and turnover-prone than that of the “game manager” Smith (who was practically an MVP candidate for the first half of the ’17 season). Hunt hits a sophomore slump and Sammy Watkins proves to be an average player. The defense shows it’s true colors and teams outscore them most weeks. The playoffs are missed.
Bottom line: I’d like to think the Chiefs will be as good as they were last season, but I just couldn’t find more than 9 wins in their schedule. They have a ton of tough road games (starting with games at New England and Pittsburgh to start the season). They could prove me wrong (again) and challenge for the division or a wild card spot. Nothing will surprise me with this team.
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3. Oakland Raiders
2017 record: 6-10
2018 Projection: 5-11
I’m not sure what in the hell the Oakland Raiders are going to be in 2018. Offensively, Derek Carr and Amari Cooper should be a solid tandem again and Marshawn Lynch should have a little gas left in the tank. But the team added — we’ll call them “interesting” pieces — in the offseason. Jordy Nelson (and a sizable injury history) comes over after being released from Green Bay, Martavis Bryant joins a better situation than he felt in Pittsburgh and should Lynch not produce, the team inked Doug Martin, surely to be appeased by leaving Tampa Bay. The collection has promise, on paper. Defensively, Khalil Mack is an absolutely superstar, but he has minimal support around him AND is in the midst of what’s looking to be a vicious hold out. The team has to be concerned with all the distractions that come with a superstar holdout and the accompanying trade buzz. If he gets dealt, this team could downward spiral into giving up 30+ points a game.
Best case scenario: The added weapons prove capable and Carr reverts back to his 2016 form, keeping the offense relevant and the Raiders in football games. Mack happily returns to ignite the defense under Gruden’s close watch and they perform at least formidable. With that, they challenge the Chargers and Chiefs for division honors and a playoff berth.
Worst case scenario: Mack holds out until he’s traded, while Nelson, Lynch and Martin show their age and can’t contribute to improve the team’s 18.8 points per game (23rd) from last season. The defense gets lit up, the offense can’t light anyone up and the team finishes 6-10 (or worse).
Bottom line: Again, the Raiders are a giant puzzle to me, but I’m significantly more pessimistic of their outcome than optimistic. Even with Gruden in place, 5-11 might be a generous projection. This certainly doesn’t have the look (especially without their best player on the field) of a playoff team.
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4. Denver Broncos
2017 record: 5-11
2018 Projection: 5-11
At 5-11, Vance Joseph’s rookie coaching season didn’t go according to plan. After a disaster log jam at quarterback, John Elway decided to pay Case Keenum, who swiftly led the Vikings to a 13-3 record and the NFC Championship game last season. And why not? It’s not like Broncos fans believe in Paxton Lynch anymore. The offense didn’t see any major changes in the offseason other than QB, though rookie running back Royce Freeman is garnering some attention in fantasy drafts and could be forcing an interesting split with Devontae Booker. The Broncos will still feature a (borderline) elite defense with Von Miller and Chris Harris Jr. as the anchors. They did add a dynamic edge defender in Bradley Chubb with the #5 overall pick in the draft, who should make an impact immediately. Unfortunately for Denver, the 5-11 projection isn’t based solely on this team being quite that awful, but more so that there are just more teams around them that are better.
Best case scenario: Keenum is a hit with Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, along with the very young running back tandem of Freeman and Booker (sounds like a cop show premiering this Fall on ABC). The defense performs as expected and the Broncos become a surprise team in the AFC (channeling the days of Tebow and pulling some surprise victories out of their asses).
Worst case scenario: Last season, basically.
Bottom line: Unless the prove otherwise, the Broncos are a one-dimensional team, in my opinion. Good enough defensively to hang with just about anyone, but won’t be able to score enough points to stay in games or come from behind. Keenum certainly gives them a “better” change to do so, but I’m not betting on it. Though, I won’t be totally shocked if they challenge the Raiders to stay out of the cold AFC West basement.