Friday, August 29, 2014

Long And Suite Preview: The AFC West

Can the Broncos make it back to the Super Bowl?
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

The AFC West was the only division to send three teams to the playoffs this past season. That might have more to say about the overall quality of the conference, rather than the overall quality of the division, but even adjusted for strength of schedule, the AFC West was the third-best division in football last year. Here are all eight division, ranked by average SRS:

NFC West: 7.92
NFC South: 3.12
AFC West: 3.05
AFC East: -1.05
AFC North: -1.98
NFC East: -3.38
NFC North: -3.85
AFC South: -3.88

Most of the league's good teams were clustered in those three divisions at the top. This year, with the NFC North expected to improve dramatically, and the AFC North and AFC South expected to improve marginally, it's unlikely that there will be such a large disparity between the best division and the worst division. That means it's unlikely that the AFC West will get three teams back to the playoffs.

The Patriots are almost certain to win the AFC East, and the Broncos are almost certain to win the AFC West. The Colts are probably safe in the AFC South, if not as the division winner, then as a wild card. When you throw in the AFC North winner, whoever that may be, you end up with Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati (two of those three), Houston, Kansas City, San Diego, and possibly even Miami or another surprise team (New York? Tennessee?) fighting for two spots. Both of them going to the West again seems far-fetched.

It's interesting to see that the general consensus seems to be that San Diego will be better than Kansas City this year. Kansas City won two more games that San Diego did (against an albeit easier schedule). Both teams made the playoffs. San Diego won a playoff game, Kansas City didn't, but that's reductive and lacks context. Kansas City led Indianapolis 38-10 early in the second half, (literally) a 99.9 percent win probability. But Jamaal Charles had left the game with an injury, and he was soon followed by Brandon Flowers, Justin Houston, and Tamba Hali. The four guys on the roster that would have made the Chiefs perfectly equipped to salt away a lead (a running game, a corner, and pass rushers) were all of a sudden removed from the equation, and it doesn't seem so crazy that the Colts mounted a comeback.

And, well, the Raiders are still the Raiders.

Here's how the division breaks down - separated into two groups. Teams better than you think they are, and teams not as good as you think they are:

(Actually, all four teams in this division qualify for being better than you think they are. That doesn't mean that they'll all be better than they were last year, just that they're better than their current perception.)

These Teams Are Better Than You Think They Are

Denver Broncos

2013 Outcome: 13-3, 1st in AFC West, Lost Super Bowl
Odds To Win Division: -450
Over/Under Wins: 11.5

It's tough to say that a team that won 13 games, laid waste to their entire conference, and set NFL records in a multitude of offensive categories is better than you think they are, but the Broncos genuinely are.

Our last memories of the 2013 Broncos are them getting blown out by Seattle in the Super Bowl. That led to a bit of a false perception about their season. The 2013 Broncos were the best offense ever. Ever. Better than the 2007 Patriots. Better than the Greatest Show on Turf Rams. Just because they lost convincingly in the Super Bowl does not mean it invalidates everything that came before it. And everything that came before it was spectacular.

They lost two semi-key pieces on offense. Eric Decker and Knowshon Moreno were probably the most two underrated players at their respective positions in the entire league last year. Decker, by any calculation, was a top-12 receiver in the league last year. Football Outsiders ranked him 4th in DYAR, and he was 11th in receptions, 12th in yards, and 9th in touchdowns. Moreno was 12th in rushing yards, fourth in rushing touchdowns, and was 6th among all running backs in receptions. Football Outsiders ranked him 6th-most efficient runner, and the third-most efficient receiving back.

But the incredible thing is - they probably won't miss them that much. They added Emmanuel Sanders to fill the Eric Decker role. Decker is better, but Sanders could come much closer to matching his production than anyone seems to think. He's upped his catches and yards in each of the last two seasons, and he has the type of skill set that Peyton Manning can make a Pro Bowl receiver out of. Montee Ball will take over as the starting running back, and he was almost just as good on a per-play basis as Moreno was (as a rusher, at least - he couldn't quite match Moreno's receiving skill).

Defensively, the Broncos could have everything figured out. After Von Miller played just nine games last season, he's back healthy, and they added DeMarcus Ware for good measure. Champ Bailey was banged up and largely ineffective for most of last season, so they went out and got Aqib Talib, who, when healthy, was a top-five cornerback in football (and that's being conservative). They also signed T.J. Ward, formerly of the Browns, who should present a nice upgrade over Duke Ihenacho, who struggled in coverage.

The Broncos will be slightly worse on offense - they almost have to be, considering how historically great their offense was last year - there's bound to be some regression. But they'll be better on defense, perhaps substantially so. There's a reason they're the favorite to win the AFC again.


Kansas City Chiefs

2013 Outcome: 11-5, 2nd in AFC West, Lost in Wild Card Round
Odds To Win Division: +700
Over/Under Wins: 8

As mentioned above, the Chiefs came as close as you can to winning a playoff game without actually winning it. It seems dumb, but a wild card team upsetting a division champion on the road and advancing to the next round does a lot to alter the perception of the team going into the next season - just ask the Saints.

The Chiefs will likely regress. They lost three starters off an offensive line that was the strength of the team last year. They lost all-purpose threat Dexter McCluster. And Alex Smith has now had three consecutive low-turnover, high efficiency seasons - one has to assume his deal with the devil runs out at some point. But they won't be a bad team. Currently in Vegas, they have the same odds as the Dolphins to make the playoffs, only slightly better than the Titans and Jets, worse than the Texans, and significantly worse than the Ravens. Their odds to have the worst record in the league are 40-1, while a team like Detroit is 66-1. Those numbers seem all out of whack. The Chiefs should be much better than the Dolphins, Titans, and Jets, slightly better than the Texans (although the Texans by virtue of being in the AFC South have an easier path to the playoffs), and just as good as the Ravens.

Yes, there are ways in which they regressed, but there are areas they've improved in, as well. Justin Houston missed five games down the stretch last year, he'll be back healthy. Tyson Jackson was still a prominent part of their defense, they finally cut ties with him this summer. McCluster is gone, but they drafted De'Anthony Thomas out of Oregon, who gives them all of the same things. They rounded out their pass rush by selecting Dee Ford out of Auburn in the first round of the draft.

Will they start the season 9-0 like they did last year? No. Considering they have Denver, New England, and San Francisco in their first five games, they'll be lucky to be .500 at the halfway point of the season. But from Week 8 on, their schedule turns around - St. Louis, the Jets, Buffalo, Seattle, Oakland, Denver, Arizona, Oakland again, Pittsburgh, and San Diego. They could very easily go 7-3 or even 8-2 in that stretch.

Granted, the could very easily also go 4-6. But the point is, many pundits are suggesting Kansas City as the wild regression team, one that could fall all the way down to 5-11 or 4-12. That just doesn't seem likely. they won't be as good as they were last year, but they'll be close.


San Diego Chargers

2013 Outcome: 9-7, 3rd in AFC West, Lost in Divisional Round
Odds To Win Division: +500
Over/Under Wins: 8

Somehow, San Diego and Kansas City have the same exact over/under for wins (eight), but San Diego's odds to win the division are almost 30 percent better. As mentioned above, winning a playoff game seems to alter the perception of a team. The Chargers are in that fortunate spot of being a playoff team from a year ago that only has to play the third-place schedule, which means they get Jacksonville (yeah!) and Baltimore (meh) as their extra games this year. Jacksonville should be an easy win for them, Baltimore remains to be seen. Luckily for San Diego, the two hardest games on their out-of-division schedule (Seattle and New England) both come at home.

The Chargers were very quietly the second-best offense in football last season. Their raw numbers don't jump off the page - 12th in points, 5th in yards, 4th in passing yards, 13th in rushing yards - but when you dig into more contextual stats, the results are pretty surprising.

They finished first in the league in average time per drive, average plays per drive, and average yards per drive. They were second in points per drive (behind Denver), and second in the percentage of drives that ended in a score (also behind Denver). They were second in net yards per dropback (which accounts for sacks), they were best in the league at converting third downs, and they punted fewer times than anyone else in the league. Unlike the Broncos, Saints, Packers (with Rodgers), and Eagles, they didn't have an explosive offense that would score points quickly. They had a hyper-efficient offense that stayed on the field and made sure to come away with points. That's how they won their Week 15 matchup against Denver, which they wouldn't have made the playoffs without - they held the ball for almost 39 minutes of clock time, including almost the entire second quarter.

And everyone from last year is back. Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead are still in the backfield, now joined by Donald Brown. Keenan Allen, Vincent Brown, and Eddie Royal are back, and Malcolm Floyd is healthy again. The timeless Antonio Gates returns, as does Ladarius Green, a potential future star at tight end. Every offensive player who started multiple games for San Diego last year is back, and continuity is never a bad thing.

The hiccup for the Chargers last year was on defense. They were bad. 29th in passing yards allowed, 31st in yards per attempt allowed. They were 12th in rushing yards allowed, but that's only because teams weren't running on them because it was so much easier to pass. That's how you end up 12th in yards allowed despite the 3rd-fewest attempts (which works out to be 27th in yards per carry allowed). They addressed that a bit in the draft, taking corner Jason Verrett out of TCU in the first round, and linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu from Georgia Tech in the second. But the unit as a whole still has holes. They couldn't generate any pass rush, and Dwight Freeney is losing his battle with father time (just 5.5 sacks in 18 games over the last two seasons).

The Charges will probably end up around where they did last year. If Kansas City regresses, they might be able to pick up a win or two. The offense will continue to grow and improve together, which will keep them as playoff contenders, although that's probably about it - don't expect to see them in Glendale in February.


Oakland Raiders

2013 Outcome: 4-12, 4th in AFC West, Missed Playoffs
Odds To Win Division: +2500
Over/Under Wins: 5

I only say they'll be better because I don't think anybody is expecting much from the Raiders in 2014. That being said, it's going to be difficult to improve on last season's 4-12 record with every other team in the division coming off playoff berths, and road games at New England and Seattle, plus a Bay Area clash with San Francisco at home all coming in the non-division schedule.

Basically, the schedule is brutal, and Oakland is in the midst of another mini-rebuilding job, their seventh or so in the last 12 years.

Of their nine starters on both lines, six will be in their first year with the team (3 OL, 3 DL). Some of those guys could provide immediate upgrades, assuming they're healthy and not as over-the-hill as their previous teams thought. New defensive ends Justin Tuck and Lamarr Woodley may not be building pieces for the future, but each has shown an ability to rush the passer, and both should be out to prove something since their respective former franchises decided to part ways with them after they were integral parts of championship defenses.

First round pick Khalil Mack should provide another pass rushing punch from his outside linebacker position, and the additions of Antonio Smith at DT and Carlos Rodgers at CB should at the very least make Oakland more experienced on that side of the ball.

On offense it looks like Oakland is content to allow Matt Schaub to keep gettin' dem checks and start over rookie Derek Carr, despite the fact that he has struggled with elbow tendinitis and not thrown a ball much farther than 10 yards this preseason.

That will probably kill their offensive efficiency, but the Raiders do have some options around Schaub. New receiver James Jones is a reliable option next to returnees Rod Streeter and Denarius Moore. The backfield's success has always hinged on Darren McFadden staying healthy (and he never has), so Oakland added veteran Maurice Jones-Drew to the fold for depth, and to start when McFadden inevitably suffers from a nagging hamstring injury from weeks 3-14.

Overall, the Raiders have some potential, though it may ultimately be for not if Schaub is the same guy he was in Houston last year. Just average quarterback play could send this supporting cast to 6-8 wins, but with a brutal schedule and either the carcass of Matt Schuab or a rookie under center, it looks like another last-place finish is in the cards.

Still, if the new pieces come together, the Raiders could be a very tough out, particularly on the road where The Black Hole and Pacific Time give them a tremendous advantage.


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