Friday, July 31, 2015

Joe & Daphne's Preview: The AFC West

 By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe) and Daphne Parello (@DaphnePup)

Daphne and I have already broken down both the AFC East and the NFC East, so we'll move west to close out the week with a look at the AFC West.

The division is home to two quarterbacks that should again put up big numbers in Peyton Manning and Phillip Rivers, along with one of the league's better game managers in Alex Smith and, perhaps, an up-and-coming star in Oakland's Derek Carr.

The division is not as cut and dry as it has been the past few years, however, as concerns over Manning's age and health, along with a transition to new coach Gary Kubiak, have many feeling that the Broncos can be beaten.

Will there be a changing of the guard out west? Daphne and I investigate.

The Favorites

Denver Broncos

Until further notice, Peyton Manning is still an elite quarterback. Now, that notice may come this season, but until I see it, I'm going to assume one of the greatest of all time, who was playing at an absurd level until getting hurt last year, can still get it done.

Still, things will be much tougher for Denver this year.

The Broncos locked up Demaryius Thomas this off-season, and have Emmanuel Sanders coming back, but star tight end Julius Thomas is off to Jacksonville and guard Orlando Franklin will be playing for the rival Chargers. The defense will also be patching some holes, particularly a huge one up front where nose tackle Terrance Knighton is gone, and they'll count on former Raven Darian Stewart to replace the departed Rahim Moore next to T.J. Ward at safety.

Issues and questions abound, but this team is still a healthy Peyton Manning and a little luck away from the Super Bowl. Conversely, they're an injured Peyton Manning and some bad luck away from picking in the Top-10. Should be fun.

The Question Mark

Oakland Raiders

The Raiders have been a laughingstock for over a decade now, having not made the playoffs since appearing in Super Bowl XXXVII after the 2002 season. Yeah, it's been 12 empty seasons in Oakland, and the Raiders have gone a combined 57-136 in that span.

In short, things have been bleak.

But could Oakland be on the verge of a turnaround? The thought isn't quite as crazy as you think. The Raiders have a young quarterback that scouts rave about in Derek Carr, an aggressive defense built around star outside linebacker Khalil Mack, and what could be a sneaky good receiving corps built around Michael Crabtree, Rod Streeter and rookie Amari Cooper.

Are there flaws? Sure. Last year's offense lacked firepower and turned it over too much, but the additions of Crabtree, Cooper and running back Roy Helu, along with the development of Carr, should help that. The defense was mediocre yardage wise (21st in total D, 16th vs the pass), but was often hung out to dry by the turnover prone offense, leading to Oakland placing dead-last in the league in points allowed at 28.3 per game. The hope in Oakland will be that as Carr gets better, the watermark for the entire team will rise.

Is that realistic in only his second year? Maybe not, but with the recent success of young quarterbacks like Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson, it's not out of the question either.

The Theme

Up for Grabs

As I said earlier, questions about Peyton Manning's healthy could make this anyone's division. If the Broncos underachieve, look for San Diego and Kansas City to push hard for a division title. The Chiefs will once again be able to run the ball with stud back Jamaal Charles, and the addition of Jeremy Maclin means they just might throw a touchdown to a wide receiver this year.


In all seriousness, though, the Chiefs' addition of Maclin will give them some much-needed firepower, while the defense should again be a Top-10 unit led by 2014 sack leader Justin Houston, beast nose tack Dontari Poe, do-it-all backer Derrick Johnson and pass rusher Tamba Hali.

But don't sleep on the Chargers either, who missed out on the playoffs thanks to a season-ending loss to Kansas City last year. It will all depend on Phillip Rivers and how the offense  progress after taking a step back in 2014. The Chargers simply couldn't run the ball, and Rivers was under pressure far too often. With that in mind, San Diego drafted running back Melvin Gordon in the first round, hoping the former Wisconsin star can be an immediate upgrade from the departed Ryan Mathews.

Eric Weddle and the Chargers defense was better than you remember last year (9th in total D and 4th vs the pass), but they'll need to generate more of a pass rush from linebacker Melvin Gordan and defensive end Corey Liuget if they hope to again rank among the league's best.

If San Diego gets hot offensively, though, they can play with anyone, while Kansas City has shown the ability to smother opponents and run the ball down their throats. If Denver stumbles, one of these teams will be there to take the division.

Daphne's Superlatives, by Daphne Parello

Daphne's Underdog
 Kansas City Chiefs

Joe mentioned them earlier, but I think the Chiefs could be very dangerous. We know KC can run the ball, but Jeremy Maclin playing next to star tight end Travis Kelce means the Chiefs now have some legitimate options throwing it. I look for the Chiefs to be a balanced team offensively, and once again  rank as one of the best defenses in the NFL, assuming Houston doesn't disappoint after signing his monster extension.

If any team in this division is built to beat the Broncos, it's the Chiefs with their ball-control offense and outstanding pass rush/defense.

Daphne's Alpha Dog
Khalil Mack, OLB, Oakland

While Oakland will need immense improvement from Carr on offense, it seems to have it's cornerstone on defense in former first round pick Khalil Mack.

The physical outside linebacker was a beast against the run as a rookie in 2014, and has all the tools to be a phenomenal pass rusher as well. Despite only amassing four sacks during his rookie campaign, many are expecting him to make a huge jump in that category, and his ability to set the edge on first and second down should give him plenty of chances to get after the QB on third down.

Oakland's defense is still too old at some spots (Charles Woodson is entering his 18th season!), but with Mack the Raiders have a young star to build around for years to come.

In the Dog House
 Mike McCoy, Head Coach, San Diego

It's not that McCoy has done a bad job in his two year with the Chargers, he hasn't. The former Broncos offensive coordinator has led San Diego to back-to-back 9-7 seasons. One of those years it was good enough to sneak into the postseason, and one of those years it wasn't.

The problem is he hasn't moved the needle much for a Chargers team that has won between seven and nine games each of the last five years, and six of the last seven years.

These kind of results got Norv Turner (who sprinkled in a 13-3 finish in 2009) run out of town, and is far below what Marty Schottenheimer accomplished with a younger Rivers (Schottenheimer was fired after going 14-2 in 2006). So far, it doesn't seem like McCoy is capable of much more than 9-7.

2015 will be his third season, and a big jump will be expected. If McCoy can get to double-digit wins, and win a playoff game (something the franchise hasn't done since 2007), he could be in line for a big extension.

If the Chargers fall short of expectations, he could be out the door, and the franchise could be on its way to Los Angeles.


Joe: 1. Denver, 2. Kansas City, 3. San Diego, 4. Oakland
Daphne: 1. Kansas City, 2. Denver (Wild Card), 3. San Diego, 4. Oakland

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