I have this nagging feeling in my gut that the AFC West will be the most improved division in pro football this year, and will have a great shot to send a team to the Wildcard for the first time since 2006. I see the one team that's been seen as a "big fish in a small pond" as remaining good, while the other teams improve around it. So I wanted to offer my personal perspective as a casual-but-engaged observer, and see how others agree or don't.
After the jump, I'll lay out in brief what I think are the important elements of our discussion: where the four teams stand, how they've developed, and who they face, whether in the AFCW, the AFCS, the NFCW or the strength-of-schedule matches. Then I'll make a guess at records and standings. Feel free to blow me apart in the comments; I have thick skin.
The AFC West Teams
Denver Broncos: 32-32 in four years, with a history of jumping out to big leads and then falling apart in dramatic (occasionally historic) fashion. QB Kyle Orton is not superstar material, but he's only one step down, and is very clearly the second-best QB in the division (finally, he's no longer the most underrated QB in football). Reports of Ryan Clady's demise were greatly exaggerated. The team will miss Brandon Marshall, but how much, really? I still don't like their run game, but I think it'll be at least okay. The defense will regress from its great showing early last year (that 6-0 run was a lot of luck), but a little more stability is to be expected as last year's "underperforming" rookies become sophomores, and some of the old veterans will actually have replacements when the wheels fall off. EDIT: I prepared this before I realized that Mike Nolan is gone. Oops. This means the loss of Elvis Dumervil is actually significant. This team will perhaps regress quite a lot on defense.
Kansas City Chiefs: This team has been stinky for awhile. Expect that to change this year, even if it doesn't translate into a winning record. I never got on the Matt Cassell bandwagon, and I'm not going there now, but he's got the perfect suite of guys to complement him: receivers and (especially) RBs who can get YAC. The KC line is underrated, which doesn't mean it's good. No matter; that's a killer RB squad that will make its own action. The defense will finally start to gel, though they may still show soft spots this season. I'm not predicting it, but if they make it to 8 or 9 wins, I'm not going to be surprised.
Oakland Raiders: The Raiders look like they're ready to climb out of the cellar. I say that every year, and every year, something else goes wrong. Somehow, as much as I like the Raiders' offseason moves, I have some crazy suspicion that Campbell will get hurt and miss time. Still, I like the team's odds to get more than five wins, and I think Raider Nation's playoff wishes have gone from "silly" to "far-fetched." Hey, it's improvement. The Raiders can stop the pass, which really matters. I'm not sold on their ability to throw the ball, run the ball, or stop the run. They need to step up dramatically at the first of those, or somewhat at all of them, to contend with the Broncos and Chargers this year.
San Diego Chargers: The Chargers are still the class of the division, coming off a 13-3 record for a reason. Philip Rivers, the PR Machine, is still getting better. I'd put it at even money that Rivers gets even better, and the team just doesn't miss Vincent Jackson. Perhaps their left tackle situation is troubling, but the dramatically improved run game should help to keep Rivers clean. The Chargers defense will depend for its success on the condition of Shawne Merriman. I don't think the organization respects the impact that a healthy Merriman brings to the defense. With Lights Out playing at '07 levels, this team will be dominant on both sides of the ball. Without, it'll be pretty average, though perhaps still good enough given what I think will be a rampaging juggernaut of an offense.
Head-To-Head: I don't think the Chiefs will be able to stop Ryan Mathews. I do think they should be able to pressure Philip Rivers into some kind of action. Get ready for "Chargers Look Sluggish Vs. Chiefs" headlines, but in my opinion, that's almost a pick-em game. When the Chiefs go to San Diego, that's a different story. I can't pick Oakland to break the streak against the Chargers, and it's just a horrible act of cruelty to Denver to make them play the Chargers at home in Week 17; it's basically the same thing as replacing a home game with a flag-burning party. Still, I think the Bolts lose at least one, somewhere. Maybe two, this year. Denver will have a hard time dealing with the new KC, and will probably split again. The Raiders will be schizophrenic this year, alternately dominating and wimping out (what else is new?).
- San Diego: 4.75. This is Oakland's best chance yet to break the streak; I'm giving it a 25% chance of happening. I'm also picking the Chargers to split with one of the other two teams, because they seem to do that a lot.
- Denver: 2.75. I think the Broncos are a better team than the Raiders and Chiefs, but may still split with both. I think they have as good a shot at San Diego as anybody (except Indy). Edit: 2.25. I'm not so sure of their chances against San Diego anymore.
- KC: 2.5. The Chiefs aren't a playoff contender, but they have great spoiler-value this year. I'm giving them the same odds against San Diego as I gave Denver, but I think Oakland has a better chance against them.
- Oakland: 2. The Raiders have a hope of breaking the streak, but it's just that; a hope. The League has given them every opportunity, and they've tried their best, and they've failed, failed, failed. They are competitive with the other two teams, especially Kansas City. Edit: 2.5. I'm giving the Raiders what I took from Denver, because I think my numbers may undervalue them.
The AFC South: I don't think any AFCW team will beat the Colts this year. The Chargers are good enough, but they haven't played in Indy's new dome yet. This may be good practice for the playoffs. The Texans will also be a threat to the Bolts, though they may still go 2-2 against the AFCW. Conversely, the Chargers have the Titans' number, but I pick Tennessee to cream the rest of the division. Jacksonville isn't very good, and is even worse on the road in the west; this should help even the balance up.
- San Diego: 2.5. I have them beating the Jags and (very good) Titans, and losing to the Colts. Texans? No clue.
- Denver: 1.75. I have them beating the Jags in the opener, and I like them against the Texans, sort-of. But the two big power teams will eat their lunch.
- Oakland: 1.5. I have the Raiders favored to take out the Texans and Jaguars, and I think the Titans and Colts will mollywhop them. The difference is that the Broncos are less susceptible to a loss in Jacksonville.
- KC: 1. "Hello, Jacksonville. Welcome to our house." They can lose the rest, which is good because they probably will.
The NFC West: One thing this division will benefit from is the lack of long-distance travel. Another is sucky cross-conference opposition. The Seahawks are slowly improving, the Cardinals are re-evaluating their status, the Rams are a year away (I pick Cleveland and Detroit to improve a lot, and Buffalo and KC to improve a bit, but the Rams need another season). Only the '49ers are really dangerous, though any given Sunday and all that.
- San Diego: 3.25. The Chargers don't fall easily to bad teams, but if I'm wrong and St. Louis or Seattle has a surprise breakout season, then the Bolts are a likely early "statement" game. The '49ers are dangerous, too.
- Denver: 3. I have Denver favored in all these games, but I wouldn't be surprised if they dropped one to San Francisco or Arizona. Edit: 2.5. Without a really clever DC, I think the Broncos' defense will have problems getting to the QB. This could spell trouble against teams that have clear assets but problem O-lines, like Seattle and St. Louis. Still, one has to favor them.
- Kansas City: 2.25. I think KC will be a more effective team this year than St. Louis. I think they'll be able to fight their way to at least one more win, too. They'll be a good "any-given-Sunday" team, in that sense.
- Oakland: 2. I have the '49ers creaming them, and I have them favored over the Rams. Otherwise, pick 'em.
Strength of Schedule: This is where the real difference comes in.
- San Diego: 1.75. The Chargers are a dramatically better team than the Bengals, who will be playing for nothing by Christmas. But the Bolts will be defending a streak: every December game is Raider Week. As for Week 7, even if Tom Brady returns to 2007 form, I can't pick the Patriots and their sorry secondary to win in San Diego.
- Kansas City: 1.25. Buffalo has no heart, and an improved KC can take them. Cleveland will improve year-over-year: I think making a playoff bridesmaid out of the Browns will be the "encore" to Jake Delhomme's 2008 swan song.
- Denver: 1. Denver goes to Baltimore, which I think is one of the best teams in the NFL. But they play the Jets at home, and I think Denver may contribute to a disappointing Jets season.
- Oakland: 1. They have to play in Pittsburgh on Week 12. Ulp. Those Steelers will be desperate to catch up to Baltimore. But I do have them favored against what I think will be a decent Dolphins squad, because I think Oakland will have good home-field this year (if you don't count the Denver and KC games).
Overall Predictions: I'm not the kind of guy who predicts that everything will be the same this year as last year. With that caveat, I'm not predicting any major upsets, other than a broad general improvement. I have the Broncos and Raiders overperforming my math a little; that's just a "hunch factor." I think that all these teams have improved slightly, and that the Chiefs underperformed in W/L terms, while the Chargers overproduced a little (maybe to make up for '08). Also, the schedule will be soft-ish.
- San Diego: 1st place. My math above has them at 12.25 wins, with 9.5 conference wins. I have them at 12-4 and the top seed on head-to-head over 12-4 Tennessee. Expect a lot of hype in the lead-up to their gobsmacking of the 10-5 Broncos in Week 17. I have less confidence in this team's final record; in particular, if Merriman returns to beast form, they'll win at least 14, and Ryan Mathews will get 1500+ yards.
- Denver: 2nd place. 9.5 wins. I have them at 10-6, in the #6 seed behind the 11-5 Colts, and probably looking at a recap of an ugly loss in the regular season, be it Baltimore, Indy or Tennessee, though it could be New England instead. Denver will benefit greatly from the cluster***k between the decent teams in the AFCN and AFCE. I think Miami has a chance to compete for the Playoffs, but only if they do well against the NFCN, which would mean I have them losing to Denver on common games. Edit: Without Mike Nolan, the Broncos will have a hard time making hay out of their D. Expect them to underproduce their 8.8 wins. 7-9, 3rd place. I have Kansas City in a 3-way tie for 2nd.
- Kansas City: 3rd place. 7.0 wins by my math. That sounds about right. 7-9. I have them in more wins by math than Oakland, and I also have them with better odds to beat San Diego for the tiebreaker, so the Raiders get the benefit of the 4th-place schedule. This team could actually do pretty well picking around the middle of the draft, so this is good news all around for Chiefs fans.
- Oakland. 4th place. 6.5 wins. Will the Raiders get out of the cellar? Yes, but only to the ground floor. 7-9 will feel like a breath of fresh air. They may improve significantly next year, if they're able to attain some stability in the wake of such a season. Edit: I have Oakland for 7.0 wins, which doesn't change my predictions.
This means I have the division's overall record as 36-28 in my picks, four games over .500. What do y'all think?