Football Outsiders recently revealed their AFC projections on ESPN Insider, and the AFC West looks as competitive as ever. More interestingly, perhaps, the Los Angeles Chargers have been projected to crawl out of the cellar in the division. Let’s examine how the early numbers see the AFC West breaking down:
1. Oakland Raiders: 9-7 (9.0 mean wins; SOS: 15)
After a solid 2016 season, the Raiders are predictably favored to make consecutive playoff appearances for the first time since the early 2000s. With Derek Carr, Khalil Mack, Amari Cooper, Bruce Irvin and Michael Crabtree along with one of football’s top offensive lines, Oakland looks like a playoff team on paper.
Best case for Oakland: The Raiders’ offseason additions (Jared Cook, Cordarrelle Patterson and the incoming rookie class, specifically) yield immediate dividends for Carr, propelling the Raiders to a second consecutive playoff appearance behind the quarterback many tabbed as an MVP candidate last season. Now under offensive coordinator Todd Downing, Carr and the Raiders wins a couple of playoff games, but the team’s deficiencies on defense eventually lead to a playoff exit in the AFC Championship.
Worst case for Oakland: Oakland goes all-in on Marshawn Lynch (rather than focusing on the team’s offensive strengths in the passing game) and the plan fails miserably. The Raiders’ defense doesn’t hold up, and Oakland returns to the AFC West cellar.
2. Kansas City Chiefs: 8-8 (8.1 mean wins; SOS: 4)
The Chiefs’ going 8-8 might actually be the most surprising of the four predictions on this list. Kansas City has made the playoffs in three of the past four seasons, so going 8-8 would all but end that streak of success.
Best case for Kansas City: Alex Smith puts together a 2012 49ers-caliber season before eventually being replaced by [insert favorite rookie quarterback of your choosing] after suffering a concussion in Week 11. Said backup quarterback, like Colin Kaepernick, did in Smith’s San Francisco tenure, leads the Chiefs to the Super Bowl, where they lose to the next Joe Flacco (in this case, I’m thinking it’s going to be the Vikings and Sam Bradford).
Extra bonus: Smith then goes on to Denver, wasting away what’s left of the Broncos’ current title window with three more playoff appearances, none of which survive past the divisional round.
Worst case for Kansas City: Smith remains the starter in Kansas City, propelling the Chiefs to another playoff run, which this year makes it all the way to the AFC Conference Championship. While the Chiefs still lose, management sees the year as a win, and Smith is rewarded with an incredibly early contract extension. (The Chiefs win here in that they make the playoffs again, but they lose because Smith remains the starter.)
3. Los Angeles Chargers: 8-8 (7.9 mean wins; SOS: 14)
Another surprise here, as the Chargers are projected to finish ahead of the Broncos in the upcoming season. On paper, Los Angeles looks like a great team, and to date, the coaching change has been somewhat encouraging. Will the Chargers finally return to competency in 2017, or will things continue to go south?
Best case for Los Angeles: The roster stays healthy. If this were to happen, I’m honestly not sure where the Chargers’ ceiling lies. Keenan Allen, Jason Verrett, and Melvin Gordon, among others, play all 16 games of the 2017 season, propelling the Chargers to a playoff berth in their inaugural Los Angeles season. StubHub Center hosts one of the least-attended but most electric playoff games since the turning of the millennium, as the Chargers knock off the division rival Raiders. Los Angeles then goes on to defeat the Steelers and Patriots before facing sensational sophomore quarterback Jared Goff and the Rams in Super Bowl 52. Backed by LA favorite Philip Rivers, the Chargers defeat the Rams, capturing not only the hearts of Los Angeles fans but the NFL in general, as well. In tribute to San Diego, the Chargers rename themselves the SoCal Chargers and agree to split time (in some form which fans are able to come to terms with — I’m not going to work out the details here) between LA and America’s Finest City.
Worst case for Los Angeles: Anthony Lynn, Gus Bradley, and company do their best, but their best is only so much, as injuries continue to doom the Chargers on a yearly basis. The Chargers’ young players continue their development towards superstardom, but enough veterans miss significant time that the team misses the playoffs yet again. It’s a lukewarm first year in LA for the Chargers, and after a 6-10 season, the team doesn’t even have a high first-round pick to look forward to. The Chargers remain in the cellar.
4. Denver Broncos: 6-10 (6.0 mean wins; SOS: 6)
There might be some surprise to see Denver fall to the cellar of the AFC West in Football Outsiders’ latest projections, but this certainly isn’t outside of the realm of possibility. With a first-year head coach (with 14 years experience as a defensive backs coach and only one year of experience as a defensive coordinator) and an inexperienced quarterback (whoever that might be), Denver will be fighting an uphill battle to make a return to the playoffs after missing the cut for the first time since 2010.
Best case for Denver: Paxton Lynch gets a shot and runs with it, developing into a top-tier quarterback as the Broncos make their anticipated return to January football. After earning a first-round bye and winning in the Divisional round, Denver eventually loses in the AFC title game.
Worst case for Denver: The Broncos remain somewhat non-committal on their quarterback situation, watching Lynch and Trevor Siemian battle back and forth throughout the 2017 season. The defense, meanwhile, unexpectedly falls apart after years of dominance.
It’s also worth mentioning Football Outsiders’ 2015 projections. Last year, FO had the Chiefs winning the West, with the Chargers going 8-8, the Broncos falling short of the playoffs and the Raiders remaining in the cellar. People might be quick to point out their being wrong about the Raiders, but it’s worth mentioning Football Outsiders did, in fact, correctly predict the division’s winner, as well as predicting the year in which the Broncos finally missed the playoffs.