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Focus on Denver but There Are Larger Threats Creeping in the West

As the Chargers prepare for the first game of their 2017 campaign, the landscape is already set for some high-stakes matchups outside of Denver

“Gondor calls for aid!”

The Chargers look as healthy and as ready to rock and roll as they are likely to be this season. There have been some setbacks, yes, but overall, the first-team offense and defense look the part of a potential powerhouse.

That’s a strong turnaround from a team that racked up just 5 wins the season before. What changed?

Anthony Lynn arrived to crush the monsters that were at our door.

The draft and free agency are not to credit for this boost in confidence. The change in venue likely detracts more than it adds to the team’s moxie. The change in atmosphere can largely be attributed to the change in coaching. Bringing aboard Anthony Lynn, a rookie in the head coaching position (give or take one game), has changed both the personnel and the attitude of the LA Chargers. The 1st team offense, in the brief window that we were able to view this pre-season, showed incredible potential. Perhaps it is a gamble, but Lynn has clearly chosen to focus and hone his most skilled players, leaving a significant drop in talent when it comes to backups. At no point in the year are we likely to enjoy the Chargers at their full fury than tonight at Denver.

But Denver won’t likely be the main focus this year. Their QB conundrum is anything but settled (and bringing back Brock Osweiler helps make that crystal clear), and they have lost players to injury all throughout training camp and pre-season games. Bear in mind, I’m not saying that they will be a pushover. Their defense is ferocious, and they have receivers that can rival any in the league if the ball can just reach them. However, win or lose tonight, it likely won’t change the narrative of the 2017 season.

The AFC West’s two superpowers of 2016 are back.

The rebirth of the Oakland Raiders was a premier storyline in 2016. Derek Carr surprised the entire league with an incredible performance, and the defense could finally shine now that they had an offense that could give them some breathing room. His injury at the end of the campaign, however, doomed the team in the playoffs. Many thought that he would struggle to regain his confidence on the field this year. His shiny new $125 million contract was a wise incentive and show of trust from the franchise, and Carr did not disappoint on Sunday. Without missing a beat, the Raiders appear to be back on track to vie for the AFC West.

All eyes were on the Chiefs while Alex Smith dismantled the defending Superbowl champions. After a slow start (with some rookie mistakes), the Chiefs dominated the game for the final three quarters. This is important for three reasons: One, the Chiefs looked old and tired at the tail end of 2016. The Steelers did not even need to score a touchdown to boot the Chiefs out of the playoffs. Two, the QB drama that their drafting inevitably created fizzled into nothing. Alex Smith has finally, conclusively, and utterly destroyed the back-handed title of ‘Game Manager’ that armchair quarterbacks had branded him for years. And Three, the Chiefs are not only good, they could very well be the best team in the NFL. By all accounts, they just humbled (not beat—crushed) what was supposed to be the best team in the league (and some pundits oddly started to name them one of the best teams ever). Make no mistake, the Chiefs are here to stay and they clearly feel they have something to prove.

Contrasted with Alex Smith’s play, Brady looked like a literal farm animal in comparison. Expect many more QBs to join the herd.

Well, where does that leave the Chargers?

The AFC West will be the most brutal division in football. Only one team can be crowned the winner. Barring any ties (c’mon, NFL. These are still a thing?), it’s reasonable to predict a lot of 1-1 series in the West, with Home Field advantage being an important edge. To that end, the Chargers have the short end of the stick. An unfamiliar stadium with mathematically less-raucous bleachers gives the Chargers the hardest road to success.

The fight for the AFC West will be a fight for the full pie, and, I believe, two smaller slices. There’s every reason to believe that two, and even three members from this division will see the postseason. That means that every win counts from every competing team. The Chargers would do well to keep an eye on the Dolphins. The only way to truly accomplish that is to focus on the games at hand, whether they be in the division or not. Assuming a reasonable, though admittedly optimistic scenario of splitting with all of their division rivals, the Chargers will need another 7 wins to vie for the postseason. It will be Anthony Lynn’s challenge to keep the team focused on next Sunday and not the numbers and graphs that only pile up as the season progresses.

-Goro “Praying to be this optimistic this time tomorrow” Saurus