With the NFL season kicking off this Thursday with the Philadelphia Eagles opening up the defense of their Super Bowl LII title against the Atlanta Falcons, what better time to preview the season, especially now that rosters are mostly set after a mostly ignored preseason.
These previews are going to feature a quick look back at last season, any major personnel moves that may affect the upcoming season, and a prediction for how we think each division is going to play out. At the end of the week, we’ll post a separate post that combines them all and predicts the playoff participants, as well as who we think will be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy after Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta on February 3, 2019.
In our final divisional preview, we take a look at the AFC West. The division has had its share of success, with the Denver Broncos winning Super Bowl 50 after the 2015 season. And the Kansas City Chiefs have been the class of the division the past two seasons, going a combined 22-10, though they did lose after one playoff game each season. The
San Diego Los Angeles Chargers are settling into their new home in Los Angeles, and the Oakland Raiders are playing out the stretch in Oakland before moving to Las Vegas in a few years. It’s been a while since the AFC West sent three teams to the playoffs, and this year will most likely not be any different, but it will be fun to see how it all plays out and if the teams can live up to the preseason hype.
The Kansas City Chiefs looked dominant from the beginning of the season, beating the defending champion New England Patriots in Week 1 and winning their first five games fairly comfortably. They also looked dominant down the stretch, winning their last four games by an average of nearly 12 points. It was the seven games in the middle of the season – a stretch when the team went 1-6 – that led the team to finish 10-6 on the year, which forced them into a Wild Card playoff game, which they lost to the Titans.
The Los Angeles Chargers played their first season in Los Angeles since their inaugural season way back in 1960, and they almost brought playoff football with them, overcoming an 0-4 start to finish with a 9-7 record and missing out on a playoff spot because of a tie breaker. It was their first season under head coach Anthony Lynn, formerly the offensive coordinator for the Buffalo Bills, and the team finished with the third-best defense in the league, and benefited from another under the radar season from quarterback Philip Rivers. They also lost a lot of players to injury, which also impacted their performance on the field, something they hope to avoid this season.
The Oakland Raiders fell of a bit from their 2016 season, falling six games and finishing 6-10. Two four game losing streaks during the season – Weeks 3-6 and Weeks 14-17 – doomed their beleaguered coach Jack Del Rio, who was fired after the season. The team also announced before the season that they planned on moving to Las Vegas in 2020, though they will remain in Oakland through next season and continually rub it in the faces of their fans that they will be leaving. It was just a down season all around for Raider Nation.
Finally, the Denver Broncos found themselves in unfamiliar territory last season, finishing in last place in the division with their first losing record since 2010. They entered their Week 5 bye at 3-1, trailing the Chiefs for first place in the division. After the bye, however, the proceeded to lose their next 8 games, the team’s longest losing streak in 40 years. The defense ranked in the top five in many statistical categories, but a poor offense – with quarterbacks Trevor Semian, Brock Osweiler, and Paxton Lynch each struggling to find consistency – led the team to the poor performance on the season.
Major Personnel Moves
As mentioned when previewing the NFC North, the Raiders, led anew by former coach Jon Gruden, traded former Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack to the Bears for a haul of draft picks, mostly because they didn’t want to pay the defensive cornerstone a lot of money to play for the team. The argument is that Mack’s presence wasn’t improving the defense enough, but Mack is also a generational talent that they could have continued to build the defense around, instead of cutting bait with a player that has yet to reach his prime. Oakland also their big leg specialist, with long-time kicker Sebastian Janikowski moving on to the Seahawks and punter Marquette King moving to Denver.
After drafting quarterback Patrick Mahomes in the first round in 2016, the Chiefs finally moved on from former starter Alex Smith, trading him to Washington for a third round draft pick (which was traded as part of a package for the 46th pick (Breeland Speaks)) and cornerback Kendall Fuller. The Chiefs will also be boosted on defense by the return of safety Eric Berry, who ruptured his Achilles in the fourth quarter of their first game. Though he’s missing Sunday’s game against the Chargers, he is expected to return to his All-Pro level of play before too long.
The Chargers are simply hoping for health, and the Broncos are hoping for quarterback consistency, signing former Minnesota starter Case Keenum, hoping that he can replicate the form that he found in leading the Vikings to the NFC Championship Game. On the defensive side of the ball, they traded away cornerback Aqib Talib for draft picks, which hopefully won’t affect their team defense that much, especially with an offense that still needs to show signs of life.
The Chiefs remain the class of the division, though a fresh quarterback with one NFL start and a coach with a legacy of failing early in the playoffs might not allow them to advance much further than one playoff game yet again. The Chargers barely missed the playoffs last year, and are expected to compete for a spot this year, if only because they get four games total against the Broncos and Raiders. The Broncos are hoping that an old quarterback can maintain his performance from last year, while the Raiders are hoping that there isn’t a coup against the $100 million coach that traded a very popular player. This is how I see it shaking out when all is said and done:
1. Kansas City Chiefs – 12-4 (5-1 division)
2. Los Angeles Chargers – 10-6 (5-1 division)
3. Denver Broncos – 5-11 (1-5 division)
4. Oakland Raiders – 3-13 (1-5 division)