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AFC West: 2015 NFL Divisional Preview

The AFC West has been a division marked by long-term stretches of dominance, even if they haven’t been carried out by just one team, like the AFC East or South. Over the past 9 years, both the Chargers and Broncos won the West in four consecutive seasons, with only the Chiefs’ 2010 title serving as a changing point. The division has also been known for its overall mediocrity, as it has only sent 5 wild card teams to the playoffs since the current format was adopted in 2002.

The division also enters 2015 with half of its teams in the middle of potential relocations, as both the Raiders and Chargers are heavily rumored to be the chosen ones to move to Los Angeles. While this could have an effect on the franchises per se, the play on the field should be limited to what everyone is trying to do: catch the Broncos. After 5 straight titles, the Broncos slipped just enough in 2014 to be considered at risk this time around.

Standings predictions are carried from worst to best, and include over/under picks using the latest odds posted by Bovada Online.

Oakland Raiders
Odds to Win Division: +1200
Over/Under Wins: 5.5

The Raiders are often mentioned in the “worst run NFL franchise” conversation, and for good reason. After a couple of respectable 8-8 seasons in 2010 and 2011, the team has fallen back to its sorry state with 11 combined wins over the past 3 years, including the usual array of coaching changes, bad quarterbacks, and poor roster decisions. And yet, it seems as if for the first time in a decade, there is some kind of positive buzz around Oakland.

Even with yet another new coach, this time the Raiders have given the job to Jack del Rio, who might not be flashy but has proven to be respected and has a long tenure in the league. Del Rio’s main job will be to mentor sophomore Derek Carr, who was uneven as a rookie but still showed enough promise to be considered a building block. This year’s draft yielded wide receiver Amari Cooper, who now joins Carr and linebacker Khalil Mack as the potential franchise core in Oakland. After years of frustrating, overpriced free agents, the Raiders are finally looking serious in following a rebuilding philosophy through youth and scouting, which should bode well for a team that is still far away from opening its contention window.

The Raiders will again be bad, but at least come with the promise of a solid defense and a roster that plays hard. They do have to face a tough schedule that includes its own division and the hard-hitting AFC North, but it doesn’t seem out of the question that the team can improve by a few wins while it sorts out its housing situation. It is tough to project the difference between 5-11 and 6-10, but I barely like the Raiders to surprise a few people and surpass their Over total.

San Diego Chargers
Odds to Win Division: +375
Over/Under Wins: 8

The 2014 Chargers were one of the few teams in history with a zero point differential, scoring and allowing 348 points. This means that the 9-7 Bolts actually outperformed their record by a full win, despite having the league’s 4th-best defense against the pass and a top-10 quarterback in Philip Rivers. 2015 will be tenth year of Rivers as the starting QB in San Diego, and in a tenure that has produced 5 playoff berths and an unmatched level of stability, the Charger faithful are still waiting for more.

Despite what looms as an inevitable move from Qualcomm Stadium, the Chargers enter 2015 with a very intriguing situation on the field. Melvin Gordon was drafted to try to produce a more balanced attach on the ground, while the offense also added a couple of wide receiver threats in Stevie Johnson and Jacoby Jones. The main issue for the Chargers is how little they upgraded for a rush defense that finished 26th and desperately needed to fill a few holes. Having Rivers, still in his prime, gives San Diego a chance to win almost every game, and the Chargers have a good shot of returning to the playoffs.

Having said that, I see them more as an 8-8 team with a high floor but limited ceiling. Their opening to the year comes with six games against non-divisional foes, while four of its final contests come against the Chiefs and Broncos, possibly mired in a playoff run of their own. This kind of scheduling mismatch should leave San Diego in a tough spot, especially as they also play three noon games on the East Coast. It will be close, but I’m picking the Under with a real possibility of a push.

Denver Broncos
Odds to Win Division: -150
Over/Under Wins: 10

In winning 4 straight division titles (one with Tim Tebow and three with Peyton Manning), the Broncos have run virtually unopposed in the AFC West. All 4 seasons ended with devastating playoff losses, including the last one, when the Colts manhandled the heavily-favored Broncos in Denver. This loss followed a late-season trend in which Peyton Manning looked hobbled and outside his comfort zone. If the rest of the AFC West smells blood, can the Broncos stay afloat?

The offseason produced an expected coaching change in Denver, who brought in Gary Kubiak to continue building on Manning’s strengths. However, it will be key if the Broncos can find a way to become a better balanced attack, especially as Kubiak has always been known for his creative blocking schemes that have created stars out of little-heralded backs. While Manning will always have the spotlight, running back CJ Anderson will probably serve as the teams’ barometer. The defense continues to be stacked with top-heavy names, but these are all veterans that come with injury risk, like Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware; in this stars-and-scrubs kind of roster, the Broncos have virtually no margin for error.

It may go against every projection and forecast, but I really think that the Broncos will slip in 2015, even if they remain in contention for a playoff spot deep into the year. Manning is 39, Kubiak has never really won much as a head coach, and the West has gotten much better. Take the Under, even if this bet seems wrong from the get-go.

Kansas City Chiefs
Odds to Win Division: +325
Over/Under Wins: 8.5

The Chiefs are still looking for their first playoff win since 1993, and are fresh off a year in which they narrowly missed the postseason despite gaudy peripherals. Their +72 point differential suggested a 10-win team, but poor timing and a 3-4 record in close games felled the Chiefs. Kansas City finished 7th on defense but only 25th on offense, leading management to search improvements that can create a balanced team and build on what Coach Andy Reid has established.

After a season in which Alex Smith infamously didn’t complete a touchdown pass to a wide receiver, the Chiefs have brought in former Eagle Jeremy Maclin to the fold. Maclin instantly becomes the best WR the Chiefs have had in a while, and promises to become a weapon that plays out well with what the Chiefs can do over at the running game, where Jamaal Charles continues to be productive. The defense threatens to become even better now that Eric Berry is back from his battle against cancer and that cornerback Marcus Peters was drafted to anchor the secondary. Smith remains the team’s focal point, but the roster has too many quality players to be undone by poor quarterback play. At this point, Andy Reid should have a few fallback options up his sleeve to find ways to win.

The 8.5 number is probably a half-win too low, as the Chiefs appear to be in a very good position to challenge for a playoff spot and upset the Broncos in the AFC West race. I like them to deliver on their promise and win at least 10 games, producing a comfortable Over. Kansas City is the best bet in the West.

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