AFC West: Things to consider

Peyton Manning is an upgrade for the Broncos if healthy, but Denver's brutal early schedule stretch could see them fall behind the San Diego Chargers and/or the Kansas City Chiefs.
Peyton Manning is with a new team, coming off an extremely serious injury, and trying to help develop a young centre, J.D. Walton. (Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

The second of an eight-part series on the league's divisions, featuring a look at NFL team's roster changes, 2011 statistics, and 2012 schedule occurrences to consider — or reject! — as you make your picks heading into the season.

Everyone knows that this is a league where things can change drastically in a hurry for some teams — for nine straight years at least one team has gone from worst to first in their division. If that trend continues in the AFC West in 2012, the division winners will be the Kansas City Chiefs.

It's certainly possible, as each team in this division has significant flaws, and the division itself features changes galore.

AFC West winners

  • 2011: Denver
  • 2010: Kansas City
  • 2006-09: San Diego
  • 2005: Denver
  • 2004: San Diego
  • 2003: Kansas City
  • 2002: Oakland

Specifically: One new head coach, one coach in his first full season with his team, two new offensive coordinators, three new defensive coordinators. There isn't a single team here that has retained their coach and two coordinators triumvirate from 2011. 

Oh yeah, and a legendary quarterback is replacing a messianic quarterback in Denver

The AFC West teams will play NFC South and AFC Central foes. While that means dates with the likes of Tampa Bay and Cleveland, it also means Atlanta, Baltimore, New Orleans and Pittsburgh. A daunting quartet for an AFC West group that didn't feature a team over .500 last season.

For what it's worth, Denver has the second toughest schedule as measured by last year's records, followed by San Diego (eighth), Oakland (19th) and Denver (20th).

Something not mentioned in the previous piece on the NFC West: Because of the regularity of Thursday games this season, teams will usually have to navigate a five-day stretch where they play twice. The silver lining is that in most cases, the teams are usually doing so with the benefit of at least one home game and/or not going too far across the country.

Statistics refer to 2011 regular season games unless otherwise noted. Close games refer to games decided by seven or less points.

Denver Broncos

  • Average wins, past 5 years: 7
  • 2011 record: 8-8
  • Record in close games: 7-4
  • Avg loss margin: 15 points
  • Avg win margin: 4.9 points
  • Games with 20 or more points: 7
  • Games with 20 or less allowed: 7
  • End of season trend: 6-3

Good vibes: They have made as big a stylistic change under centre as possible, replacing sleight-of-hand Tim Tebow with future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning … There appear to be enough decent parts for Manning to enhance …  Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil are a potent combo among the defensive front seven … Brian Dawkins had admirable career, but was toothy last year, replacing will likely be positive … Had to replace Dennis Allen as defensive coordinator but did admirably in hiring Jack Del Rio; defence was seldom the most pressing issue in Jacksonville.

Caution signs: Manning's had four neck surgeries and missed all of last season … Manning is used to different backs and passing options, but this will be the first time in several years operating with a different centre; it's one of football's crucial relationships and reports out of Denver indicate not all are convinced J.D. Walton is ready for the challenges that come with Manning's ad libs … Extra two games are against New England and Houston, tougher than any of their division mates. Pats and Texans are part of an opening six-pack that also includes Pittsburgh and Atlanta. Yikes! … Defence last season was more "timely' good than overall good. To wit, they gave up over 40 points four times … Caleb Hanie, woeful when pressed into action in Chicago, and a second round draft pick are currently the possibilities if Manning goes down.

Who knows? Manning's ability to stay healthy … Denver ranked near the bottom of the league in sacks per play last year. Yes, Manning and Tebow aren't in the same breath when it comes to recognizing pressure and getting the ball off effectively, but protection is still an area of concern …The Broncos won the division at 8-8. They could very well have a better record than that by game or two —although they figure to be playing catch-up given the tough opening stretch — yet miss the playoffs.

Kansas City Chiefs

  • Average wins, past 5 years: 5.4
  • 2011 record: 7-9
  • Record in close games: 6-4
  • Avg loss margin: 20.2 points
  • Avg win margin: 8 points
  • Games with 20 or more points: 4
  • Games with 20 or less allowed: 10
  • End of season trend: 6-4

Good vibes: The team won seven games despite hating their previous coach, losing three of their most key players by the second game (Jamaal Charles, Tony Moeaki, Eric Berry), as well as their quarterback Matt Cassel for the last seven games … Despite the challenges, defence limited opponents to under 20 points 10 times, which ranked sixth in the league … GM Scott Pioli wisely hedged bets on Charles and Moeaki by obtaining Peyton Hillis and Kevin Boss … Could have the best stylistic 1-2 punch in the backfield with Charles and Hillis … New offensive coordinator Brian Daboll doesn't have a great record of success but was with Cassel in New England and was OC in Cleveland when Hillis had his impressive 2010 year … Have one of the best inside linebackers in the game in Derrick Johnson.

Caution signs: There's no guarantee all or even most of those injured players — and Hillis is in that group, too — can regain their form … Cassel isn't going to scare anyone … Worst red zone offence in NFL last year … Coach Romeo Crennel, in his first full season after taking over late in 2011, had a pedestrian record in Cleveland … Atlanta, New Orleans and Baltimore are among their first six foes … Consecutive road games in Buffalo and New Orleans early …  Have a mid-season stretch where they have to play Raiders and Chargers four days apart …  Still a pretty young team.

Who knows: Can Cassel have the kind of caretaker season Alex Smith enjoyed in San Fran last year? … Can receiver Jon Baldwin, a first round pick who had a mediocre rookie season, take some pressure off top receiver Dwayne Bowe?

Oakland Raiders

  • Average wins, past 5 years: 6
  • 2011 record: 8-8
  • Record in close games: 7-2
  • Avg loss margin: 15.75 points
  • Avg win margin: 5 points
  • Games with 20 or more points: 11
  • Games with 20 or less allowed: 7
  • End of season trend: 1-4

Good vibes: Carson Palmer made many mistakes coming off a layoff but it's undeniable he forged chemistry in fairly short order with Darrius Heward-Bey …Darren McFadden is one of the best all-around backs in the league when healthy … The offensive line did a decent job and Palmer has been above average in avoiding sacks most of his career … Great kicking game …  Caught a break with their leftover games, it seems, facing Miami and Jacksonville. Don't spend consecutive weeks on the road until final two games of the season.

Caution signs: Some Raiders are on their third coach in three years … New head coach Dennis Allen has never been a head coach at any level and has only be a coordinator in the NFL for one season … New defensive coordinator Jason Tarver takes over a unit which gave up at least 30 points on six occasions, tied for fourth worst in NFL and was ranked similarly in the red zone … New offensive coordinator Greg Knapp wants to implement West Coast offence, which appears to be ill-suited to the quarterback he's inherited … McFadden has missed at least three games each season … They won nearly all of their games by a small margin and lost by a large average margin. As the respected site Football Outsiders would say, that's usually a big warning sign for the following season.

Who knows:  Read previous section. Other than the kicking game, there isn't a facet where this team is a surefire guarantee.

San Diego Chargers

  • Average wins, past 5 years: 9.8
  • 2011 record: 8-8
  • Record in close games: 5-3
  • Avg loss margin: 9.9 points
  • Avg win margin: 13.6 points
  • Games with 20 or more points: 13
  • Games with 20 or less allowed: 7
  • End of season trend: 4-1

Good vibes: Philip Rivers should be plenty motivated to erase the stink of an off year … Team started to click late last year, with four of their five 30-plus point games down the stretch … Went out and got a good defensive player, former Raven Jarret Johnson,  and offensive veterans like Robert Meachem, Robert Royal, Roscoe Parrish and Ronnie Brown. If they can still play, Rivers will find a way to use them … While the Broncos and Chiefs only have one of their first six games within division, the Chargers have three, an opportunity to make some early hay.

Caution signs: When Rivers tries to press, that's when bad things often happen … Top wide receiver Vincent Jackson from last season is gone to Tampa Bay …  Already in the preseason are dealing with injuries to offensive players Ryan Mathews and Vincent Brown … One of the worst red zone and third down defences last season … Third defensive coordinator in three years, although one promoted in house (John Pagano).

Who knows: Will the uptick to end 2011 carry over into this season and will the previous version of Rivers come to the fore? The jobs of coach Norv Turner and GM A.J. Smith likely hang in the balance.

Next edition

NFC South: Atlanta tries to get next level, New Orleans aims to survive Bountygate, Carolina looks to continue strides, Tampa Bay tries to restore reputation.