After five consecutive division titles, can anyone in the AFC West unseat the Chiefs from their iron throne, or will Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City continue their dynasty into the latter half of a decade???
For five years now the story in the AFC West has been the same, as the Chiefs have finished atop the division in convincing fashion, and there appears to be no end in sight to their reign, even as their direct competition have shown marked improvement. Why the lack of optimism, you ask? Well, there remains a CONSIDERABLE gulf in talent between Kansas City and it’s three neighbors, particularly on the offensive side of the football where their overall speed and depth at the skill positions makes them a nightmare for just about anyone they face. For those teams looking to bridge that gulf, the Chargers, Raiders, and Broncos have all bolstered their ranks in a variety of ways, though it remains to be seen if any of their number can truly pose a legitimate challenge to Patrick Mahomes & Co in 2021. Los Angeles welcomes (Head Coach) Brandon Staley in an attempt to further the development of promising young Quarterback, Justin Herbert, while Las Vegas hopes to fix a perennially disappointing Defense now under the direction of (Defensive Coordinator) Gus Bradley. As for Denver, is Teddy Bridgewater truly the answer under Center for a franchise that has routinely underwhelmed at the position for the past half-decade? So with that said, let’s take a trip through the division and how it’s residents stack up against each other and if any of them can challenge the Chiefs’ dominance…
The Favorite: Kansas City Chiefs
After five straight AFC West titles and back-to-back Super Bowl appearances, the Chiefs don’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon, which is bad news for the rest of the division. It may sound difficult to fathom, but there is plenty of reason to believe that (Head Coach) Andy Reid’s charges will be even better in 2021, particularly after bolstering one of their only true weaknesses last season: the Offensive Line. As a collective unit, Kansas City’s starting quintet missed a total of twenty-two games last year, which proved to be a major issue come Super Bowl LV against the Buccaneers, who embarrassed them in shocking fashion; Tampa Bay relegated the NFL’s top-ranked Offense to three field goals, 3-of-13 on third down, three sacks, and a pair of turnovers. Simply put, (former MVP Quarterback) Patrick Mahomes (66.3% 4,740 YDS, 38 TD, 6 INT, 82.9 QBR) was running for his life throughout the affair, attempting nearly fifty passes with ZERO touchdowns and a pair of picks. And it’s with that said, that Reid (a former O-Line Coach himself) and (General Manager) Brett Veach went about the task of rebuilding in the trenches and the returns appear promising; in addition to welcoming back a healthy Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (a COVID opt-out), the Chiefs traded for (former Ravens’ Tackle) Orlando Brown, while also signing (former Patriots’ Guard) Joe Thuney in Free Agency and coaxing (former Bears’ Guard) Kyle Long out of retirement. Improving the protection up front should further secure the hefty investment that the club made in Mahomes last year (ten years/$450 million), while also greasing the gears of an offensive machine that is the envy of the league; (Receiver) Tyreek Hill (87 REC, 1,276 YDS, 14.7 Y/R, 15 TD) and (Tight End) Travis Kelce (105 REC, 1,416 YDS, 13.5 Y/R, 11 TD) are All-Pro performers, while an addition like (versatile Tailback) Jerick McKinnon provides another versatile weapon out of the Backfield apart from (Sophomore) Clyde Edwards-Helaire (217 Touches, 1,100 YDS, 5.1 Y/T, 5 TD), whom Reid is expecting BIG things out of in 2021. Defensively, another year within (Defensive Coordinator) Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme should see further growth from a unit that allowed a respectable 22.6 points per game (10th Overall) and registered twenty-two turnovers (10th Overall). Simply put, this team shoulder serve as the prohibitive favorite to win the AFC West once again, while continuing to wear the distinction of being the class of a deep AFC.
The Contender: Los Angeles Chargers
Though trying to find a legitimate contender to the Chiefs’ dynasty within the AFC West is a difficult task, the popular choice heading into 2021 are the Chargers, despite the franchise starting over once again with a new Coaching Staff. After the Anthony Lynn Era ended with back-to-back losing campaigns, Los Angeles embarks on a new era in the form of Brandon Staley, who will be making the short trip across town from the Rams, whom he spent last season with as their Defensive Coordinator. The 38-year old has been well-traveled over the last five years, but as a student of Vic Fangio’s coaching tree, he comes with an impressive CV. However, turning this long inconsistent team into a sustainable contender will involve three challenges in particular. The first will be furthering the development of (Sophomore Quarterback) Justin Herbert (66.6%, 4,336 YDS, 31 TD, 10 INT, 69.5 QBR), who turned heads as a Rookie in 2020 despite the truncated Offseason and minimal time with the Coaching Staff due to the pandemic, who rarely seemed to be coaching to the strength of his immense talent. (Offensive Coordinator) Joe Lombardi arrives from the Saints with designs on taking this talented group and turning it into a fine-tuned machine, which shouldn’t be difficult with the likes of (versatile Tailback) Austin Ekeler (170 Touches, 933 YDS, 5.5 Y/T, 3 TD), (Pro-Bowl Receiver) Keenan Allen (100 REC, 992 YDS, 9.9 Y/R, 8 TD), and (newly-acquired Tight End) Jared Cook (37 REC, 504 YDS, 13.6 Y/R, 7 TD) to play with. However, putting together a cohesive Offensive Line will be the second major task, for this group has been routinely hampered by injuries and other maladies over the past few years, leaving the attack as a whole overly pass-happy. (Rookie Guard) Rashad Slater and (Free Agent Center) Corey Linsley were inspiring additions up front, though it remains to be seen if they’ll be enough to bolster a unit that ranked a middling eighteenth and sixteenth in rushing yards (111.5) and yards per carry (3.8) respectively. Lastly, Staley & Co will be charged (no pun intended) with building a lasting identity, which is something that they’ve remarkably been unable to do since moving upstate from San Diego, and is all the more imperative now that they’ll finally be welcoming in actual fans at SoFi Stadium. They have the pieces in place to do it, with a brand-new stadium in a major media market along with a young rising star at Quarterback who could serve as the face of the franchise for the next decade and beyond. All they have to do now is win, which is unfortunately the difficult part of the equation.
The Wild Card: Las Vegas Raiders
Three years ago when the Raiders coaxed Jon Gruden out of the broadcasting booth for a whopping $100 million over the length of a ten-year deal, the football world was understandably shocked. Now three years through his second tenure with the Silver & Black, it’s nearly as shocking that the team hasn’t shown more progress; Las Vegas is only 19-29 over that period, without a winning record or postseason appearance to show for it, despite exhibiting incremental improvement with each passing campaign. Needless to say, this rebuilding project has been nothing short of uneven, with Las Vegas struggling from a personnel standpoint, whether it be Free Agency or the Draft, where they’ve missed on a slew of selections despite setting themselves up for success with a wealth of premium picks. As a result, the Defense has been an unmitigated disaster throughout this new era, finishing thirty-second, twenty-fourth, and thirtieth over the last three years in points allowed. And it’s with that said that Gruden convinced one of his former assistants, Gus Bradley, to join him in Sin City with the hopes that the venerable Defensive Coordinator will be able to mold a young unit into a more respectable one; the 55-year old is largely credited with the creation of the Seahawks’ once-fabled Legion of Boom, and though that Cover-Three scheme is considered antiquated by today’s standards, he has continued to build stout defenses during his tenures with the Jacksonville Jaguars and (most recently) the Chargers. Both the pass-rush (21) and turnover differential (Minus-11) must see significant improvement, while it will be necessary for former high draft picks, most notably (Defensive Lineman) Clelin Ferrell (27 TKL, 3 TFL, 10 QBH, 2.0 SK, 2 FF, 2 PD) and (Safety) Jonathan Abram (86 TKL, 3 TFL, 4 QBH, 2 INT, 6 PD) to play to their billing, otherwise it’s difficult seeing this group making the kind of leap that the Raiders so desperately need them to make. Interestingly, Gruden sacrificed much of his stellar Offensive Line in an attempt to free cap space in order to bolster the Defense, which could prove detrimental to what has been a steadily-productive attack. Either way, Las Vegas must find a way to strike some balance on both sides of the football, for their woes on Defense have played a direct role in their repeated late season collapses over the last two years; Gruden’s charges were 6-3 and 6-4 heading down the stretch of the previous two campaigns, only to falter to a cumulative 3-10 record in November and December, narrowly missing the Playoffs on both occasions. (General Manager) Mike Mayock has publicly stated that the franchise feels that they NEED to be in the Playoffs this season, and he’s absolutely right, otherwise this ten-year deal could prove to be spectacularly shorter than originally advertised.
The Rest: Denver Broncos
Though they could easily finish second in the AFC West, we’re listing the Broncos last simply because they are the only team within the division that is experiencing uncertainty at Quarterback. Indeed, the saga continues in Mile High where Denver searches for a legitimate answer at the game’s most important position since bidding farewell to Peyton Manning back in 2016. Indeed, after the (recently-inducted) Hall of Famer’s retirement the club has cycled through a wealth of Quarterbacks ranging from questionably-high draft picks, to journeyman, to underperforming veterans at the end of their careers, with none of them managing to guide the Broncos back to the Playoffs. Since winning Super Bowl L, this is a franchise that has gone a miserable 32-48, and following their 5-11 finish in 2020 underwent some significant change in the offseason. (Head Coach) Vic Fangio earned a stay of execution as (Hall of Famer and Executive VP of Football Operations) John Elway finally relinquished his General Manager duties in favor of focusing on other aspects of the organization, and hiring George Paton to oversee the personnel side of things. Say what you will about their choices under Center, but Denver has largely received acclaim for how they’ve built the rest of the roster; the Defense as a whole remains formidable with a mixture of youth and experience, while the long-struggling Offensive Line has been replenished with a wealth of intriguing young talent at the skill positions. Alas, the only missing piece is a Quarterback, and it appears that this season will boil down to how well either Drew Lock (57.3%, 2,933 YDS, 16 TD, 15 INT, 48.8 QBR) or Teddy Bridgewater (69.1%, 3,733 YDS, 15 TD, 11 INT, 64.2 QBR) takes to the job. Lock was drafted in the Second Round in 2019, and despite some flashes of the spectacular, has been just as liable to shoot himself in the foot, though his sophomore campaign was marred by injuries and a spell with COVID-19. Bridgewater on the other hand, is now on his third team in as many years making another attempt to rekindle a once-promising career. The 28-year old is certainly a more experienced and efficient option than Lock, but there is a reason that he keeps finding himself in this position; a bonafide game manager if there ever was one, Bridgewater oftentimes leaves a plethora of big play opportunities on the field in favor of safer, shorter throws, which has ultimately proven to be a hinderance in his previous stops. With that said, can you really blame Fangio for recently naming him the starter for the Season Opener? Lock led the NFL with fifteen interceptions last season, and while he’s unlikely to maximize the potential of young stud Receivers such as Jerry Jeudy (52 REC, 856 YDS, 16.5 Y/R, 3 TD) or Courtland Sutton (missed all but one game in 2020 with a torn ACL), Bridgewater won’t be the reason they lose games. Unfortunately for the faithful at Mile High, in a league that has become more and more QB-centric of late, these Broncos still clearly lack the necessary playmaker at Quarterback to properly challenge the Chiefs within the AFC West, though with the benefit of a few breaks a return to the postseason isn’t unrealistic.