by Lenny Del Genio History was made in the AFC West in 2008 as the San Diego Chargers became the first team in NFL history to win a division crown after starting the season 4-8. Playing the role of choke artists were the Denver Broncos, who conversely became the first team in NFL history to blow a three-game lead in the division standings with only three weeks to play. Obviously, when your division champ goes only 8-8, it's pretty clear that you don't have a strong division. Oakland and Kansas City were two of the AFC's very worst teams with the Silver and Black going 5-11 (6th straight losing campaign) and the Chiefs setting a new benchmark for franchise futility at 2-14.
As a new season approaches, one thing is abundantly clear. San Diego is going to win this division. None of the other three teams in the AFC West even look like .500 teams, let alone playoff contenders. We're actually quite surprised to see some of the NFL futures odds at the online sportsbooks give New England a better shot than San Diego to win its division. Currently, the Pats are 2/9 to win the AFC East while the Chargers are at 2/7 to win the West. Barring another subpar start, Norv Turner's team will have this division wrapped up by Christmas time.
San Diego Chargers - We still cannot possibly fathom how a team this talented could find itself in the position of being 4-8 and needing to win out just to make the postseason. However, by the time the playoffs came around, it was clear that the Chargers were the 2nd best team in the AFC. They beat Indianapolis as a home dog in the Wild Card Round (ended Colts eight game win streak) before losing to eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh in the Divisional Round. Having been dispatched from the last two postseasons on the road, by the Steelers and the Patriots, perhaps HC Turner now fully realizes the importance of getting the home field advantage. Not that the Chargers are dominant at home by any means (just 5-3 SU, 4-4 ATS LY), but they need to avoid venturing to the cold weather environments when the season is on the line. With such an easy path to the division title seemingly in place, there is no reason to think that San Diego can't pick up six wins in AFC West play alone. Also remember that this team was the first in NFL history to lose its first two games of the season on the final play, another reason for LY's slow start. Star LaDanian Tomlinson, who turned 30 in June, comes off possibly his worst season as a pro with career lows in rushing TD's (11) & YPC (3.8). It was certainly his most injury plagued season. What that did though was allow for the emergence of Darren Sproles, who was given the franchise tag in the offseason thanks in large part to an incredible playoff performance vs. the Colts. Despite not having a real true threat to throw to besides TE Antonio Gates, expect QB Philip Rivers to post a monster season in '09 as he comes off a year with 4000+ passing yards and 34 TD's. Remember that this kid was the MVP of every bowl game he played in college. Defense was San Diego?s Achilles heel last year, but they should be improved this year solely based on the return of Shawne Merriman, who missed almost all of '08 following reconstructive knee surgery. The pass defense ranked 31st in the league. There is no way San Diego doesn't win this division and they are our surprise pick to win the Super Bowl. You can currently get them at 12/1 odds at Bodog Sportsbook.
Oakland Raiders - Of the "three stooges" in this division, we actually feel that it is the Oakland Raiders that stand the best chance of creeping towards the proverbial Mendoza Line. That is how bad things have gotten in the AFC West. Just to bring you up to speed on how bad the Silver and Black have been since their Super Bowl season of 2002, let's recap: The have lost 11 games or more six straight seasons giving them the worst record in the league over that time span (24-72 SU). The most wins they've had in any of those years was five, a number that sadly is equal to the number of coaches employed by the Raiders since Jon Gruden was let go in a disastrous move in 2001. Last year, Al Davis set a new low by firing coach Lane Kiffin halfway into the season and giving the most bizzare press conference ever. Interim Tom Cable comes back as the permanent HC (did anyone else want this job?) and now must pretend he prefers former #1 overall DC JaMarcus Russell to veteran backup Jeff Garcia (was signed in the offseason), despite all evidence to the contrary. Speaking of bad drafts, what about selecting WR Darrius Heyward-Bey 20 spots too early? Oakland has also been a disaster at the betting window over the last six years, posting a 33-62-1 ATS record, although they were 7-9 vs. the number last year. Optimists will point to the end of last season when the Raiders won their final two games of the season, outright as dogs, over Houston and Tampa Bay. The win over the Bucs in the regular season finale was the Silver and Black's first of any kind in December outside the state of California since 1999. Russell was headed for a hideous season before completing 61% of his passes over the final five games, so maybe there is some upside. Johnny Lee Higgins' 22 catches and 366 yards are embarrassingly low totals to lead any NFL franchise. Russell did much better in games where the focus was on running the ball, although no one out of the group of Darren McFadden, Justin Fargas or Michael Bush, has demonstrated the ability to be a #1 back.
Kansas City Chiefs - It's all about the future in Kansas City as this once proud franchise's glorious past has been long forgotten and its present isn't worth remembering. They spent a lot of money in the offseason on QB Matt Cassel based on one semi-successful season in New England. Could this be your younger brother's Scott Mitchell? Well maybe, but based on what KC had under center last year, Cassel is an immediate upgrade. No signal caller on the team has more than 15 starts under his belt or was drafted earlier than the third round. You could argue that this is the lowest point for this franchise in 30 years (combined 6-26 SU last two years), which is why perhaps the biggest change was made in the front office, bringing Bill Belichick disciple Scott Pioli over as the new GM. He almost immediately tabbed former Arizona OC Todd Haley as the new coach, replacing Herm Edwards, who made the postseason only once during his tenure. Not surprisingly, that was also the last time we saw a quality year from RB Larry Johnson (just 1,433 yds since) as he set an NFL single season record with 416 carries in 2006. Johnson turns the dreaded 30 in November. More bad news for Cassel and the rest of the offense is the loss of perhaps the greatest TE to ever play the game, Tony Gonzales. Defense is also a huge question mark as they change schemes from a 4-3 to a 3-4 with the personnel that was actually built for the former. The Chiefs were dead last in the league last year with a pathetic 10 sacks. This was also the youngest team in football last year as they had an NFL high 17 rookies playing in 187 combined games with 75 starts. Eventually this team will get better and they should actually see their WL record improve by several games this year.
Denver Broncos - No team had a worse offseason than the Broncos and as a result we are calling for a last place finish and a possible shot at "earning" the #1 overall DC next April. After a public squabble with new HC Josh McDaniel (another Belichick disciple), QB Jay Cutler was traded to Chicago in an embarrassing episode for all parties involved. This all started with the firing of the longest tenured HC in the NFL, Mike Shanahan, and the reviews of the new regime thus far have been lukewarm at best. First there was the debacle with Cutler. Then came a draft where six of the first 10 players chosen were on offense, despite defense being a clear need. After being drafted 12th overall, one would think Knowshon Moreno would be the every down back, but if that's the case why were JJ Arrington, Correll Buckhalter and LaMont Jordan all signed this past offseason? Plus, thanks to injury, the team used seven different starting RB's last year. They almost traded away their best WR too in Brandon Marshall, who along with Eddie Royal should see their respective numbers decrease with Kyle Orton now under center. The defense ranked 29th in the league in 2008. CB Champ Bailey turned 31 and had groin issues. There really is no strong unit on the entire team. The Broncos averaged 11 wins per season from 2003-05, but that number has dropped to eight per season the last three years, so it looks as if the worst has yet to come. We wouldn't be surprised if this was the worst season in Denver ever. One positive though is that they will be an underdog in most games and the law of averages suggest that they have to improve their recent ATS record (14-33-1 ATS), the worst such mark in the league during that span. Projected AFC West Standings
San Diego 13-3
Kansas City 5-11