In looking at the AFC West, as always, moving parts continues to evolve. Yet, one name still looks at the top.
“Aaaaaaand the hoooooooome… ooooooooof theeeeeee… CHIEEEEEEEFS”
That line, which bellows around Arrowhead Stadium eight times a regular season, has never been more true, with the defending Super Bowl Champion and AFC king Kansas City Chiefs having run the AFC West for the past four seasons.
Truth be told, the past three years could have been a lot better for Kansas City. Back in 2017, it took Marcus Mariota throwing a touchdown pass to himself, coupled with moronic playcalling by former Offensive Coordinator Matt Nagy, to eliminate the Chiefs. And in 2018, literal inches separated Dee Ford’s hand from the Lamar Hunt Trophy.
King of the Mountain
Make no mistake about it, this Chiefs organization, since 2016, is a dynasty. They are that good, and they remain that good. Without any gargantuan losses in free agency, it’s no surprise the Chiefs are going to be good again. However, adding Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the draft, giving Andy Reid another Brian Westbrook to mold into his offense, should add even another dimension.
Patrick Mahomes throwing to Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman, and Clyde Edwards-Helaire is something even a 10-year old with a Madden disc and trade override couldn’t fathom. It’s an impossible ask to defend.
It’s not a stretch to say Mahomes is the most talented quarterback of all time, nor to say he’s already a Hall of Famer. There are thirteen players to ever win both an MVP Award and a Super Bowl MVP. Nine are in the Hall of Fame. The remaining four are Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Patrick Mahomes. His resume is already better than almost everyone in the history of the league.
This defense had an incredibly hot streak last year, a large part of Kansas City’s finish as a number two seed, but it’s unfair to expect it to be elite. They just aren’t that unit. Luckily, they only need to be average for the Chiefs to be Super Bowl contenders again, but that’s a fair expectation for this unit.
I don’t see an argument as to why the Chiefs shouldn’t be favored for the Super Bowl at this point. Yes, this division is incredibly difficult. Yes, they face the division winner’s schedule. Also, no team has defended a Super Bowl championship since Patrick Mahomes was nine years old. However, this is the best chance any team has had in a long time.
As for the rest of the division, I feel almost certain saying Kansas City won’t be the only playoff team here. Why? Because the Denver Broncos exist.
Look at the previous two MVP winners. Both had incredible talent, which was well known, but hadn’t shown yet that they can really put it together for a complete game at the NFL level. Therefore, expectations were low, and they were blown out of the water. There’s a player in the league who fits that mold. He’s the starting quarterback for the Denver Broncos, and Drew Lock is going to be at least in the discussion for Most Valuable Player by the end of this year.
Mile High Resurgence
This Denver Broncos team would probably be favorites for half of the league’s divisions. I truly believe they are that good. Not only do I believe in Drew Lock, who has a lot of the good Jay Cutler in him without a lot of the bad Jay Cutler, but the rest of that offense is lethal. First of all, a wide receiving corps of Jerry Jeudy, KJ Hamler, and Courtland Sutton may be the most multi-dimensional group in the league. That’s a clinical route runner, one of the fastest players to ever put on a helmet, and one of the league’s most underrated players.
Ground and Pound
Next off, their running game is going to be incredibly solid due to the fact that Mike Munchak, the offensive line coach that got Le’Veon Bell an unfathomable amount of money and then got the league to realize he wasn’t worth it because of James Conner’s success, has a plethora of options at his disposal in the running game. This offseason has been so long, you probably forgot that Melvin Gordon signed with the Broncos and may very well be their third most talented running back. Overall, they could shock the AFC.
Front Seven Heat
Lastly, they have Von Miller, Jurell Casey, and Bradley Chubb rushing the passer on every play. Their secondary depth is a weak point, but when quarterbacks don’t have more than three seconds to throw, it’s allowed to be. Even still, they have arguably the best safety in football in Justin Simmons ball-hawking behind AJ Bouye, which most teams would be frothing at the mouth trying to get.
If the Broncos aren’t contenders this year, it’s either because of injuries, or it’s because Vic Fangio tried to turn one of his elite edge rushers into a coverage linebacker, which is a massive worry I have. They need to scheme smarter to compete in the AFC West.
The Los Angeles Chargers took a fancy new quarterback in the draft to complement their fancy new stadium this year, one in which they are a very popular pick to make some noise. They are a good team, no doubt, but I truly wonder where the potential Super Bowl expectations are coming from.
Pass Rush Demons
This defense is that caliber. Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa are just as good as Miller and Chubb, and this secondary is second to none in the AFC or National Football League. I mean, Chris Harris, a perennial Pro Bowl talent, is probably their fourth-best defensive back. There are very few defenses in football, at least in 2020, who can drag their teams to a winning record, and this is one of them. Unfortunately, they might have to.
I almost feel bad for Keenan Allen. This is the prime of his career, and he had to deal with a very bad Philip Rivers last year, and then is going to be the face of yet another quarterback battle involving a rookie and Tyrod Taylor. The last time that happened, Hue Jackson was run out of the sport because it was handled so horribly. One of the AFC’s best goes underappreciated.
I just don’t think this offense is that great. The offensive line is solid, though it was thrown together in an offseason in which it’s going to be impossible to build true cohesion. The top two receivers are really good, though the rest of them are, to be nice, problematic. Hunter Henry is very good when he’s actually playing, but that seems to be significantly less often nowadays.
There are some serious 2018 Bears vibes in this Chargers team. That team had a historically good defense, and in spite of a bad offense, went 12-4. I think that’s a tough ask for this Chargers team, but I don’t think a playoff push is unfathomable if they can come even close to putting up twenty points a game.
As for the Las Vegas Raiders, there’s a lot to be said about this team. I don’t necessarily think they are actually that bad. Contrary to what NFL Twitter seems to think, Derek Carr isn’t a CFL quarterback masking as an NFL one. He’s not a superstar, but he’s an NFL talent.
If Kolton Miller ceases to be a revolving door at left tackle, this offensive line is going to be really good, which should allow for a great running game, which is going to be a necessity for this team to have success. Henry Ruggs is incredible, but he is the face of a receiving corps made up of slot receivers, twenty different tight ends, and literally Nelson Agholor. That’s not exactly inspiring. Can they contend in the loaded AFC?
I’m very much intrigued by this defense, though. Maxx Crosby looks to have been one of the biggest steals in the 2019 draft. Opposite Clelin Farrell, that is a very high ceiling for this defensive line, a unit that also happens to be one of the deepest in the league. Look for him to terrorize the rest of the AFC.
As for the secondary, I’m also very intrigued, but less convinced. I truly do believe Damon Arnette is the next Darius Slay, a bona fide star at the NFL level. However, Prince Amukamara isn’t the guy he used to be, Lamarcus Joyner isn’t a star, and Amik Robertson is very much a development piece right now. Should two of those guys establish themselves, which is certainly possible, it’s a really good unit. I just have a hard time saying it is probable.
If both Amukamara and Arnette start, the Raiders are going to have six defensive starters that weren’t with the team last year, to go along with three who are only in their second year. Maurice Hurst, drafted in the same year as Baker Mayfield, is a veteran on this defense. So yeah, the risk potential there is monumental.
As much as I’d love to say Denver is going to pull away with the division, I just can’t bring myself to bet against Patrick Mahomes. This is Kansas City’s division to lose, and they aren’t going to. Denver is going to give them a run for their money, however, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see Kansas City’s Week 17 tilt against the Chargers matter for more than just seeding.
As for the Chargers, I’m going to put them around 9 or 10 wins. Borderline playoff team, depending on just how dominant their defense is. And Vegas? I won’t be stunned if they win three games, I won’t be stunned if they win nine. Realistically though, anything above six should probably be seen as a solid campaign in 2020.
The AFC Championship should run through the Western Divison.