With the Kansas City Chiefs entering their bye week, now is a good time to take a hard look around the AFC West division. There have been a fair share of surprises, disappointments and turnarounds. As the Chiefs get set to recover during their week off, they are suddenly in first place in the division at 7-4. This comes after they were last in the division just a few short weeks ago. Additionally, Kansas City is now just one game behind the number seed in the AFC.
All of the teams inside the AFC West are within 1.5 games of each other. The Los Angeles Chargers enter Week 12 at 6-4, whereas each of the Las Vegas Raiders and the Denver Broncos are 5-5. Notable streaks include Kansas City holding a four game win streak and the Raiders holding a three game losing streak.
Today, we will be focusing on each of the Chiefs’ rivals and giving our own thoughts on where they stand. What could recent trends tell us about each team’s finish to the 2021 season? Plus, how sturdy does each of those team’s outlooks appear going into 2022 and beyond? Let’s kick it off with who appears to be the most challenging rival to Kansas City for the remainder of 2021.
Los Angeles Chargers
Herbert Fully Loaded
In just 25 career games, Justin Herbert has been absolutely flawless. His better numbers in his career include a completion percentage of 66.4 percent, a touchdown to interception ratio of 53:18, 7.3 yards per pass attempt, 11.1 yards per completion, 50 sacks taken (just two per game) and 8 total game winning drives led. To put it simply, Herbert has been one of the more valuable quarterbacks to enter the league in recent history. Just think how close he was to not even playing hardly at all last year in his rookie season. A freak accident to Tyrod Taylor could become the same type of opening that Drew Bledsoe’s freak injury was in allowing Tom Brady to step into the fold in New England back in the day. By no means, am I making the same comparison from Herbert to Brady.
Nonetheless, Herbert displays most attributes that teams are striving to have in their franchise quarterback. He brings tremendous touch, accuracy, anticipation and an aggressive mindset to the equation. While that has not always led to victories, the Chargers are much more dangerous than they were just a couple of years ago. Keenan Allen is well on pace to set a new career high in receptions. His best mark in that category is 104 from 2019. Allen currently sits at 74 for the season. More importantly for the Chargers offense, Mike Williams has begun to stay more healthy and is displaying more explosive play opportunities. This has been expected of him for a while. Now, Williams is coming into his own, just as he is set to enter free agency after this season.
Finally, Los Angeles finally has a solid run game and offensive line mix to lean on. This allows the team to dictate their pace of play and alter if need be on a weekly basis. Can the Chargers come out and compete in a shootout? Yes. Will LA be able to ice the game with more finesse? Certainly. The only question surrounding this exciting Chargers offense, surrounds adjustments. Can this team continually climb out of a hole and steer the ship after a slow start? It feels like they have been playing too slow for the last month, at least up until the Sunday night victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers last week. Any hesitation like that in this playoff push could become more fatal down the line.
Flipping over to the Chargers defense, this is the area where Los Angeles has begun to fall flat. And it is not just coming at a slight rate. As a matter of fact, the Chargers have regressed in nearly every category over the last five to six games. The one that stands out the most is points allowed.
The Chargers have allowed 27 points or more in five of the last six games. Amazingly, they have somehow gone 3-2 in those outings. The high points allowed totals have come due to an increase in explosive plays allowed, according to Sharp Football Analysis, as well as failure to get off the field. Opposing offenses are converting on a whopping 46.83 percent of third down attempts against this Chargers defense. That is second worst in the NFL, only ahead of Washington. None of that is usually part of a winning formula come playoff time.
Possibly most fearful for the Chargers, is the little amount of impact their defensive stars have provided recently. Asante Samuel Jr. enjoyed a red hot start to his rookie campaign through the first month. Yet, injuries have slowed him down. The rest of the secondary, including Derwin James, have been largely quiet and panicked without him. Moreover, Joey Bosa and the pass rush appears slower and is being manhandled each and every week by lesser offensive lines. Thus, the opponents are not feeling the heat to make perfect passes or get the ball out quickly.
Charging To The Top?
Los Angeles must still continue to cash in on the bigger stages. However, the Chargers do appear to be the Chiefs most compelling challenger within the AFC West in the near future. With Herbert and the bright mind of first year head coach Brandon Staley, this team is never going to be an easy out. They have also begun to play the Chiefs a lot more stout in recent years. In fact, the Chargers still have a chance to sweep Kansas City in 2021.
In 2022 and beyond, the offense is built to win for a lengthy period. They can choose to run a balanced attack if they want. It also helps that they have running back Austin Ekeler signed through 2023. Premium investments made into offensive linemen Rashawn Slater, Corey Linsley and Matt Feiler have also paid dividends.
Though defensively, arguments could be made that the Chargers have areas to improve at all three levels. Bosa needs a new running mate at the opposite defensive end spot. The team never truly replaced now current Chief Melvin Ingram. Impact players could step in and deliver for more than replaceable players currently serving at linebacker or defensive back as well. If they can hit on those additions, the Chargers could become a consistent contender.
Las Vegas Raiders
All For Naught?
On the field, it has largely been a rinse and repeat for the Raiders offense, compared to what we have seen in recent seasons. A strong, rejuvenated start by Derek Carr has only transitioned into a steady nosedive. Carr opened the season as the league’s best deep ball passer through the first two months. He was hitting on explosive play after explosive play, due to improved ball placement and a more aggressive nature.
Over the course of the last three weeks, Carr and the Raiders have hit a bump in the road. Drives have no flow. Carr has been all over the place and his early accuracy is gone. To boot, turnovers have increased.
Around Carr, the offseason shakeup on the offensive line has finally caught up with the Raiders. Youth and inexperience in that regard is leading to more penalties, missed assignments and more pressure on Carr. Josh Jacobs and Kenyan Drake have not been horrible at running back. Yet, finding consistent tracking has been routinely challenging. The wide receiver room is also largely barren outside of Hunter Renfrow. Maybe, Bryan Edwards can continue to ascend. The Raiders are now deprived of speed, due to the unfortunate situation with Henry Ruggs III, though. Overall, Las Vegas should feel no hesitation to make major changes across this entire offense after the season.
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Defensively, there are many players that are becoming potential franchise cornerstones early on in their careers. The production Maxx Crosby has had at defensive end over his first two and a half seasons has been much needed. In 42 career games, he has already amassed 50 quarterback hits, 36 tackles for loss and 22 sacks. His rare combination of length, instincts and short area quickness present a unique challenge for blockers.
Elsewhere, defensive backs like Trevon Moehrig, Brandon Facyson and Nate Hobbs are making a strong case to hold down starting jobs in a secondary that has been leaky recently. Even Keisean Nixon and Dallin Leavitt are sound complementary pieces. Add in veteran leadership from Johnathan Hankins, Yannick Ngakoue, Denzel Perryman, Casey Hayward and others and this unit has tremendous potential. Executing at a consistently high level is still a work in progress, nevertheless.
Buy Or Sell?
There are many issues that need fixed entering 2022 and beyond for the Las Vegas Raiders. Mainly, the two most important parts of an NFL team must be figured out for the next long term future of the franchise. Do you buy into another contract with Carr? Or, is it time to finally transition into a new era at quarterback? Additionally, the head coaching aspect will be a highly viewed topic. Interim head coach Rich Bisaccia appears to motivate the players well. He is a great communicator, leader and seems more player friendly than past Raiders head coaches. Can he finish off the season well enough to instill confidence in the Vegas’ brass?
Over the last couple of years, the Denver Broncos have built a deep and talented offensive group. Wide receivers like Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick were each small gambles that have paid off handsomely. Both Sutton (four years/$60.8 million) and Patrick (three years/$34.5 million) just signed contract extensions within the last week. That ensures Denver will have two highly productive pass catchers (when healthy) in the fold for a good while. Not to mention other top flight pass catchers on rookie contracts, like Jerry Jeudy and Noah Fant.
This past spring, the Broncos traded up in the second round to select running back Javonte Williams out of North Carolina. While Melvin Gordon has enjoyed a solid season so far, he is a free agent after this season. Williams is already providing impressively dependable results in a split workload. The rookie is already providing five yards per carry and 5.3 yards per reception this season. He is a hammer who will overpower opposing tacklers in one on one matchups. Combine that with his field vision, patience and sneaky quickness and the Broncos can rely on him as a bell cow back.
Quietly, this offensive line in Denver has gone from laughing stock to a commanding unit. Draft picks like Dalton Risner, Lloyd Cushenberry III and Quinn Meinerz give this team a reliable, younger interior for a handful of years. Garett Bolles went from first round bust to honorable blindside protector out of nowhere as well.
Overall this season, the Broncos defense has still been hard working. They are not going away easily and will answer the challenge of playing some of the league’s best opposing offenses, just ask the Dallas Cowboys. But, injuries and the movement of franchise stars have put this Denver defense in an awkward transition period.
Gone is Super Bowl 50 MVP, Pro Bowler and All-Pro Von Miller after a midseason trade with the Rams. He never truly got the chance to combine forces with 2018 first round pick Bradley Chubb. Both dealt with their fair share of injuries over the last few seasons. Chubb has dealt with more ailments in 2021, namely an ankle injury. Others like starting linebackers Josey Jewell and Alexander Johnson have been lost for the season due to injury. And now, veterans like Kareem Jackson, Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby appear to be slowing down.
This is still a tough, physical defense. Denver is faced with many issues though, regarding early reps for younger players who may not be ready. Also, the Broncos have to start deciding who they may have to move on from earlier than they had hoped.
Wide Ranging Options
Issues surrounding Denver going into 2022 and beyond are very similar to that of the Raiders. However, their sum of parts may be greater than Las Vegas’ parts currently. As mentioned above, the offensive infrastructure is quite deep and talented. Finding the right quarterback has been a neverending mystery since Peyton Manning helped win Super Bowl 50. 11 different quarterbacks have started at least one game since Manning’s retirement.
The question for the Broncos is, how do they go about addressing the position? They were rumored to be in on the Matthew Stafford trade sweepstakes last offseason. Aaron Rodgers has long been connected to the team as well, if/when he decides to leave Green Bay. But, the veteran quarterback route has not been too kind to them in the past. Will next offseason’s options be more valuable?
Adding via the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft does not look too promising right now. It is one of the weaker quarterback classes in a few years, with no clear QB1. Possibly, Denver does not want to add a rookie after just previously drafting Drew Lock in the second round of 2019. At the same time, this team opted to pass on viable first round options this past spring in Justin Fields and Mac Jones. That is no indictment on Patrick Surtain II either. Seeing Denver pass on one of those options back in April was highly surprising, however.
Lastly, the future looks middling at best with head coach Vic Fangio. His decision making process and lack of preparation at times has left the Broncos up and down. Fangio was one of the league’s greatest defensive coordinators in the 2000s and 2010s. But, that has not translated to his first gig as a head coach. Will the Broncos feel like they can make a more sound upgrade at head coach entering 2022?
Be on the lookout for more FPC Chiefs articles throughout this week. For more great sports and NFL content, stay tuned to Full Press Coverage.
– Braden Holecek is the Kansas City Chiefs managing editor for Full Press Coverage. He covers the NFL. Like and follow on Follow @ebearcat9//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js Follow @FPC_Chiefs//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js and Facebook.
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