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Leaving the NFC, we move on to the AFC West, which in my opinion held the biggest surprise (Kansas City), biggest disappointment (Denver), and the most consistently sad team (Oakland) in the AFC.  Despite the unimpressive records of the 3 teams not named the Chiefs in 2010, there is a lot of potential in this division (for boom or bust), from top to bottom.

And you thought we could go a whole article on the Broncos and not show a picture of Tebow.

Denver Broncos

Cole: Editors note, I did not approve of the picture to the right. Calm down Florida fans and residents. Calm down Bronco fans. Tim Tebow is not your quarterback. I’ll give you a moment to collect yourselves… good? Okay. This is a good thing. Kyle Orton is simply a better player right now than Tim Tebow, and I would guess he will be down the road as well. The Broncos made the right call getting John Fox as their head coach as well. This is a team heading the right direction, but it’s going to be a year or two before the Broncos start seriously competing. Sorry, did I say a year or two? Because this is a bad division that is very up in the air. They had a lot of picks this draft, and Von Miller looks solid at linebacker (he’d look better as a 3-4 lb) and Rahim Moore looks the heir apparent to Dawkins at safety. Knowshon looks stronger running in this system and could experience a resurgence. They also have Brandon Lloyd returning with big play potential. Still this is a team that lacks serious presence at the defensive tackle position. Elvis Dumervil is a pass rusher specialist. At the point of attack he struggles. Teams will be able to run on the Broncos, and it’s tough to win games when a team can keep your offense off the field and off rhythm. This will be a well coached team with good quarterback play and a strong running game, but they’re just not quite enough to push the Broncos into the playoffs.

Andy: Denver had an unbelievably miserable season, at 4-12 being the second worst team in the NFL in 2010.  As a result, Josh McDaniels was given the boot and replaced with former Panthers coach John Fox, who has understandably tried to upgrade what was a very poor (by poor of course, I mean terrible) defense.  Four of Denver’s first five picks in the draft were on defense, and two of those players, Von Miller and Rahim Moore, will start in their rookie seasons.  Denver is also switching to a 4-3 defense, which should help the likes of Robert Ayers and Brodrick Bunkley, but it is unknown how well sack-master Elvis Dumervil will perform as a full-time DE.  The Broncos also drafted Orlando Franklin in the second round to play opposite Ryan Clady at RT, with at least the exterior of the Broncos offensive line looking to be very solid.  This is good, because I am not sold on their running backs.  Knowshon Moreno has only looked average, and Willis McGahee cannot carry a team.  Considering John Fox is known to push the run game more, this could be a problem.  In the air, Kyle Orton is not a great QB, but is much better than most people give him credit for.  He could lead a team to the playoffs.  Brandon Lloyd and Eddie Royal make for a solid 1-2, but there is not much behind them, and they have a whole mess of middle-of –the-road TEs as well.  Overall, I think this team has to improve from last year, even dramatically, but not enough to be a serious playoff contender.

Oakland Raiders

Cole: Here we are again Raiders fans. Another season without significant upgrades, and in fact they’ve gone quite the opposite situation. Losing Nnamdi is going to be brutal for this team that hasn’t had to deal with a top receiving threat for several years. DeMarcus Van Dyke has looked like a rookie in preseason trying to step in. It’s simply going to be a rough transition. Their linebacker group features a promising young player in Rolando McClain, but lacks a lot to pair with him. Their defensive line has some play makers, but will need to carry this unit. On offense there’s a lot more to like. The Raiders will feature a three-headed monster in Run DMC (Darren McFadden), Michael Bush, and rookie Taiwan Jones from Eastern Washington who simply looks explosive. Their run blocking has not been a problem for several years and their quarterback play is decent… when they have time. The pass protection struggles frequently, and without elite wide receivers to get separation quickly Jason Campbell will be under pressure a lot. Zach Miller left, along with Robert Gallery, for greener pastures in Seattle. Both of those losses will hurt. Expect the Raiders to play a lot like last season. They’ll be a thorn in teams sides, compete hard the whole time, but will struggle to play consistently. They also picked up Terrell Pryor. Hue Jackson, now head coach, has been an excellent quarterback coach, but if he can’t get this team moving in the right direction in a hurry he might not have the time to mold Pryor. Plus, Pryor has more value to them as a WR, which is where they should use him.

Andy: Ah, the Oakland Raiders.  The AFC team that makes all the other AFC teams feel better about themselves.  This once proud organization (that I admit I have no goodwill towards) has become a laughingstock due in large part to the very poor management of former great Al Davis.  Al finally realized their weakness at offensive line and drafted a couple in the 2nd and 3rd round, but they’re not projected to be starters.  The line blocks well enough for Darren McFadden (from now on known as Run DMC) and Michael Bush, but are poor pass-protectors.  It doesn’t help that the man under center, Jason Campbell, struggles when under pressure.  The team lacks anything special at WR either, with their #1 WR Louis Murphy being a #2 at best on other teams (and Heyward-Bey is not the worst bust for Oakland in the last decade only because of that other QB who will not be named).  The defensive front seven I have no large complaints about, but it is their secondary that is their Achilles ’ heel.  It wasn’t great before even with Nnamdi Asomugah, and there is no replacing the greatest CB in the league.  They didn’t even really bother replacing him with a good CB anyways.  I expect Philip Rivers, Matt Cassel, and Kyle Orton to go pass-happy against Oakland.  I pity poor Hue Jackson, a man I think can be a great coach who is more likely to end up steamrolled by Al like so many other Oakland coaches.  Overall, however, this team is not as bad as in several other years past, and can be competitive in games.  I just don’t like them to win very many of them.

Kansas City Chiefs

Cole: The Chiefs are thriving on a power running game, smart quarterback play and a decent defense. Sadly, running into elite teams it’s hard to win without explosive quarterback play and good defense. They came out of no where last year, surprising San Diego and Denver, but Cassel will need to take the next step if they want to maintain their place and compete with teams like Pittsburgh, New England, Gren Bay, and New York (all featured on their schedule). This is a team that will beat up on teams they’re better than and play close to teams more talented than they are. They picked up Steve Breaston along with several veterans out of Baltimore – Kelly Gregg, Jared Gaither, and LeRon McClain – to provide some leadership and playoff experience. Unfortunately, their draft picks look like they’ll be lacking punch. Jonathan Baldwin sounds as spoiled his plummeting draft stock indicated. Justin Houston has made some very nice plays in preseason, but probably won’t find the field regularly til later in the year. Jamaal Charles and Dexter McCluster look good at running back, and Dwayne Bowe is a beast on the outside. Their line picked up Rodney Hudson and should return mostly intact this year. Defensively they’ve made strides, and Eric Berry is learning to roam the back. First round picks Tyson Jackson and Glenn Dorsey will line up with Gregg, and if Jackson cannot improve his game rookie Allen Bailey out of Miami might find more time there. Tamba Hali is a phenomenal pass rusher but there isn’t much to put with him until Justin Houston is ready. Their secondary is young and talented, but inexperienced. Expect this unit to be better both against run and the pass, but probably not elite at stopping either. The Chiefs can beat every team in this league, but they’ll need some breaks and players playing above their level in order to do so. Don’t sleep on a repeat to the playoffs this year though.

Andy: Kansas City was the surprise team of last season, then got whomped in the playoffs by Baltimore, showing they had a long way to come before being able to get to the Super Bowl.  Sadly, I do not think they got very far in that quest.  Jonathan Baldwin, their first round WR pick, is a diva and has not shown anything special in the preseason so far, a trend I think will continue into 2011.  Dwayne Bowe and Jamaal Charles are likely to be pro-bowlers for many more years, and will be the ones to carry this offense.  Moeaki is a solid TE and Steve Breaston is a solid pickup at WR, but they could use one more if Baldwin does not turn it around.  I am still not sold on Matt Cassel, especially now that he is not working with Charlie Weis.  I just don’t think he’s that strong a game manager and QB.  The defensive line is ok, but even with the signing of Kelly Gregg does not show any hint of becoming a dominant force and stopping the run.  The linebackers are, well, they’re ok, except for the monster known as Tamba Hali.  He needs some serious help in the sack department, however, and they’re hoping newly drafted Justin Houston can do so.  The secondary is filled with so much young talent that it’s mind-boggling.  The four starters combined have 8 years of playing in the NFL, and I believe each to be very good, with Eric Berry becoming a top 5 FS in the game this season.  Their schedule works against Kansas City, with the NFC North and AFC East, as well as Pittsburgh and Indianapolis.  Last year’s Cinderella is going to fall back to earth this year.

The best QB west of the Mississippi?

San Diego Chargers

Cole: Ah yes, the San Diego Super Chargers. The Worst Special Teams team in the history of the NFL. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s hard to have the top offense and defense and finish 9-7 without that being close to the truth. Like every year we talk about the Chargers before the season, this team is loaded with talent. Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates, Vincent Jackson, Malcolm Floyd, and newly signed Patrick Crayton should make the air game lethal again. Their line is solid, featuring a couple of pro bowl caliber guys and some positions that could be improved. The question is whether Ryan Mathews can step into the limelight and produce like he was drafted to produce. I’d bet on Tolbert syphoning goal line carries again. On defense, rookie Corey Liuget looks legit, but can’t even find the starting lineup because of veteran Jacques Cesaire and Luis Castillo. The haven’t replaced their nose tackle, and their interior linebackers continue to be average. Their secondary is filled with more talented players – Quentin Jammer, Antoine Cason, Eric Weddle, and new addition Bob Sanders. They resigned pass rush specialist Antwan Barnes, who continues to reach the quarterback when allowed but frequently cannot play the run. Larry English is also on his last legs if he doesn’t step up. The Chargers should be dominant, particularly in a division like this.

Andy: The team with the #1 offense AND the #1 defense went 9-7?  This year they prove 2010 was an anomaly and not the future of the Chargers.  The Chargers continue to have a terrifying passing attack.  A top 5 QB in Philip Rivers, an elite WR in Vincent Jackson, Malcolm Floyd and Patrick Crayton as the #2 and 3 WRs, and the best TE in the game in Antonio Gates.  Ryan Matthews is still a big question mark (and in my opinion a potential bust), but converted FB Mike Tolbert just plows over people and will handle goal line and 3rd and short duties.  The SD front 3 (they play a 3-4) is alright, but the LB corps is very solid.  Shaun Phillips is an underrated pass rusher, Travis LaBoy a fairly good ROLB, Takeo Spikes, though getting old, is a reliable MLB.  Donald Butler, the 3rd round pick from 2010, and the 2011 2nd round pick Jonas Mouton are fighting for the 2nd MLB spot, but neither looks ready to be a full-time NFL starter (they may perhaps sign a vet).  The secondary is quite strong, and Eric Weddle is a man who always has to be accounted for.  Bob Sanders was a high-risk, high-reward signing at SS.  I expect this team to return to form and go into the playoffs as a potential Super Bowl contender.

PREDICTIONS

Denver: Andy & Cole – 7-9

Oakland: Andy & Cole – 6-10

Kansas City: Andy – 7-9 / Cole – 9 – 7

San Diego: Andy 10-6 / Cole – 11 – 6

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