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2011 AFC West Preview: Chargers To Bolt Back To The Top

Will Robinson |
September 6, 2011 | 11:44 a.m. PDT

Staff Writer

The Chargers have the most talent in the division. (Dirk/Wikimedia Commons)
The Chargers have the most talent in the division. (Dirk/Wikimedia Commons)
The NFL season is finally within a three-day count, and is the country buzzing. The national game is close to its official 2011 debut.

With the season about to kick off, it’s always that time for some team previews. Since Neon Tommy is based in Los Angeles, we will be primarily focusing on the western divisions in the NFL: the AFC and NFC West.

Unfortunately, both of these divisions were the worst in their respective conference; the NFC West's winner had a losing record!

But never fear. While they may not be up to par with the AFC East or NFC North, the Wests are poised to make a legitimate comeback this season.

1. San Diego Chargers (Prediction: 11-5)

Last year, the Chargers gained the most yards and allowed the fewest in the league.

And yet they missed the playoffs, proof in and of itself that yards are not the tell-all statistic. They were the favorites to win the division, but extremely terrible special teams squashed their hopes.

Offense: Quarterback Philip Rivers turned in another spectacular year, as he tossed the ball for 4,710 yards, 30 scores and only 13 picks. Rivers accomplished those numbers without his number one wide receiver, Vincent Jackson, for 11 games, and without TE Antonio Gates for six. Rivers should be considered in the very top echelon of quarterbacks. The fact that he hasn't won a Super Bowl yet is not a mark on his abilities; he is an All-Pro-level talent.

Ryan Mathews, the supposed rookie phenom running back, was largely disappointing in an injury-plagued first season. He was supposed to be LaDainian Tomlinson's heir, but did not impress in his rookie year.

Chargers LB Shaun Phillips (Wikimedia Commons)
Chargers LB Shaun Phillips (Wikimedia Commons)
Defense: Linebacker Shaun Phillips (pictured left) was very good last year, as he racked up 11 sacks. And Eric Weddle earned a ridiculously large contract for a safety, which will make Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed very happy next season.

Rookie defensive tackle Corey Liuget will shore up the middle of their line, and other first-year players Marcus Gilchrist (cornerback) and Jonas Mouton (linebacker) will plug some holes lost in free agency.

Warm Welcome: The most intriguing addition San Diego made was adding safety Bob Sanders. Sanders, when healthy, is Defensive Player of the Year quality. However, he is extremely allergic to the injury bug. He was hurt the first game in 2010 and missed the whole year. When on the field, Sanders is an amazing playmaker who could help San Diego.

Fix It: The disappointment lied with the special teams. The punt team could not handle anything and their special teams' coverage was atrocious. 

Conclusion: If those special teams issues are resolved, then the Chargers will make it back to the top of the division this year, and may finally have post-season success.

2. Oakland Raiders (Prediction: 8-8)

The Raiders have been the butt of cruel, but warranted jokes of ineptitude since they lost the Super Bowl in 2003. After the '03 season, Oakland lost over ten games every year. Well, until last year. The Raiders finally returned to the promise land of mediocrity in 2010.

Oakland RB Darren McFadden. (Jeffrey Beall/Wikimedia Commons)
Oakland RB Darren McFadden. (Jeffrey Beall/Wikimedia Commons)
Offense: After poor seasons, running back Darren McFadden (pictured right) finally backed up his No. 4 overall selection with an electric season, compiling 1,664 yards from scrimmage and ten touchdowns. Jason Campbell, the Washington Redskins' longtime quarterback pariah, was shipped to Oakland to be their guy for the foreseeable future. After a rocky start, Campbell righted his ship and seems to have that job relatively secure. For the first time in his career, he will be in the same offense two consecutive years.

Defense: Oakland's D was not awful last year, but it was not in the elite class either. Defensive end Richard Seymour and cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha led the squad through remarkable displays (Week 7 against Denver, Week 13 against San Diego and Week 17 against Kansas City) and some awful ones (Week 1 against Tennessee, Weeks 11 and 12 against Pittsburgh and Miami, respectively).

Key Stat: The shocking thing about the Raiders' season was that they went undefeated in the AFC West – 6 wins, 0 losses – and failed to make the playoffs. Unfortunately, they won’t make the leap this year.

Farewell: Oakland lost two of its most important players in Asomugha and tight end Zach Miller – the team's most consistent passing target – to free agency. Though offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, the man responsible for invigorating the Oakland offense, was promoted to the main job, the offensive talent is lacking outside of McFadden.

Conclusion: The Raiders also benefitted from the dysfunction of the Charger, but that is not likely to continue. Oakland stands to repeat its result from the 2010 season by going .500 again in 2011.

3. Kansas City Chiefs (Prediction: 7-9)

Chiefs QB Matt Cassel (Jeffrey Beall/Wikimedia Commons)
Chiefs QB Matt Cassel (Jeffrey Beall/Wikimedia Commons)
Out of the eight division winners in 2010, Kansas City was by far the most shocking. The previous year, they were 4-12. And yet, they beat out the highly-producing Chargers to represent the AFC West in the post-season. The fact that Baltimore slaughtered them in the Wild Card Round is irrelevant: Kansas City took the league by storm.

Reasons for Success: The Chiefs surprised the league for four main reasons: a really easy schedule, Dwayne Bowe, Jamaal Charles and Tamba Hali. First, the Chiefs played the NFC West and the AFC South – not difficult top-to-bottom by any means. And yes, the rest of the teams in the AFC West played the same teams, but K.C. also drew Cleveland and Jacksonville outside of the rotation - two relatively easy victories.

Offense: Dwayne Bowe produced huge numbers because of the historically poor pass defenses he played, including the mess that was Houston's secondary.

Independent of many variables, Jamaal Charles was a marvel to watch last season. Charles routinely eviscerated defenses on the ground or after the catch. He averaged 6.39 yards per carry – 2nd-highest of all-time for a running back with 200-plus carries. The only person that stopped Jamaal Charles from reaching 2,000 yards was head coach Todd Haley, whose love affair with the ineffective Thomas Jones kept Charles off the field more than he should have been.

Defense: Tamba Hali was as a premier pass rusher last year, as he compiled 14.5 sacks and made his first Pro Bowl. Hali was a phenomenal pass rusher and KC's only threat in that dimension of their game.

Due to Fall: This season will be much harder for the Chiefs. The youth they have on their team, particularly in the defensive backfield with safety Eric Berry and the Brandons (Carr and Flowers), will have developed another full season, but their schedule is killer. They play the AFC East and NFC North – featuring three elite teams and a couple good ones. And in the AFC North and South, the Chiefs draw difficult matchups against Indianapolis and Pittsburgh.

Quarterback Matt Cassel will also not be as effective as he was last season. Only 1.6-percent of his passes were intercepted last season, which was better than Peyton Manning at 2.5-percent. He will certainly regress.

Conclusion: The front office did add more aerial threats with rookie receiver Jonathan Baldwin and veteran Steve Breaston, but Kansas City got lucky last season, and are due to lose more games in 2011.

4. Denver Broncos (Prediction: 6-10)

The Broncos have been in the dumps for years now, ever since they lost the 2006 AFC Championship game at home. Since then, they have won more than 8 games once and have failed to make the post-season.

So Long, Josh: The controversy surrounding the team last year dealt with former head coach Josh McDaniels, who decided it would be okay to allow his staff to participate in an extra-curricular film project. That didn’t sit well with owner Pat Bowlen, as his beloved Broncos were ponies on the gridiron. So, McDaniels was canned.

Where They Left Off: Their defense was extremely penetrable – they allowed the most yards and points per game – and their running game was suspect at best. Wide receiver Brandon Lloyd had a breakout season, leading the league with 1448 yards, along with 77 catches and 11 scores, but his team couldn't do much else besides giving him the ball.

Broncos DE Elvis Dumervil
Broncos DE Elvis Dumervil
New Boss: Head coach John Fox wanted to change the attitude in Dove Valley. His first draft selection was pass rushing extraordinaire Von Miller, linebacker from Texas A&M. Though it is just the preseason, Miller has looked like the real deal. Paired with former All-Pro defensive end Elvis Dumervil (pictured right), the two could produce a deadly pass rushing duo.

The Broncos should run the ball more than last year, in which they were 27th in attempts and 26th in yards. Running back Knowshon Moreno should get some more carries, but newly-acquired Willis McGahee will be visible as well – Fox likes using two backs.

QB Controversy: But of course, the only focus that has been on Denver has been regarding the quarterbacks. Will Tim Tebow start? Will Kyle Orton be traded? Will Brady Quinn look interested? Who is Adam Weber?

Orton was supposedly on his way out, but a trade that would have sent him to Miami fell apart. So, the Broncos are holding onto him, mainly because there were no available trades that they like. They also gave Orton a roster bonus. Oh, and Tebow is not close at all to being a regular NFL signal caller.

The best possible outcome for the Broncos is eight wins, should everything go right. However, our prediction of 6-10 this season will be too good to acquire Andrew Luck's services, but too bad to grab a Wild Card berth. There is no doubt the Broncos will improve from their 2010 incarnation, but not enough to escape the cellar of the division.


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