Reason for Pessimism: Of all NFL teams this may be the one that's most difficult to be pessimistic about. Perhaps there is some concern that they don't have a proven running back, or when you think of the secondary you can't get rid of the image of Joe Flacco connecting with Jacoby Jones in the overtime loss. Or if you want to wonder how Peyton Manning can do it again at 37-years-old. Tough to be pessimistic about that.
Reason for Optimism: Last year Denver won 11 in a row heading into the playoffs. And this will be year two with essentially the same personnel, yet improved. The trio of Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker is as good as it gets from a pass-catching point of view. The Broncos offensive line has improved with Louis Vasquez and the defensive line got better with Terrance Knighton, who defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio had in Jacksonville. But the bottom line is Manning. He would like to leave football on top and you know Manning's time is running short. All they need to improve is the running game, which was rated 16th at the end of the season, and the turnover ratio (-1).
Reality: Can Manning again throw the ball 583 times, producing 37 touchdown passes? Yes he can.
Prediction: AFC West Division winner and Super Bowl contender.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
Reason for Pessimism: The critical turnover ratio was a stunning -24 last year. Wow! They were 29th in sacks, 31st in interceptions, 27th in rushing defence, and 25th in scoring defence. The Chiefs have a long way to go...
Reason for Optimism: ...that means they have nowhere to go but up and they have the coach to do it. Andy Reid has done it before and he can do it again. The NFC championship game was his biggest hurdle, but he knows how to produce a winner and this must be a refreshing challenge for him after a lengthy stay in Philadelphia. And yes, he has his quarterback. In 2011, Alex Smith set the NFL record for fewest turnovers allowed by a quarterback, only to lose to the Giants in the 2012 NFC championship games, and of course the Giants won it all that year. He is not a big-time playmaker, but he knows how to avoid mistakes. That's equally important. The thing about the Chiefs is they have a lot of good Pro Bowl players, but they are in need of a system and structure to execute. Reid has that so the mesh between coach and talent is very good. The offensive line will have two good edge protectors and the defensive line will have two good edge pass rushers. You add two good cornerbacks and maybe the most explosive running back in the division with Jamaal Charles, and the Chiefs have a real opportunity right now.
Reality: Denver beat KC last year by 14 and 35 points. This year it will be tougher and I would not be surprised if KC won one of those critical division games. Denver is better, but the coaching and talent gap is closing.
Prediction: 2nd in the AFC West .
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
Reason for Pessimism: The Mike McCoy era starts with the Chargers and his top priority has to be quarterback play and ball security. Philip Rivers has been a part of 49 turnovers in the last two years and experienced 49 quarterback sacks in the 2012 season. Rivers at one time was considered in the same sentence as Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, but now he is entering his tenth year, and what was a position of stability is now a position of concern. This is a new start for the Chargers as the offensive coordinator (Ken Whisenhunt), defensive coordinator (John Pagano), and general manager (Tom Telesco) are all new. There three top draft picks (D.J. Fluker, Manti Te'o and Keenan Allen) have to be significant contributors and impact players as the Chargers lost 11 starters from 2012. That's a lot of educated NFL talent playing on other teams. The left side of the offensive line could also be an issue as the Chargers are still looking for the next Marcus McNeill.
Reason for Optimism: Head Coach Mike McCoy was Manning's coach last year so he has seen one of the best and can teach. Surprisingly, the Chargers were the ninth best defence in football in points allowed, sixth against the run and even with all the turnovers by Rivers, their ratio was +2 overall. The Chargers problem was pass offence, as they finished 31st. If running back Ryan Matthews can just stay healthy, that number will be improved upon. McCoy is an offensive coach, so Rivers will improve.
Reality: In the AFC West, the Chargers are better than the Oakland Raiders, but no one else. It was not that long ago that the Chargers were part of the NFL elite. In 2009 they won 13 games. With a rejuvenated Rivers the Chargers could surprise, but an 8-8 record is realistic.
Prediction: 3rd in the AFC West.
Reason for Pessimism: There is a great term for a team that has mismanaged its salary cap. It is called "dead money." That is what you owe players even though, for whatever reason, they are no longer on the team. The Raiders have more dead money to deal with than any other team, which has prevented them from spending to lure or keep key players in recent years. A repeated consensus is that of all NFL teams, the Raiders have the longest way to go to improve personnel. It has been a painful process but in another year the salary cap numbers with the Raiders will be equal to any NFL team. Until then, can Darren McFadden stay healthy? When he is, McFadden is a great running back, outstanding even. Can Matt Flynn be a great quarterback? That remains to be seen, but it seems unlikely. With three playoff teams in their first four games, then key division games against San Diego and at Kansas City, how will the team react to a slow start? And do they have a starting 11 on defence to improve dramatically on a unit that was 28th in points allowed? Lots of questions.
Reason for Optimism: This is the second year for Dennis Allen and his way of doing business. The demands and clarity of demands are crystal clear by now, so the Raider players know what to expect. Reggie Mackenzie is bringing accountability in management and player decisions. If there is a top free agent that can make an impact it is Charles Woodson. He will be a coach on the field and has instantaneous respect from everybody. And the Raiders top pick, D.J. Hayden, could be a surprise performer and a 16-game starter.
Reality: If the Raiders have an 8-8 season it will be a major progression. But with so many questions at so many positions, this is a rebuilding team for at least one more year.
Prediction: 4th in the AFC West.