TSN football analyst Chris Schultz breaks down all the teams and each division in the NFL leading up to the regular season. Next up, the Denver Broncos, San Diego Chargers, Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders of the AFC West.
Sometimes you go with emotion or a feeling, other times you go with pure logic and history. Denver Broncos, first in the AFC West. Now, winning the Super Bowl? That may have to defy logic and history. No team has won the Super Bowl the year after losing the Super Bowl since the 1972 Miami Dolphins. And no team has made it back to the Super Bowl after losing the Super Bowl since the 1993 Buffalo Bills.
Still, with the talent addition of DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, TJ Ward and Emmanuel Sanders at defensive end, cornerback, strong safety, and wide receiver you can say the Broncos are better than the team last year that finished 13-3. And the left side of Ryan Clady at left tackle and Orlando Franklin at left guard could be the best left side in football.
The mentality of Denver is so different than any other team too. The 43-8 loss in the most important game of the year may have reignited determination and commitment as opposed to create animosity and blame. And it needs to be as the schedule is tougher this year than last: Indianapolis at home to start, Kansas City and then at Seattle. Also San Francisco, at New England, and at Cincinnati. Denver plays seven playoff teams this year. If Denver becomes a top 10 defence with a 55 touchdown offence duplicates another dominate regular season will happen.
Then, if healthy come playoff time, another Super Bowl appearance in Phoenix is very possible. Will Manning stay hungry and motivated? Yes is an easy answer on two levels. First, he is not going to retire with 43-8 on his mind. And he is 17 touchdown passes away from the all-time touchdown record and should get that this year. He is 7,000 yards away from the all-time passing yardage record, give him two years. And he is 800 completions away from the most passes completed in football. That may take two years. Watch out Brett Favre.
Finally as an organization Denver knows the time is now. Manning is still absolutely on top of his game but is much closer to 40 than 30 in age. His experience over his youth may get him back to the Super Bowl again and should easily get him on top of the AFC West.
San Diego Chargers
I thought last year's success was a surprise for the Chargers, which will make this year tougher for the team, as no team will be surprised by them.
The first, and most significant, reason for their success was Philip Rivers. He had one of his best statistical seasons ever with 4,478 yards, 32 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions. When you consider he threw 544 passes, completing 69.5 per cent, with only 11 interceptions, Rivers had a great year in 2013.
The next surprise was for the Chargers was King Dunlap at left tackle. A part time starter became a 16-game performer and his consistency destroyed any previous criticism.
Keenan Allen at receiver was also a surprise with 71 catches and over 1,000 yards. Allen was a third-round draft pick coming off a bad knee but played like a healthy first-round pick.
Finally, DJ Fluker, their No. 1 pick, came in played tackle and guard and played like a top pick should. General manager Tom Telesco had an All-Star year and if their draft picks this year produce like last year, San Diego will be closer than ever to Denver in young and up and coming talent .
Pass defence is the main area of concern of the Chargers this season. Only three teams had a pass defence more suspect than the Chargers in 2013. For that reason, their first draft pick was a pass defender in Jason Verrett , cornerback from TCU and their next pick was a pass rusher in Jerry Attaochu from Georgia Tech. When you consider the Chargers already use Jarret Johnson, Melvin Ingram and Dwight Freeney as present pass rushers and have free safety Eric Weddle as a top pass defender, if the two young guys can come through, what was a weakness for the team could become a strength very quickly .
Although it's never conclusive, when a team finishes strong there is great optimism that they will start the new season even stronger. The Chargers finished the season with four straight wins and, in impressive fashion, beat the Bengals in Cincinnati 27-10 in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. Considering Cincinnati beat The Chargers 33 days earlier, December 1st in San Diego 17-10, the playoff win has great value. October 23rd - at Denver - and December 14 - home to Denver – could be the dates that determine the AFC West champion. Will it be San Diego? Not yet. Chargers will finish second in the AFC West.
Kansas City Chiefs
What the Chiefs accomplished last year was remarkable. To go from 2-12 in 2012 to 11-5 in 2013 is an amazing accomplishment and shows with good coaches and excellent decisions on personnel, with a change in attitude, you can produce a winner quickly in the NFL.
The 9-0 start for the Chiefs was mildly miss-leading though. Of the nine wins, the Chiefs only beat one playoff team and when Denver came to town in Week 10, it was a relatively easy 27-17 win for the Broncos. Nonetheless, still a heck of a year for the team.
This year they need quarterback Alex Smith to have a "heck of a year." The criticism of Smith is an absence of a deep ball and a propensity to check down his passes too often. And by doing so, smith is not necessarily out to win the game but out to not lose it as a quarterback. However, that is exactly why Andy Reid brought him in, with the hope his even play will ensure Smith doesn't turn into the next Joe Flacco.
The strength of the team is Jamaal Charles, and many think he is the best running back overall in all of football. The Chiefs use him accordingly. At 5'11, 199 pounds he doesn't punish defenders, but he has that sixth sense to avoid the "vicious collision" that happens every now and then to other running backs in the game. He is their best runner and best pass catcher and considering the conservative but safe approach of Smith; 508 passes and only 7 interceptions last season. Charles' success dictates offensive success in Kansas City.
Trying to duplicate last year for this team may be tough. Every year teams lose and gain players in free agency. You hope not to lose your best players or too many of them, but you also hope there are not too many signed away from one position. The Chiefs lost Brandon Albert, Jon Asamoah and Geoff Shwartz to Miami, Atlanta and the Giants, respectively. This year the Chiefs Eric Fisher will dominate on one end of the line and Donald Stephenson make all forget about Brandon Albert at the other. But we won't know if that's possible until at least October.
The Chiefs have a very good defence and had five Pro Bowl players last season in Dontari Poe, Tamba Hali, Justin Houston, Brandon Flowers and Eric Berry. Yet, Denver, with Payton Manning, beat the Chiefs Twice scoring 27 and 35 points. San Diego beat the Chiefs twice with Philip Rivers scoring 41and 27 points. And finally, the Colts too beat the Chiefs twice with Andrew Luck's offence scoring 23 points in the regular season and 45 points in a disastrous playoff game.
The Chiefs beat the teams they were supposed to beat and lost to the teams they should lose too with good to great quarterbacks. Are the Chiefs better than Denver? No . Are the Chiefs better than San Diego? Maybe. Are the Chiefs better than Oakland? Yes. Therefore the Chiefs finish third in the competitive AFC West.
Nobody spent money like the Raiders last offseason, and the question will be; did they spend it effectively and wisely on the players that are all very well paid? You really won't know the answer to that question until they finish playing the Jets, Texans , Patriots and Dolphins to open their season. If the Raiders emerge from that stretch 4-0, then come that first week of October Reggie McKenzie, Dennis Allen and the Raiders will be the talk of the league. If they go 0-4, you can conclude what they invested in did not provide a return.
The 2014 team truly will be completely different than 2013 because all 14 of the free agents signed should be starters; six on offence and 6 on defence. The Raiders did not go for the unknown that is anticipated to be good over time, but quite the opposite. They signed proven starters and key performers and most between the age of 28-32. The Raiders were in salary cap heck, but now find their book balanced like never before.
A key for the team will be a rebuilt offensive line with four new starters, with the only returning player being Steve Wisniewski . The backfield combination of Maurice Jones-Drew and Darren McFadden could be special if only if both can stay healthy. With a Pro Bowl fullback in Marcel Reece, the Raiders have backfield talent.
The truth is I can go through every positional group and speak optimistically about the Raiders because each group has an influx of proven talent. However, it is not about the best players, it is about players playing their best together. With 12 different free agents you also have 12 different egos, how those come together will be interesting.
Dennis Allen is 8-24 as a head coach over two years. I doubt he can go 12-36 after three years and survive.
Matt Schaub lost his job in Houston because of four straight interceptions returned for touchdowns. Rookie Derek Carr is a good player at quarterback that is only getting better and better. Donald Penn at left Tackle is very good. Carlos Rogers at cornerback is very good. Antonio Smith, the defensive tackle from Houston Texans, is also very good. Everything says this season for the Raiders will be different; better. More wins. And that I agree with, maybe to the extent of even 8 wins, but that won't be enough. Raiders finish fourth in the AFC West.