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AFC West Preview

   by Ben Burns - 08/20/2007


The Chargers won the West last year and finished with the best regular season record in the NFL. So, what did they do? Fired their coach, of course! While I’ve never been a huge Schottenheimer fan, it’s hard to imagine him losing his job after going 14-2. Regardless, “Martyâ€쳌 is ancient history now and Norv Turner has been given the reigns. He’s one of two new coaches in the division as Lane Kiffen takes over the mess known as the Oakland Raiders. Herm Edwards and Mike Shanahan are back and both are itching to return to the postseason.

Following is a closer look at this year’s teams.

Denver Broncos
2006 Record: 9-7 SU 5-11 ATS
2006 O/U Record: 8-8
Noteworthy Trend/s: 1-7 ATS at home
Projected Regular Season wins: Open: 9.5u-130, Current: 9.5u-110
Odds to win Super Bowl: Open: +1215, Current: +1415
Head Coach: Mike Shanahan
Offensive Coordinator: Rick Dennison
Defensive Coordinator: Bob Slowik

Offense: The Broncos averaged only 19.9 points per game in 2006, the 17th best mark in the league. Quarterback Jake Plummer struggled for much of the season and took the bulk of the blame for the problems. After 11 games, Plummer was finally benched in favor of first round selection Jay Cutler. The former Vanderbilt star has a big arm and played well down the stretch. In fact, he was only the second rookie and fifth player in NFL history to throw multiple touchdowns in his first four games. Despite the unrest at the quarterback position, Javon Walker still managed more than 1000 receiving yards. Rookies Brandon Marshall and Tony Scheffler thrived after Cutler took over. This year’s offense will get an added shot in the arm with the addition of running back Travis Henry. Henry has had some big years in the past and should fare well in Shanahan’s offense, which has a history of turning lesser known running backs into stars. Tight-end Daniel Graham was also acquired via free agency. Note that the Broncos were the least penalized offense in the league in 2006, incurring only 4.2 offensive fouls per contest.

Probable Preseason QB Rotation: Jay Cutler, Patrick Ramsey, Preston Parsons, Darrell Hackney

Defense: The defense ranked in the top 10 in 2006, allowing teams to score only 19.1 points per game. The strength of the unit is unquestionably the secondary. Champ Bailey remains one of the best cover cornerbacks in the league and is rare in that he also can tackle. The addition of Dre Bly, who was picked up via a trade with Detroit in the offseason, should prove to be a big success. Bly has been to two Pro Bowls and he and Bailey are among the best cornerback tandems in the league. Safeties Lynch and Ferguson are aging. However, Lynch is still capable of delivering ferocious hits and both come off solid seasons. The Broncos released middle linebacker Al Wilson but D.J. Williams should be able to match his production. Wilson’s veteran leadership will be missed though. The defensive line was bolstered via the draft (see below) with three of the top four picks invested in that position.

Draft Report: The Broncos traded up four spots to get Florida defensive end Jarvis Moss with the No. 17 pick. Moss, who has a knack for blocking kicks, is an excellent pass-rusher and fills a big need for the Broncos, who have been experiencing turnover on their defensive line. They also selected another defensive end, Tim Crowder, with their second round selection. Crowder was a model of consistency at Texas, starting his final 47 games.

Prediction: We’ve seen several young quarterbacks thrive in recent seasons. If Cutler can do the same, the Broncos should be able to challenge the Chargers for the division title. Note that Denver’s schedule is significantly easier than San Diego’s. Shanahan revamped his coaching staff in the offseason and that should bring some new energy. I also expect the two tragic offseason deaths to have a motivating effect on the team. In other words, don’t be surprised when Denver is back in the playoffs.

Possible Play: vs. San Diego in Week 5
The Chargers won both meetings last season, including a 35-27 “upsetâ€쳌 (as 2.5 point underdogs) here in Denver. That marked the Broncos’ first home loss in this series since the second day of the new millennium. It’s safe to say that Shanahan and the Broncos will be looking to restore order. Look for things to return to “normalâ€쳌 with the Broncos improving to 18-3 the last 21 times they hosted the Chargers and 6-1 their last seven home games in October. Consider a play on DENVER in Week 5.

Kansas City Chiefs
2006 Record: 9-7 SU 8-8 ATS
2006 O/U Record: 7-9
Noteworthy Trend/s: 5-3 ATS at home, 3-5 ATS on road
Projected Regular Season wins: Open: 8u-150 Current: 7.5u-135
Odds to win Super Bowl: Open: +6050 Current: +6550
Head Coach: Herm Edwards
Offensive Coordinator: Mike Solari
Defensive Coordinator: Gunther Cunningham

Offense: Larry Johnson is a workhorse and is the focal point of the Chiefs’ offense. Johnson rushed for 1789 yards last season, while setting an NFL record with 416 carries. Johnson, who added another 410 receiving yards to go along with his 17 touchdowns, was the main reason that the Chiefs were able to average 20.7 points per game. The passing game ranked in the bottom third of the league. Trent Green was injured early on and never regained his top form after returning. Damon Huard was decent as his replacement. Green is gone this year, leaving Huard and Bradie Croyle to duke it out for the starting job. Huard will likely be the opening day starter but Croyle should eventually get his chance. Tony Gonzalez remains one of the best tight-ends in the game and led the team in receptions again last year. The Chiefs lacked much of a deep threat last season. They’re hoping Bowe (see below) can produce immediately. The offensive line, always a strength, no longer has longtime stars Will Shields and Willie Roaf.

Probable Preseason QB Rotation: Damon Huard, Brodie Croyle, Casey Printers, Jeff Terrell

Defense: The 19.7 points which the 2006 Chiefs allowed was decent. The 328.9 total yards which they gave up, was not. The Chiefs got stronger at linebacker as they re-acquired Donnie Edwards and also picked up Napolean Harris. The secondary is also solid. However, the defensive line remains somewhat a weakness and the lack of an effective pass rush hinders the cornerbacks.

Draft Report: The Chiefs selected WR Dwayne Bowe from Louisiana State as their first overall selection, 23rd overall. Bowe caught 18 passes from JaMarcus Russell over his college career, making them the second-best scoring duo in school history. 6'4" 276 pound DT Turk McBride was their second pick and he should be able to step in and make a difference, being able to play at a variety of positions.

Prediction: The Chiefs have gone from being one of the league’s oldest teams to being one of the youngest. That was necessary and should ultimately pay dividends. However, the lack of experience may hurt them in the short term. The defense should be good enough to keep them competitive but there are question marks at the quarterback position and unless the one-dimensional offense improves, a sub-500 season may be in the cards.

Possible Play: vs. Green Bay in Week 9

The Chiefs, who come off their bye week, have a major scheduling advantage this afternoon. In addition to playing the second of back-to-back road games, the Packers, who played at Denver on Monday night, will be playing on a short week. The Chiefs were a perfect 4-0 SU (3-1 ATS) in home games played in November the past two seasons. They won each of those games by a minimum of four points and by an average of a touchdown. The Chiefs followed up their bye with a 41-0 victory last season. Consider a play on KANSAS CITY in Week 9.

Oakland Raiders
2006 Record: 2-14 SU 6-10 ATS
2006 O/U Record: 3-12-1
Noteworthy Trend/s: 0-2 ATS as favorites, 9 losses in a row to end season
Projected Regular Season wins: Open: 5o-130 Current: 5o-155
Odds to win Super Bowl: Open +14550 Current: +18550
Head Coach: Lane Kiffin
Offensive Coordinator: Greg Knapp
Defensive Coordinator: Rob Ryan

Previous Coach: Art Shell Shell’s second stint as coach of the Raiders certainly didn’t go as planned. After going 4-1 in the preseason, the Raiders went an awful 2-14 in the regular season, setting franchise records for fewest victories and fewest points. Shell, a Hall of Fame offensive tackle in his playing career with the Raiders, had been fired by Raiders’ owner Al Davis more than a decade earlier.
New Coach: Lane Kiffin Kiffin, the son of Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, has been the offensive coordinator for USC the past two seasons. Prior to that, he worked for the Trojans as a tight ends and wide receivers coach. At 31 years old, he’ll be the youngest coach in the league and the youngest in the history of the Raiders.

Offense: The offense was in obvious disarray last year, managing a mere 10.5 points per game. That was by far the worst mark in the league. The Raiders consistently ranked in the bottom five in the league in virtually all offensive statistical categories. Josh McCown is Kiffin’s hand-picked selection to hold the quarterback job until Russel (see below) is ready to assume the position. Regardless of who starts behind center, they won’t have Randy Moss to throw the ball to. Moss has departed for the greener pastures of New England. While the offense should improve on last year’s dreadful numbers (how couldn’t they!) it’s likely to be a while before the Raiders’ attack resembles the high-powered unit which won the AFC a few years ago.

Probable Preseason QB Rotation: Josh McCown, Andrew Walter, JaMarcus Russell, Josh Booty

Defense: Despite all their struggles, the Raiders were reasonable on defense last season, allowing 20.8 points per game. They are relatively solid in all three areas and return most of their key starters this season. The defense is helped somewhat by the strong leg of punter Shane Lechler.

Draft Report: The 6-foot-6 260 pound QB from LSU was the number one pick on draft day. JaMarcus Russell compiled a 25-4 mark as LSU’s starting quarterback and has big arm strength. With their second pick the Raiders selected 6-foot-5 259 pound TE Zach Miller from Arizona State. Miller is a big target over the middle and will compete for a position on the starting roster.

Prediction: The Raiders will likely finish last in the division again this year. That being said, they should be much better under Kiffin than they were under Shell. They should play hard and the defense should give them a shot at “hanging aroundâ€쳌 long enough to cover some of the large pointspreads which they’ll inevitably be seeing.

Possible Play: vs. San Diego in Week 17

There’s a good chance that this game will mean a lot more to the Chargers than it will to the Raiders. That will be factored into the line though and I believe that the situation will favor Oakland. The Raiders will (likely) be playing their final game of the season and Lane Kiffin will surely be anxious to avoid heading into his first off season off a blowout loss. The Chargers are playing on a short week and coming off one of their biggest games of the season, a Monday night battle vs. the Broncos. Look for the home underdog to keep this game much closer than expected and don’t be shocked if they score the outright upset. Consider a play on OAKLAND in Week 17.

San Diego Chargers
2006 Record: 14-2 SU 9-7 ATS
Playoff Record: 0-1 SU, 0-1 ATS, 0-1 O/U
2006 O/U Record: 10-6
Noteworthy Trend/s: Both regular season losses were “earlyâ€쳌 (1:00pm EST)
Projected Regular Season wins: 10.5o-140
Odds to win Super Bowl: Open: +725 Current: +645
Head Coach: Norv Turner
Offensive Coordinator: Clarence Shelmon
Defensive Coordinator: Ted Cottrell

Previous Coach: Marty Schottenheimer: A month after being told his job was safe, despite leading the Chargers to a 14-2 regular season record, Schottenheimer was fired. The problems were twofold. Schottenheimer couldn’t win during the playoffs and he couldn’t get along with general manager A.J. Smith. Schottenheimer was 47-33 in five seasons with the Chargers, including 35 wins and two AFC West titles in the last three seasons.
New Coach: Norv Turner: Turner has had success as an offensive coordinator and he held that position with the Chargers in 2001, implementing the team’s current offense. However, his 58-82-1 record in head coaching stints with Washington and Oakland is far from impressive.

Offense: The well-balanced Chargers averaged 30.8 points per game in 2006, more than four points better than the next best team, Indianapolis. LaDanian Tomlinson, the league MVP, was unquestionably the star of the show. Indeed, LT had a season for the ages which included setting the NFL record for touchdowns. The passing attack wasn’t too shabby either as Rivers threw for 3400 yards and 22 touchdowns. Impressively, Rivers completed nearly 62% of his passes and had only nine interceptions. Only Bulger of the Rams had more scoring passes and fewer interceptions. Rivers’ wide receivers weren’t particularly fast and the Chargers are hoping that Davis (see below) can help change that. Tight-end Antonio Gates, who finished with an outstanding 71 receptions and nine touchdowns, will surely remain Rivers’ favorite target. Turner is known as an “offensive geniusâ€쳌 and the Chargers are sure to be potent offensively once again.

Probable Preseason QB Rotation: Phillip Rivers, Billy Volek, Charlie Whitehurst.
Defense: While the offense got all the headlines, the Bolts’ defense was also excellent. The 18.9 points per game which they allowed ranked seventh in the NFL. That number actually would have been even better but the unit struggled and gave up a lot of points when star linebacker Shawne Merriman served a 4-game steroid suspension in November. Merriman, who underwent shoulder surgery in the offseason, is back. He’ll team with Shaun Phillips to be a force off the edge. However, veteran inside linebackers Donnie Edwards and Randall Godfrey are both gone. The secondary is strong, as is the defensive line.

Draft Report: Philip Rivers has a new target to throw to as the Chargers selected WR Craig Davis from Louisiana State with their first pick, 30th overall. Many considered the speedy Davis to have the best hands in the Southeastern Conference. Second pick Safety Eric Weddle from Utah provides depth to an already dominant defense.

Prediction: The Chargers are loaded on both sides of the ball. They have all the pieces in place to repeat as division champions and do serious damage in the playoffs. However, expectations are very high and I’m not convinced that they’ll live up to them. It remains to be seen what effect the coaching changes will have. We do know that the non-divisional schedule is difficult (to say the least) though, as it includes Indianapolis, Chicago, Baltimore, Jacksonville and New England. They’ll still be good but don’t be surprised if all the changes catch up to them and the Chargers take a step back.

Possible Play: vs. Indianapolis in Week 10

Every team always wants to play their best against the defending Super Bowl champions. The Chargers figure to have some added motivation here though as they were the best team in the league during the regular season and felt that they were the strongest team in the AFC. With their potent rushing attack, the Chargers are the type of team that is capable of giving Indianapolis problems. In fact, San Diego won the most recent meeting, at Indianapolis, 26-17 two seasons ago. The previous season, also at Indianapolis, the Chargers came very close to winning, only to come up a field goal short. Playing on their home field, look for the Chargers to hand the champs a rare defeat. Consider a play on SAN DIEGO in Week 10.

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