Last season, the Denver Broncos added Peyton Manning as their starting quarterback. That change took them from mediocrity to the top of the AFC West and into the league’s elite band. The Broncos finished with the best record in the AFC and came within inches of knocking off the eventual Super Bowl champions Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Divisional playoffs. Another season to grow under Manning makes the Broncos one of the favorites to represent the AFC in New York at the end of the season.
It is easy to see why the Broncos are the early favorite when you look at the stats last year. The addition of Manning turned Denver’s offense into one of the most potent last year, as they were the second-best scoring offense and the fourth-best in total yards. Another year for the offense to gel and grow with Manning under center should lead to an even better year this season.
The Denver defense took a major step forward last season as well. It went from being a below-average defense in 2011 to being one of the elite defenses in 2012. The Broncos finished ranked second in yards allowed per game and fourth in points allowed per game, while they tied for the league lead in sacks.
They lost their second best pass-rusher in Elvis Dumervil in a weird contract situation that allowed him to become a free agent, where he signed with the Ravens, but the Broncos have done well in addressing their other weak points in their defense. The Denver Broncos look to be strong favorites to take the AFC West again this season, but is there any team in the division that could present the Broncos with a challenge for that top spot?
The team that jumps out as a possible surprise this year is the Kansas City Chiefs. They have a new quarterback and a new head coach heading into this season. Kansas City has been plagued with inconsistent quarterback play for the last several seasons, and it has been the main reason this team has struggled lately. They added Alex Smith in a trade with San Francisco. Smith should provide the Chiefs with a much steadier hand under center, which should help to open up the running game with a more consistent passing attack.
The Chiefs’ running game is among one of the best in the league. It finished fifth in yards per game in the NFL with nearly 150 yards per game. A lot of this is due to their star running back Jamaal Charles, who finished the year with 1,745 total yards from scrimmage with 1,509 yards coming from the ground. Charles is a dynamic athlete and is threat to score from any position on the field.
The addition of Andy Reid and Smith should see Charles be used in the passing and screen games more often to get him touches out in space. If Charles is healthy again this year, then he should again make the Chiefs one of the top rushing offenses again.
The Chiefs defense has talent and can be a solid unit, if it can stay healthy. The strength of the unit is the secondary with potential star safety Eric Berry leading the way. They have solid corner depth with Brandon Flowers, Dunta Robinson, and Sean Smith as their top three corners. Each of those three have the ability to shadow a team’s number one receiver, which allows them to disguise coverages.
Their run defense is the weak point in their defensive unit. They allowed 135.7 rushing yards per game, which was sixth worst in the league. The team added linebacker Nico Johnson in the draft to come in a provide the team with another run stopping linebacker to play alongside Derrick Johnson. They also added Mike DeVito from the Jets to also provide the defensive line with a strong run stopping presence. They will need former 11th overall pick Dontari Poe to step up in that nose tackle position to provide the run defense with a plug in the middle.
The other two teams in the west have a lot of question marks on their roster that should hold them back this year. San Deigo seems to be the next closest team with their talent on the offensive side of the ball, especially with Phillip Rivers under center. The Chargers also had a top-10 defense last season, but a lot of turnover in the defense this year could come back to bite them. They lost both starting cornerbacks, the best pass rusher, and a starting middle linebacker.
The other major question mark is their offensive line. Their offensive line was under fire all season, as they surrendered the fourth most sacks in the league with 49. They attempted to fix the position by signing Max Starks as a free agent from Pittsburgh and drafting D.J. Fluker out of Alabama. Starks should solidify the left tackle position, but Fluker is a mystery at right tackle and could struggle with speed rushers at the NFL level.
The Raiders will have their struggles this year, and it is to be expected with a team in a rebuilding year. They have had a lot of change in their roster this off season, and have brought in a lot of young, developing players. They are not built for immediate success, but for success in the next couple of years.
The offense has the potential to improve in a power running scheme, but the questions at quarterback and Darren McFadden’s health are the key to their success. McFadden has shown flashes of greatness, but has struggled to stay healthy. He has the potential to carry an offense, much like Charles in Kansas City.
The defense should be improved over last year’s defense. They went out of their way to improve a porous secondary by adding several veterans at the corner position and bringing back Charles Woodson to play safety. They also used their first round pick on cornerback D.J. Hayden out of Houston. The secondary needs some help from the front seven to create a more consistent pass rush.
The Broncos remain the cream of the crop of the division on paper, but the others made moves to improver their weakness. The Chiefs did well to add Alex Smith, as they had the worst pass offense in the league last season. The Raiders should finish third in the division, but could challenge for the second slot, if the young talent develops quicker than expected. They should struggle early in the season, before making a strong push at the end to set up their growth over the next several seasons.
The Chargers defense has had too many players leave in key positions on defense and remains very thin on talent in the trenches. Ultimately, the AFC West will come down to the Broncos and the Chiefs, as they have the most proven and complete rosters in the division.