Winning a sixth-straight AFC West title won’t be easy for the Denver Broncos.
For the second year in a row, Denver figures to deal with quarterback issues. We know Trevor Siemian will start Week 1 against Carolina, and a glance at quarterbacks picked in the seventh round or later isn’t encouraging.
The Broncos will also be fighting regression to the mean. Their defense should still be very good — perhaps even the NFL’s best again — but last year it was historically great. And historically great defenses don’t remain historically great for two seasons in a row.
A third factor working against the Broncos is their competition. Denver’s division, the AFC West, should be among the toughest in football along with the NFC West and AFC North.
The Kansas City Chiefs have found a way to win at least nine games every year since Andy Reid took over in 2013, and they return most of their core. The Oakland Raiders have plenty of young talent, and they went bonkers in free agency. Even the San Diego Chargers look improved.
Let’s take a closer look at the Broncos’ AFC West foes. Each team’s average wins and postseason odds for 2016 are courtesy of the Football Outsider’s 2016 Almanac, which is dope and smart. GIFs and Vines are courtesy of the internet, which is dope and smart if you look in the right places.
Kansas City Chiefs
Last year’s record: 11-5
Average wins this year: 9.6
Postseason odds: 60.3 percent
Why Denver should worry: The Kansas City Chiefs have averaged 10.3 wins per season in Andy Reid’s three years there. Put simply: the Chiefs have one of the best coaches in the game, even if he still does struggle with the nuances of how time works.
Reid’s brilliance was apparent if you watched Kansas City’s ground game last year. Despite the loss of running back Jamaal Charles in mid-October and a mediocre-at-best offensive line, the Chiefs still found a way to finish sixth in yards per attempt.
The Chiefs rattled off 10 straight wins at make the playoffs. They’ll get Charles (a career 5.5 yards-per-attempt rusher) back from a torn ACL. Their defense still figures to be tough. They’re going to have a strong special teams unit because Dave Toub is a freaking wizard. (In 10 NFL seasons, the special teams guru’s never had a unit rank lower than seventh, according to Football Outsiders.)
The Chiefs finished one game behind the Broncos last year. They’re Denver’s biggest divisional threat once again.
Why Denver should not worry: The Chiefs’ defense still looks strong, but there are some major holes to plug.
Kansas City will be without star pass rusher Justin Houston for at least the first six games of the season. Houston, who led the NFL with 22 sacks in 2014, is still recovering from knee surgery he underwent in February.
The Chiefs also lost two starters in the secondary during free agency. Cornerback Sean Smith signed with the Raiders, and safety Tyvon Branch went to Arizona.
At quarterback, the Chiefs have the solid-but-never-spectacular Alex Smith. Smith is one of the most conservative QBs in football; last year, the Chiefs threw 15 yards or more downfield 64 times, which was dead last by 20 attempts. Smith doesn’t make many mistakes, but he does little to inspire fear in opponents.
Last year’s record: 7-9
Average wins this year: 7.6
Postseason odds: 29.7 percent
Why Denver should worry: For the first time in a while, there’s reason to be optimistic about the Raiders. They have one of the best offensive lines in football. They have young wideout Amari Cooper, who in his first 11 games caught 58 passes for 851 yards and four TDs before a foot injury slowed him.
Oh yeah, and they have Khalil Mack.
Mack became the first player ever to earn All-Pro honors at defensive end and outside linebacker in 2015 when he racked up 15 sacks and 36 hurries. He’s one of the few players in the league in Von Miller’s stratosphere in terms of rushing the passer.
Mack should get some much-needed support this year, as Oakland bolstered its pass defense by adding edge rusher Bruce Irvin, cornerback Sean Smith and safeties Reggie Nelson (eight INTs last year) and first-round pick Karl Joseph.
Why Denver should not worry: For all the strides quarterback Derek Carr made last year — in his second NFL season, he upped his TD-INT ratio from 1.62 to 2.46 and his yards-per attempt from 5.5 to 7.0 — there are still reasons to worry about him.
He’s not the most accurate passer. His 61.1 completion percentage ranked 23rd among qualifying QBs. And there are concerns that his 2015 touchdown total of 32 was inflated because of Oakland’s shortcomings in the running game. The Raiders scored seven TDs on the ground in 2015, tied for 24th in the league.
Running back is a question mark. Latavius Murray was mehhh in his first full season as the starter, averaging 4.0 yards per carry and fumbling four times. Oakland did add DeAndre Washington, who went for 1,877 yards from scrimmage his senior year at Texas Tech, in the fifth round. But he’s not a pure running back. Oakland will likely use him to return punts, kicks and in the slot, in addition to his ground-game duties.
San Diego Chargers
Last year’s record: 4-12
Average wins this year: 8.2
Postseason odds: 37.2 percent
Philip Rivers’ number of kids at last count: 8 — unless he and his wife popped out another one as I was typing this.
He’s also one of the six or seven best quarterbacks on Earth. I mean…
Few quarterbacks throw with that touch and anticipation, particularly under pressure. Rivers played behind a patchwork offensive line last year. The Chargers’ rushing attack (3.5 yards per attempt) was pitiful. Rivers still managed to throw for 29 touchdowns versus 13 interceptions and averaged a respectable 7.25 yards per attempt, despite attempting 661 passes.
It looks like Rivers won’t have to shoulder so much of the load this year, and that’s why many believe the Chargers will bounce back.
Injuries decimated San Diego’s O-line last year. Time off, plus the addition of guard-center Matt Slauson, should help in that department. Running back Melvin Gordon, who San Diego gave up massive resources to get in the first round of the 2015 Draft, was a disappointment as a rookie. He’s looked improved so far this preseason. The Chargers also gave Rivers another receiver. Travis Benjamin came over from Cleveland and should start opposite Keenan Allen.
Why Denver should not worry: NFL games are decided in the trenches, and the Broncos have an advantage there on both sides of the ball. San Diego’s offensive line looks better. But improved probably won’t be enough to deter Von Miller and Co. from wreaking havoc when the teams meet.
The Chargers’ defensive front seven is a problem. They drafted end Joey Bosa third overall, then decided to be cheap and let his contract situation drag out. Now who knows how far behind the learning curve he is? San Diego’s linebackers are also suspect. Middle ‘backer Manti Te’o hasn’t offered much of a presence inside since being drafted in 2013. That wasn’t a setup for a “lack of presence” joke, either. He just hasn’t been very good.