Last year, Denver, Oakland and San Diego all won eight games and Kansas City won seven. Normally you would say that makes the AFC West a wide open division, but with Peyton Manning now playing in Denver, you have to think the Broncos have the greatest opportunity for fast improvement. Next you would think Kansas City has a chance to jump with their best running back, tight end and safety all back from injury. But will age catch up to Manning? Can Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel work his motivational magic again? Will Dennis Allen of the Raiders be the next Mike Tomlin? Will Philip Rivers regain his efficiency? There are a lot of questions in the AFC West still to be answered.
Denver Broncos: I wonder if Peyton Manning signed in Denver because it was the best team out there with the best chance to take him to a Super Bowl. Some would say San Francisco was a better bet, but the Niners are an NFC team and Manning apparently wanted to stay in the AFC. I think he looked at John Fox and realized he has already taken a team to a Super Bowl (Carolina). Then he looked at Von Miiler and Elvis Dumervil and saw them as newer versions of Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney. Also, Ryan Clady and Orlando Franklin are good offensive tackles, just like Tarrik Glenn and Ryann Diem were back in their prime with the Colts. Even the altitude in Denver is an advantage when it comes to throwing deep.
So if Manning wants to win and win with an AFC team, Denver may truly have been his best choice. He has played there before and knows that its challenges as a visitor – which will now be his advantages as the home quarterback.
The key for Denver is to find or develop a new Edgerrin James or Joseph Addai within the offence to help Manning. Is it present with Willis McGahee? Manning may be the best play-action passer in football, but he must have a solid running back to make it work.
In a way it all makes sense. Denver fans will embrace Manning . Over 41,000 showed up for an in-stadium practice. That is PRACTICE, not a game. Practice! In one move the Broncos have gone from having the worst QB in the division to having the best. It has to make a difference. Denver will win the AFC West.
Kansas City Chiefs: If you take three of a team's top players out of the line-up from game one on, that team will likely have a poor season. That is what happened to the Chiefs last year as they lost TE Tony Moeaki, SS Eric Berry and RB Jamaal Charles at running back by the end of Week 1. The C dopped their first three games, but they did recover to finish 7-9.
After a poor season, the pressure will be on QB Matt Cassel to get back to the form he showed in 2010. Last year the Chiefs were 31st in scoring offense, and failed to top 20 points in 12 of 16 games. The most interesting player to watch could be RB Payton Hillis, the former Cleveland Brown. At 6'2" and 250 pounds he is a fullback with halfback speed and elusiveness. If his attitude is right, he is a great compliment to the extremely explosive Jamaal Charles and Dexter McCluster. Hillis has the potential to be the next Mike Allstott in this offence.
Defensively the Chiefs have strength down the middle. First round pick Dontari Poe is amazingly quick despite topping 350 pounds. Linebacker Derrick Johnson is a first round pick from seven years ago and Eric Berry at strong safety was a number one pick two years ago. If all three live up to their physical potential, the Chiefs can compete with any NFL offense - including the one in Denver.
Crennel is 26-41 in the regular season as a head coach, which is not very impressive. But I always think of how Bill Belicheck struggled as a first time head coach in Cleveland as well. Now Belichick is the best in the business, so it will be interesting to see if Crennel can continue the upswing in his second crack at head coaching in the NFL.
Kansa City is one of those teams that could finish anywhere from first to fourth in their division. It's possible, but unlikely, that they will have so many key injuries again. They should finish second to the Broncos.
San Diego Chargers: After two 8-8 seasons, the pressure is on for the Chargers to not only make the playoffs, but to make the most of that opportunity. With both Norv Turner and A.J. Smith back as head coach and general manager, there are no more excuses about learning curves and new schemes to learn. It is pretty much the same team with only a few new players.
Something was wrong with Philip Rivers last year when he threw 20 interceptions and lost five fumbles. The rumors persisted all season that he was not 100 per cent. That being said, the center exchange fumble in Kansas city that set the tone for a very self-destructive season was all on him. Rivers has to get his mojo back.
The other issue that requires improvement is third down defence. When the season ended the Chargers were 32nd and dead last in third down efficiency. It was probably why they hired John Pagano as the new defensive co-ordinator and made their top three draft picks a linebacker, defensive lineman, and a safety.
It was an odd season for the Chargers last year. Historically they have fought slow starts, but they always managed a strong finish. That was always the pattern. But in 2011 the Chargers went 4-1 to begin the season, then dropped six straight before finishing 4-1 over the last five – the only loss in the latter stretch courtesy of a good Detroit team.
The bad news is that the Chargers are no longer playing in one of the weaker divisions. Denver and Kansas City will be better and Oakland will have Carson Palmer right from the beginning of training camp. Add games in Atlanta, in New Orleans, and in Pittsburgh, and you get a tough schedule. Their final game, at home against Oakland, might just be for respectability within the division. The Chargers will finish third in the much-tougher AFC West.
Oakland Raiders: For the first time I can remember, ever, a preview of Raiders football will not feature Al Davis. After his death on October 8, everyone knew there would be change in Raider Nation. And so begins the Reggie Mckenzie and Dennis Allen era as the new masterminds for the silver and black.
In free agency, 11 former Raiders left, and eight new Raiders came into the fold. The draft was not as generous, as Oakland did not have a pick until the third round, so there are no key stars to anticipate over the next year or two. The Raiders are just going to have to win with what they have and hope they can develop their late picks quickly.
What they do have is number one runner Darren McFadden. After 7 games last year, averaged over 100 yards a game. When he suffered a foot injury, the season went south and Oakland struggled to an 8-8 finish. You have to think that if McFadden could have stayed healthy last year, a 10-6 season was possible, which would have won the division. After that, who knows?
The Raiders are one of those teams that are good for the league. They have a mystique about them, which was developed and embellished by Davis. But Davis is gone, Manning is in Denver, the Chiefs are healthy and Philip Rivers is still in charge of the Chargers. Oakland will have to dominate in non- divisional play to get ahead of that group. With a new coach and a new system, I am not sure even QB Carson Palmer can keep the Raiders out of 4th in the AFC West.