The most bizarre divisional experience in NFL history might be the 2011 installment of the AFC West. Denver, San Diego and Oakland mirrored each other record wise at 8-8. Kansas City fell below the bar at 7-9. All four teams finished with 3-3 divisional marks. San Diego ends up with the best conference record of the division, 7-5. San Diego and Oakland won two of their last three games, while Denver finished the season on a three-game skid. Yet Denver wins the division and even pulls off the unthinkable with a wildcard upset of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Yes, some scenarios took place throughout the conference that worked in Denver’s favor, but still the AFC’s left coast was an eerie one to say the least.
In 2012, one can only hope the AFC West’s picture will be clearer than that of a season ago.
Can hope transcend into reality?
DENVER BRONCOS (8-8 in 2011, AFC West Champions)
Key losses: S Brian Dawkins, QB Tim Tebow, CB Andre’ Goodman, CB Cassius Vaughn, LB Mario Haggan, WR/KR Eddie Royal
New faces: QB Peyton Manning, WR Brandon Stokley, TE Joel Dreessen, TE Jacob Tamme, CB Tracy Porter, S Mike Adams, DE Derek Wolfe, FB Chris Gronkowski, WR Bubba Caldwell, RB Ronnie Hillman
“Who will take a chance on Peyton Manning coming off his career threatening neck injury?” “Does he still have it?” “How will he respond to his first piece of real contact?” “Can he lead his team on significant postseason run?” Denver is the team who took a chance on him. He was solid in the preseason, but it remains to be seen how he’ll fair in the regular season. In the preseason he was hit, got up and went on to the next play. Much like the inquiry in if he still has it, the depth about how he leads his team remains to be seen. With all this to consider, Denver’s success won’t hinge on Manning’s production alone.
With a new crop of receivers not named Reggie Wayne or Dallas Clarke, how dependable cant the likes of Eric Deker, Demaryius THomas and Joel Dreessen be? In addition to having sure-fire hands to catch whatever he delivers to them, will they have the wherewithal to respond to Manning’s cadences and audibles at the line of scrimmage? For now, Manning’s greatest benefits on offense are his offensive line, which maintains its tradition of stellar pass and run blocking, and Willis McGahee, who is the best pure runner that Manning has had t his disposal since Edgerrin James.
Defensively, the Broncos has the individual playmakers in Ty Warren, Von Miller, Elvis Dumervil, Tracy Porter and Champ Bailey who can be impactful. It’s just a matter of the unit gelling collectively in order to become an elite defense.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (7-9 in 2011)
Key Losses: CB Brandon Carr, C Casey Wiegemann
New Faces: RB Peyton Hillis, TE Kevin Boss, T Eric Winston, CB Stanford Routt, NT Dontari Poe (first-round pick).
The Kansas City Chiefs has arguably the fastest defense in the National Football League. They have a keen ability to zero in on the ball and stifle further momentum. From Glenn Dorsey and Derrick Johnson to Eric Berry and Brandon Flowers, this unit challenges offenses to score on them in rare fashion.
Adding big bodies like Kevin Boss and Peyton Hillis to an offense that already has a big target like Dwayne Bowe and a power runner in Jamal Charles, gives the Chiefs the most physical offense of their division and arguably the league. There’s no reason KC should not pound away at every opponent they’re schedule to see. Consistently good play from a healthy Matt Cassel is beyond vital to this team’s success. Should everything here meet and even surpass this team’s potential, the AFC West in 2012 is theirs for the taking.
Another aspect to consider is special teams. Can SEC football products Javier Arenas (Alabama) and Dexter McCluster (Mississippi) rekindle their explosive returning ways of their college days?
OAKLAND RAIDERS (8-8 in 2011)
Key Losses: RB Michael Bush, CB Stanford Routt, LB Kamerion Wimbley, QB Jason Campbell, TE Kevin Boss, C Samson Satele, CB Lito Sheppard, DT John Henderson.
New Faces: GM Reggie McKenzie, coach Dennis Allen, CB Ron Bartell, CB Shawntae Spencer, G Mike Brisiel, LB Philip Wheeler, LB Miles Burris, RB Mike Goodson, QB Matt Leinart.
With the passing of NFL legend Al Davis and the acquisition of a new head coach and general manager, Oakland is operating under a new attitude. With that new attitude comes a new direction. Oakland’s new approach to football saw the departure of reliable backup running back Michael Bush. On one end, you have to respect the confidence the organization has for Darren McFadden. On the other is the reality he has yet to complete an entire season. The most games he’s played in a season was 13, once in his rookie year of 2008 and again in 2010. Given the pattern and 2012 is an even-numbered season, the hope is he completes another double-digit game season…maybe all 16.
Lining up before him is Carson Palmer. While the former Bengal has completed more seasons than his backfield mate, injury seems has been a hurdle he’s struggle to leap in his career. If for some reason Palmer were to suffer injury again, is Matt Leinart reliable enough to help Oakland reach the postseason?
In no way is this to condemn Oakland to inferiority, but allowing more secure insurance policies such as Michael Bush and Jason Campbell to leave the “Black Hole” for Leinart and Mike Goodson are transactions that leave something to be desired. I could be proven wrong here. Only time will tell!
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (8-8 in 2011)
Key Losses: LG Kris Dielman, WR Vincent Jackson, LT Marcus McNeill, RB Mike Tolbert.
New Faces: WR Robert Meachem, WR-PR Eddie Royal, LB Jarret Johnson, FB Le’Ron McClain, RB Ronnie Brown, LB Melvin Ingram (first-round pick).
Season in and season out, the Chargers are the sexy pick to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. The problem is they habitually start the season pedestrian-like and then sprint their way into the postseason. That formula came back to bite them in 2011.
In what appears to be moves that will help the Bolts start the season on a speedier note, they made moves that should help them send a message to the league early. Bringing in Robert Meachem to fill the void left by Vincent Jackson is a commendable move. With wide out/special teams returner Eddie Royal coming into the fold, a change of scenery could help him restore his productive play of his rookie season. Even with the uncertainty of Ryan Matthews’ health, San Diego’s running game should be fine with the acquisitions of Ronnie Brown and Le’Ron McClain.
With all the talent that the Chargers have, if for some reason they do not live up to expectations, does the Hot Seat that Norv Turner has made home, come with ejection button?
This concludes the Take No Prisoners 2012 NFL divisional previews. We thank you for logging to see our takes on divisional occurrences throughout the league. Please feel free to chime in with your thoughts on our prognostications of the eight NFL divisions, as well as or weekly game picks. Happy Football Season everyone!
By Antoine Hoffman