By Nate Winkler
Cold, Hard Football Facts Rocky Mountain oyster eating champion
The AFC West, or AFC “Worst” as it’s become known in recent years, is a division on the rise after finally having had enough of being pointed at and laughed at by the rest of the league.
Two teams haven’t qualified for the post-season out of the division since the end of the 2006 season, when the Kansas City Chiefs were the wild card with a 9-7 record, but that streak should come to an end in 2012. Figuring out which two teams it will be is a bit harder, as legitimate arguments can be made for every team to finish anywhere from first to fourth.
Las Vegas believes the West is on the way back up as well, raising the collective over/under on the division from (29.5) in 2011 to (33) in 2012. The wise-guys have nobody winning more than 9 or less than 7, which falls right in line with how we projected the division race earlier this week on CHFF.
In other words, if you have a vested interest in the AFC West, don’t let yourself get roped into a holiday function, wedding, or “Disney on Ice” with the kiddos on that last Sunday in December.
We break down each team and their chances of beating the wise-guys with the help of nothing but the Cold, Hard Football Facts. For entertainment purposes, of course.
Denver Broncos (Over/Under: 9)
Last year: O/U 5.5 (Over, 8-8)
THE CASE FOR OVER
Peyton F’ing Manning.
The Broncos’ new 4-time MVP quarterback has as much to prove this year as anyone in the league, and will be a lock for comeback player of the year if he can stay upright. Tim Tebow & Kyle Orton combined for 29th in the NFL with a Negative Pass Play Percentage of 12.05% for the Broncos last season. By comparison, the Manning-led Colts from 2004-2010 never had worse than 6.45% NPP and finished first in the league in NPP% in 5 of those 7 seasons. The Broncos’ 6.3 Yards Per Attempt (YPA) last season is a far cry from Manning’s career average of 7.6, and while his receiving corps may be unproven, they have as much talent collectively as any of the Colts' receiver groups post-Marvin Harrison.
THE CASE FOR UNDER
The defense wasn’t as good as you think it was.
The Broncos were the worst 8-8 team to ever make the playoffs last season, with a point differential of -81. The defense finished just 24th in scoring thanks in part to allowing 40+ points in 5 of their 18 contests including the playoffs. New Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio brings a different style 4-3 defense that should improve the Broncos’ 28th ranked DPR of 93.12 and their 24th ranked Bendability rating of 14.68 Yds/Point. The last time Del Rio was John Fox’s DC, the Carolina Panthers were NFC Champions, for what that’s worth. Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil represent one of the elite rushing bookends in all of the NFL and will be a whole new level of nasty if they are able to play for a lead for more than 23 seconds per game.
The 9 wins reflect just how much expectations can change when the quarterback does. Last year’s “feel good” story with Tebow defying odds week after week was an improbable run for the ages. The Broncos had the benefit of a fourth-place schedule and a offense that defenses hadn’t game planned for. 2012 will be different, with Manning and the Broncos having a bulls-eye squarely on their backs from the outset. Manning’s physical skills may be deteriorating but he didn’t injure his (large) brain, and the Broncos roster is at least on par with the Manning’s Super Bowl teams of 2006 and 2009. Their schedule looks tough, but a healthy Peyton easily puts them in the driver's seat in the division and easily OVER 9.
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (Over/Under: 9)
Last year: O/U 10 (UNDER, 8-8)
THE CASE FOR OVER
Everyone’s back is against the wall.
Missing the playoffs two years in a row is not something the Chargers of the 21st century are accustomed to. There are only a handful of people, either in the locker room or front office, who can survive a third. Luckily, Norv and his players have a knack for doing their best work when their backs are against the wall. Encouraging indicators are there as they finished 2011 second in our Offensive Hog Index, fifth in Real Passing Yards Per Attempt, and an AFC West leading 14th in the Relativity Index.
Phillip Rivers is an Elite quarterback, and he’s dying to prove it.
Rivers had his worst season as a full-time starter with 20 INTs in 2011, yet the Chargers still managed to finish 11th in Offensive Passer Rating as well as CHFF’s Real Quarterback Rating. Despite the frequent “Rivers Face”, the Bolts’ NPP% actually improved from 8.76% (16th) in 2010 to 8.32% (11th) in 2011. There are questions along the offensive line and Ryan Matthews is a box of chocolates, but Rivers knows the fate of the team is on his shoulders, and as long as he’s on the field the Chargers will be in every game.
THE CASE FOR UNDER
The defense is no longer the favorite in a bar fight.
San Diego worked feverishly this past off-season to improve a free-falling defense that went from first overall in 2010 under Ron Rivera to 16th in 2011. DE/OLB Melvin Ingram could be the steal of the draft, but if the Chargers can’t improve upon last years 5.8 Yards Per Play Allowed (t-25th) they will have a hard time getting back above .500. In 2011 they finished 28th in Defensive Real Passing Yards Per Attempt, 27th in Defensive Passer Rating, and 22nd in Defensive Hog Index. Eric Weddle is one of the few play-makers from his safety position, but this defense no longer scares anyone.
For the first time in a few years nobody is talking about the Chargers as Super Bowl contenders and many believe the window of opportunity has slammed shut. Using this “us against the world” mentality and flying under the radar may be exactly what the Chargers need. Rivers will bounce back with a top 5 season but it’s hard to envision the defense being good enough to win more than 9 or 10 games. That said, 10 is more than 9, so we'll take the Chargers as a wild-card and the OVER.
Oakland Raiders (Over/Under: 7)
Last year: O/U 6.5 (Over, 8-8)
THE CASE FOR OVER
Al Davis is dead.
Sure, that may seem a bit harsh, but even the most devout fan of the Silver and Black will admit that the reposed owner was the single biggest hurdle for the franchises success over recent years. Hue Jackson got thrown out with the bathwater, but Reggie McKenzie & Dennis Allen bring hope and order to a team that has lacked both for years. Oakland hasn’t had a winning record since their AFC Championship season of 2002.
Carson Palmer and Darren McFadden have yet to hit the dance floor for the same song.
Palmer replaced the injured Jason Campbell last season and managed to take the Raiders from 1st place to 3rd while he was learning a new offense and shaking off rust on the fly. Palmer did manage 8.4 YPA but threw 16 INTs in 9 ½ games, but as a team the Raiders finished sixth in the NFL in Real Passing Yards per Attempt.
McFadden may be the NFL’s best pure running back when he manages to stay on the field. He’s started more than 7 games just once in his four years, and has never made it through a complete season. He is a legitimate MVP candidate if he can play all 16. In 2011 the Raiders finished seventh in rushing & 11th in passing and with the second-best group of Offensive Hogs in the division, they will continue to be balanced on offense.
THE CASE FOR UNDER
There are more black holes on the Raiders defense than there are in the known universe.
Oakland allowed 27.1 PPG and 387.6 YPG last season, good for 29thin the league. They were 28th in DRPYA, DPR and Defensive Hog Index, but they did add a handful of mediocre free agents in the off-season, so there’s always that. They also might have the worst secondary in the AFC. (Yes, even worse than San Diego’s.)
If there’s any reason for optimism, Oakland was a first place team well into October last year and may have held on if Campbell and McFadden didn’t go down. Dennis Allen helped Denver’s defense improve so much in his first and only year as coordinator that he parlayed it into the Raiders head job. If Palmer can return to his 2010 form and McFadden becomes more reliable than a Daewoo sedan, they could surprise those who are writing them off in Year One A.D. That’s a lot of “Ifs”, and like Dad always said…"If your Aunt had balls she’d be your Uncle". UNDER 7.
Kansas City Chiefs (Over/Under: 8)
Last year: O/U 7.5 (UNDER, 7-9)
THE CASE FOR OVER
Kansas City basically had two drafts this offseason after enduring last year’s M*A*S*H* Up.
Injuries hit every team every year and they’re usually an easy and pathetic excuse for poor performance. That’s not the case with the 2011 Chiefs. Losing one of the NFL’s best young safeties in Eric Berry and offensive impact players Tony Moeaki and Jamaal Charles before Week 2 handcuffed the oft-criticized Matt Cassel (before he was injured himself) and spelled the end of the Todd Haley era.
Even if Cassel doesn’t make a leap the Chiefs will improve upon last year’s 31st ranked scoring offense (13.3 Pts/Game) and CHFF Scorability Rating of 23.46 Yards per point. The only team worse on offense last season was their fellow “State of Misery” St. Louis Rams, who also have a new head coach and offensive coordinator.
The Chiefs have the AFC’s most talented defense.
With Romeo guiding the defense, this group of previously under-achieving young studs is finally playing up to their potential after jumping from 16th to 6th in our Defensive Hog Index. Replacing Brandon Carr with Stanford Routt at corner is a downgrade, but improving upon last year’s 29 sacks should help the secondary maintain last year’s 7th ranked Defensive Passer Rating of 79.06.
THE CASE FOR UNDER
Brady Quinn isn’t the only one in Kansas City who doesn’t agree with the choice at starting quarterback, and you have to wonder how many of his teammates agree. In 2011 the Chiefs finished 23rd or worse in every offensive category we track here at CHFF. Injuries are one thing, but Dwayne Bowe & Steve Breaston did combine for 142 receptions for 1944 Yds & 7 Tds. There are more than a handful of quarterbacks who would happily take those numbers from their 1-2 wideouts.
This will be a make or break year for Cassell after coming from New England in 2009 with Scott Pioli to resurrect the franchise. Extenuating circumstances aside, Cassell has been spectacularly mediocre as the chief Chief, with an 18-21 record as a starter, 57.2 percent completion rate, 53 TDs, 32 INTs with a 6.1 YPA and 80.0 QBR. If Cassel doesn't perform well in the first half of the season, Quinn may get the chance to prove he's not who we think he is.
The over/under of 8 here is basically a coin flip. Despite maybe having the most talented roster in the division, the Chiefs have been dreadful (10-18 since ‘02) against the AFC North and NFC South and now have to face Peyton Manning, Phillip Rivers, and Carson Palmer six times. They’ll be better coached and more fundamentally sound, but it won’t show up markedly in the win column. A push at 8-8 is a good bet if you can get it, but if you can’t, take the UNDER 8.