2011 Division Preview: AFC West
The Chargers are simply too talented to miss the playoffs a second straight year
The Chiefs should be a better team, but they'll take a step back in the standings
The Raiders need to play as well outside the division as they do against it
SI.com is previewing all eight divisions throughout the week in anticipation of the 2011 season kicking off. (Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org)
In each of Norv Turner's first three seasons, the Chargers could start slow, flip the switch and still win the division because the rest of the AFC West was so awful. Kansas City, Oakland and Denver each failed to post a winning record in any season from 2007 to '09, which is the primary reason San Diego was able to claim the division despite a 2-3 start each year.
However, that all changed last season. With San Diego off to a fourth straight 2-3 start under Turner, the Chiefs rose up to win their first AFC West title since 2003. The question now is whether 2010 was an aberration for San Diego or the start of a trend?
What we do know is that the division is much improved from Turner's early years. Kansas City won the West a year ago, but Oakland swept the division with a 6-0 mark. Denver also figures to be more competitive with John Fox taking over for Josh McDaniels.
Still, look for San Diego to bounce back. It plays three of its first four at home -- one against a team (Vikings) breaking in a new quarterback, another against a team (Dolphins) still searching for a capable quarterback and another against a squad (Chiefs) it beat 31-0 at home last season.
The Chargers' fifth game is at Denver, where their only loss in the teams' last five Mile High meetings was 39-38 following a blown call by referee Ed Hochuli.
What the Chargers do best: Score
San Diego is the only team to rank in the top five in scoring each of the past seven seasons. That's saying a lot considering Indianapolis and Peyton Manning failed do it, New England and Tom Brady failed to do it, New Orleans and Drew Brees (since his arrival in 2006) failed to do it, and Green Bay and Brett Favre/Aaron Rodgers failed to do it.
What does it mean? Nothing, if you consider those teams/QBs won Super Bowls during that time while the Chargers failed to get past one trip to the conference final. But it is does reflect that if you're going to beat the Chargers, you're either going to have to put up points or play hellacious defense -- or hope their special teams break down like last season (more to come on that).
The lineup is stocked again with playmakers, notably quarterback Philip Rivers, tight end Antonio Gates, wide receivers Vincent Jackson and Malcolm Floyd, and running backs Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert. The line is solid, which means another top-five finish is likely in order.
What the Chargers need to improve: Special teams
As I've said before, they were the Keystone Kops of special teams last season. They allowed four returns for scores -- three of them on kickoffs, one shy of the league record -- and had four punts blocked and another deflected. The NFL record for blocked punts allowed is six.
San Diego believes it would have made the playoffs if not for the special teams breakdowns. It responded by replacing assistant Steve Crosby with Rich Bisaccia, whose units were perennially among the league's most respected during his tenure with the Bucs. Some team members say it was time for a change, if only because they had been listening to Crosby's voice for nine years. However, if the unit doesn't show marked improvement, someone else will have to take the fall, and his pay grade will be much higher than Bisaccia's.
Which Charger needs to step up: Running back Ryan Mathews
The Chargers traded up 16 spots to draft Mathews 12th overall last year. Privately, they were disappointed that he didn't make more of an impact last season, when an ankle injury, fumbling problems and a slow transition from college conspired in limiting him to 678 yards rushing and seven scores. Undrafted teammate Mike Tolbert (735 yards, 11 TDs) turned out to be their most consistent and productive back in 2010, and the staff will be quick to turn to him again if Mathews is slow out of the gate. In the meantime, the plan is to expand Mathews' role, particularly in third-down situations now that Darren Sproles has departed for New Orleans.
Predicted record: 13-3
The Chargers' starters are among the best in the league, which means there's no way they should miss the playoffs a second straight year -- particularly with a schedule that sets them up for what should be a 5-1 start. That's huge because of the team's slow starts in each of Norv Turner's first four seasons.
What the Chiefs do best: Run the ball
The Chiefs, who averaged a league-leading 164.2 yards rushing per game last season, can play smashmouth or finesse. They had an NFL-high 258 rushes of at least four yards, but also tied for seventh with 15 carries of 20 yards or longer -- three of which went for 50 or more. That was one behind Oakland.
The speedy Jamaal Charles (1,467 yards and 5 TDs on 230 carries) was their big-play threat, while veteran Thomas Jones (896, 6, 245) was the grinder. The impact of these two was reflected in the passing game, where wide receiver Dwayne Bowe set career receiving highs for yards (his 1,162 yards were 140 more than his previous high), yards per catch (16.2, which was two yards higher than his previous best) and touchdowns (15, which was one fewer than his total for the three previous seasons combined).
What the Chiefs need to improve: Diversify their passing game
It speaks volumes that after Bowe's 72 catches last season, no other K.C. wideout had more than 22 receptions. The lack of other perimeter threats made it easy for the Ravens to erase Bowe in their playoff meeting. They put a man in front and another over the top, which resulted in Bowe not being targeted at least once in a game for the first time in his career.
The Chiefs addressed the problem by drafting Jonathan Baldwin (who is out for the preseason after an injury suffered in a fight with Jones) and signing free agents Steve Breaston and Keary Colbert. Jerheme Urban also returns after missing last season because of injury. Their presence could, along with a productive running game, mean fewer catches for Bowe but a more diversified passing game for the Chiefs.
Which Chief needs to step up: Defensive tackle Kelly Gregg
The 11-year defensive tackle could be a major key to the Chiefs' season. For Kansas City's 3-4 defense to be effective, it needs a noseguard like Gregg who can command double teams and hold his ground.
The Chiefs mixed and matched at the position the past two years, but Gregg is a legit 3-4 noseguard who spent nine seasons with the Ravens and understands the ins and outs of the scheme. Rex Ryan, one of his former coordinators in Baltimore, made a last-minute call to Gregg in hopes of luring him to the Jets this year, but Gregg opted to sign with KC because it's a short plane ride to his home in Oklahoma and because the Chiefs are, in his opinion, an up-and-coming team.
Another reason to focus on Gregg is that he'll be asked to tutor rookie Jerrell Powe, the heir apparent at the position who is expected to be part of the rotation. The Chiefs are also hoping that Gregg's experience and professionalism will help former top-5 picks Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson maximize their potential.
Predicted record: 9-7
The Chiefs will be a better team than in 2010 but will finish with a worse record. The reasons: They're still maturing and the schedule is daunting. Four of their first six games are on the road, including divisional games at San Diego and Oakland, where they lost 31-0 and 23-20 in OT last season. Overall, they'll play six teams outside the division that won at least 10 games a year ago, including 14-win New England, 12-win Pittsburgh, conference finalists Chicago and New York (Jets) and Super Bowl champion Green Bay.