2012 Division Preview: AFC West
The Chiefs have ramped up their depth after being ravaged by injuries last year
With a depleted receiving corps, Chargers need their D to take the pressure off
Lopsided on offense in '11, the Broncos should be balanced with Peyton Manning
Only one game separated first and last place in the AFC West last season. Don't be shocked if the same thing happens again this year. The division is so tight that every team finished 3-3 against each other last season; so tight that only once in the past four seasons has the first- and second-place teams been separated by more than a game.
With the exception of the Raiders, who were hamstrung by salary cap issues and limited draft picks, each team made key moves in free agency or at the top of the draft -- notably the Broncos, who won the Peyton Manning sweepstakes.
What the Chiefs do best: Cope with adversity.
Safety Eric Berry, running back Jamaal Charles and tight end Tony Moeaki (torn ACLs) sustained season-ending injuries by Week 2, first-round pick Jon Baldwin missed the first five games with a broken hand, and QB Matt Cassel missed the final seven with a hand injury, yet Kansas City was still in a position to win the division on the final Sunday of the season.
What the Chiefs need to improve: Putting points on the scoreboard.
The league average for scoring last season was 22.2. The Chiefs averaged 13.2 a game. Only St. Louis (12.1) was worse. The return of Cassel, Charles and Moeaki, as well as the additions of running back Peyton Hills and right tackle Eric Winston, should help them climb the rankings.
Which Chiefs needs to step up: Matt Cassel, quarterback.
Two years ago he went to the Pro Bowl after throwing for 27 touchdowns with only seven interceptions. Last year he was good for 10 scores and nine picks. A positive for the Chiefs is that Cassel has been as good in even-numbered years as he has been mediocre/bad in odd-numbered years. Consider his touchdown-interception totals the past four seasons: 21-11 in 2008 with New England; 16-16 in 2009 with KC; 27-7 in 2010; and 10-9 in 2011.
Predicted record: 10-6.
The Chiefs are talented and arguably have the best depth in the division. They'll struggle early but make their move midway through the season when they play five of their six divisional games after a Week 7 bye.
What the Chargers do best: Move the ball on offense, particularly through the air.
Since Norv Turner arrived as coach in 2007, Philip Rivers ranks second in passing yards and third in yards per attempt. He'll be tested this year with the departure of Vincent Jackson in free agency and the loss of Vincent Brown (broken ankle) for at least eight weeks. Rivers threw a career-high 20 interceptions last season. If that happens again, San Diego has almost no shot of ending its two-year playoff drought.
What the Chargers need to improve: Getting off the field on defense.
In 2011, San Diego allowed its opponents to convert on a league-high 49.2 percent of their third downs and score touchdowns 59.2 percent of the time they reached the red zone, 29th in the league. New coordinator John Pagano believes the players were doing too much thinking last year, so he has tried to eliminate the gray areas on defense. His goal is to win with better execution rather than complicated schemes.
Which Chargers needs to step up: Melvin Ingram, linebacker.
The defense has been searching for a pass rush complement to Shaun Phillips since 2007, when Shawne Merriman's slide began. Ingram could be the guy. He consistently flashed in the preseason and is being counted on to balance the pass rush.
Predicted record: 9-7.
A favorable early schedule will allow the Chargers to get out to a quick start, and improvements on defense will keep Rivers from feeling like he has to make a play on every possession.