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AFC west
Peter King
September 05, 1994
The AFC west is so strong that when any of its teams loses a road game within the division, it will not be considered an upset. Not only is this the league's premier collection of teams, but it also has shed the finesse label that dogged it for so long. Players hit here. Hard. "I get the air padding in my helmet pumped up a little extra for these games," says Seattle Seahawk safety Eugene Robinson. "We're trying to rip each other's heads off."
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September 05, 1994

Afc West

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The Chiefs also helped themselves at running back, drafting Greg Hill, who gained 3.262 yards in his career at Texas A&M. Hill and Marcus Allen will split the ball-carrying chores.

Now for your Chief quiz: Who can name the Kansas City rookies who will challenge Willie Davis and J.J. Birden at wideout? If you said Lake Dawson and Chris Penn, you are one pathetic fantasy-leaguer.

The Chiefs' offense may be a bit stronger than it was last year, but you can't love the rest of this team—not yet, anyway. In July defensive tackle Tony Casillas walked out on his four-year, $6 million contract, leaving a gaping hole in the run defense. Now that Arrowhead Stadium is carpeted with real grass for the first time, linebacker Derrick Thomas could suffer; of his 66 sacks over the past five seasons, only 10.5 have come on grass fields. And in the secondary, former Giant Mark Collins will get burned by the likes of Brown and Jett in this division because he is a physical corner with only mediocre speed. What's more, the Chiefs' special teams will be missing four of their five leading tacklers from '93, and the kicking game will be weaker with the losses of placekicker Nick Lowery and punier Bryan Barker.

The Denver Broncos appear to be an updated version of the early-'80s San Diego Chargers. At quarterback the Chargers had Dan Fouts; the Broncos have John Elway—very close. At receiver the Bronco trio of Anthony Miller, Mike Pritchard and light end Shannon Sharpe is a notch below the Charger team of Charlie Joiner, Wes Chandler and Kellen Winslow. Denver running backs Leonard Russell, Rod Bernstine and Glyn Milburn are a shade better than the San Diego tandem of Chuck Muncie and James Brooks. "I've never been on a team with more weapons," Elway says.

The Broncos should battle the 49ers for the NFL scoring lead this season, but the defense is in trouble, just as those old Charger defenses were. On the very first play of the preseason, in a game against the Raiders, Denver safety Darryl Hall bit on a Jeff Hostetler play-fake, and James Jett zoomed past the secondary and walked in with a touchdown bomb. Really, now. How can you play the Raiders and not be mindful of a bomb on the first play of the game? Coach Wade Phillips stands by his defense—"What gripes me is no one remembers we gave up the fewest points in our division last year," he says—but he's counting on top-of-the-line contributions from guys who have been only run-of-the-mill pros: Hall, cornerback Randy Milliard and defensive tackle Ted Washington, a consistent disappointment in San Francisco. The Broncos will be playing a lot of 31-28 games this year.

The nicest story in the league might be that of wide receiver Mark Seay, who has earned a starting job with the San Diego Chargers. Seay was shot in the chest six years ago while shielding his niece from gang gunfire in Long Beach, Calif. But nice stories don't put teams in the playoffs. If the Chargers are going to make it to the postseason—and they will certainly contend, largely on the strength of a terrific defensive front seven—they will have to overcome the loss of wideout Anthony Miller to the Broncos and try to get by with a receiving game that features Seay and Shawn Jefferson. The decision not to match the offer that Denver made to Miller will haunt the Chargers, and if they struggle to score points, general manager Bobby Beathard will find himself in the fans' frying pan.

San Diego does lead the league in one regard: long-term salary-cap planning. Quarterback Stan Humphries may allow the club to restructure his contract, a move that would give the Chargers an extra $750,000 to spend this season. Already they have every key player on the team, with the exception of safety Stanley Richard, signed through the end of 1995.

Here is a telling scene from the training camp of the Seattle Seahawks: First-round draft pick Sam Adams, a 6'3", 290-pound defensive tackle, darts around 320-pound guard Jeff Black-shear in a pass-rushing drill, leaving Blackshear scrambling to catch him. A few plays later Adams runs right over Blackshear, nearly leaving tread marks on the frantically backpedaling guard. Nearby, Cortez Kennedy, who will team up with Adams to anchor the Seattle defensive line, looks on appreciatively. Kennedy's sack production fell from 14 in his All-Pro 1992 season to 6.5 last year because he didn't have anyone like Adams playing beside him to absorb some of the pressure. "Last year was so frustrating," Kennedy says. "One time against the Cardinals, I looked up on a pass play and there was a guard, a tackle and a running back blocking me all at once. I said to [tackle] Luis Sharpe, 'Sharpe! What are you doing to me!' He said. 'Tez, we got no choice.' "

If Adams and Kennedy mesh, the team won't miss cornerback Nate Odomes as much as it might have. Odomes, a Bill for seven seasons, signed a lucrative free-agent deal with the Sea-hawks in February, then tore up his knee in a charily basketball game. He will miss the entire season, which leaves Seattle paper-thin at cornerback. The Seahawks are nearly as shaky at wide-out, offensive line (even with the addition of free-agent tackle Howard Ballard, another former Bill) and defensive end.

The team's brightest spot—and the main reason the Seahawks might find themselves still alive in January—is quarterback, where Rick Mirer has shown poise beyond his years. "Besides being far along in the maturation process," coach Tom Flores says of Mirer, "he has a burning desire to succeed that you rarely see in any player. You can't create it. I don't know where it came from, but I just know Rick has it." If Mirer falters or is injured, look for Seattle to fall well behind the pack.

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