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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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prediction

L.A. RAIDER

11-5

KANSAS CITY

10-6

DENVER

9-7

SAN DIEGO

8-8

SEATTLE

8-8

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."

It was a very busy off-season for the Los Angeles Raiders, who will be even stronger than last year, when they finished second in the division. The team released defensive end Greg Townsend and fullback Steve Smith, and tight end Ethan Horton departed for the Washington Redskins. The Raiders used the salary of defensive lineman Howie Long, who retired after last season, to sign free-agent defensive tackle Jerry Ball and defensive end Scott Davis, who returned to the team after a two-year venture into private business. Then the Raiders signed five other key free agents: tight end Jamie Williams, a Super Bowl veteran with the San Francisco 49ers; Albert Lewis, at 33 still a strong cover corner; guard Kevin Gogan, a veteran of two Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys; running back Harvey Williams; and fullback Tom Rathman.

Left in place after these changes are players who remember only too well what befell them on a bitterly cold January day in Buffalo. The Raiders were coming off two impressive wins over the Denver Broncos—the regular-season finale and the wild-card playoff game—in which L.A. had rolled up 75 points. But in the divisional playoff game against the Bills, the Raiders sputtered to a 29-23 loss. "This just proves to you what I've been talking about all year, about how important home field advantage is," coach Art Shell told his team after the game. "Next year, instead of us going to Buffalo, make them come to us."

That is the Raider mantra this season: Make them come to us. "Every man on our team left the stadium that day feeling we should have won the game,' " says Shell. "So our focus now has to be: Win our division, win our home games, win home field."

The man most entrusted with carrying out those directives is quarterback Jeff Hostetler, who has grown into the team leader that, in his nine years with the Giants, no one in New York thought he could be. "Jeff came in and answered every question that needed to be answered about playing quarterback for the Raiders on and off the field," says Long. Tim Brown is Hostetler's favorite target, but faster-than-speeding-bullets James Jett, Daryl Hobbs, Alexander Wright and Rocket Ismail will have some huge Sundays this fall. "I'd love to have another 80-catch, 1,100-yard season," Brown says. "But if they double-team me and single our other guys, we're going to be pretty dangerous."

L.A. has the offensive firepower to win the division, and Lewis and Davis should strengthen a defense that was too easily bent late last season, allowing 20 or more points in each of the last five games. The schedule is friendly too: The Raiders do not have a cold-weather game this year, unless Kansas City is frigid on Nov. 6. But the conference's best team has to do better than finish 5-3 at home, which is all the Raiders have managed two years in a row.

"If I had to leave Dallas, and I had playing in the Super Bowl in mind, I came to the right place," says Gogan.

Just win at home, baby.

Last year the Kansas City Chiefs reached the AFC Championship Game even though quarterback Joe Montana missed five starts and 48 practices. The offensive coordinator, Paul Hackett, installed the old San Francisco 49er offense in the Chiefs' classroom, but it was up to Montana to implement it on the field. Far too often that difficult task fell to now departed backup Dave Krieg, who was still trying to learn the complex system himself. "It's amazing to me that we had only two guys [in the whole organization] who knew the offense last year and we got to the final four," vice president of player personnel Lynn Stiles said in training camp. "We're considerably ahead of where we were offensively last year."

It can't be assumed that the 38-year-old Montana will play any more than he did last season; the Chiefs will be lucky to get 11 starts out of him again. But the team is deeper at quarterback after acquiring 49er understudy Steve Bono. He'll be more than Montana's Missouri drinking buddy. Bono will be solid insurance, as he was when he filled in at quarterback for the Niners in 1991, playing nine games and finishing as the NFL's fourth-rated passer.

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