Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos enter the 2013 NFL season as the AFC West favorites.
At the same time, this is pro football’s weakest division. Therefore, the Broncos will be expected to dominate game after game against their AFC West rivals. Because of those expectations, it’s reasonable to anticipate the rest of the division bringing their A-game when facing Manning and co.
The Kansas City Chiefs have made significant improvements this offseason, which makes them a sleeper playoff contender. Unfortunately, expectations for the Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers are not on the Broncos’ or Chiefs’ level.
So, to breakdown how this division unfolds let’s check out the final AFC divisional preview for the 2013 campaign.
Denver’s offense a season ago averaged 30 points per game. And that’s with Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker as Peyton Manning’s receivers. And now he’s got Wes Welker in the mix.
Welker joined the Broncos via free agency and now this passing game is virtually unstoppable. Even better, Manning was assisted in the draft as Denver opted for Wisconsin bulldozer Montee Ball at running back. Despite some tread on the tires, Ball was a Heisman Trophy Finalist in 2011 and accumulated 3,753 rushing yards his final two college seasons.
With young duo of Ball and Ronnie Hillman in the backfield, Denver’s offense is completed with balance and versatility to expand on 2012’s dominant performance.
First, the bad news: According to NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport via Gregg Rosenthal, Von Miller received a six game suspension last week:
The NFL suspended Von Miller on Tuesday for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. Citing a person informed of the negotiations, NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport reported on Tuesday’s edition of NFL Network’s “NFL Total Access” that the league initially sought an eight-game suspension for Miller but settled on six.
Obviously that doesn’t bode well for Denver’s defense entering another season with Super Bowl potential. On the bright side, this will leave Miller fresh for the final 10 games and a postseason run. Additionally, the Broncos fared well in free agency and the draft regarding defense.
Grabbing Sly Williams from North Carolina in the draft as well as Shaun Phillips, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Quentin Jammer off the free agent market were all solid moves. Generating turnovers was the only real issue for the Broncos defense last year, since the Orange Crush only forced 16 picks and logged eight fumble recoveries.
In a nutshell:
The Broncos shouldn’t change anything offensively. Rely on Manning to spread the field and set up the run. Get the offense a few more possessions with turnovers and minimize the big plays allowed.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
For as ugly as the Chiefs performed offensively in 2012, the lone bright spot was the return of running back Jamaal Charles. After missing basically all of 2011, Charles bounced back with over 1,500 rushing yards and a 5.3 per carry average.
The team’s awful passing game was the result of the quarterback duo of Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn. However, acquiring former San Francisco signal-caller Alex Smith helps, as does the addition of head coach Andy Reid and some new targets to amp up the attack.
Donnie Avery comes aboard, as does veteran tight end Anthony Fasano and rookie Travis Kelce. Mix in some Dwayne Bowe and Dexter McCluster, and Smith is surrounded with athletes and playmakers to spread the wealth.
Now factor in rookie No. 1 draft pick Eric Fisher and there will be a massive increase of balance and ball control in K.C.
Despite the 2-14 record, K.C.’s defense played a bit better than its record indicates. First off, the offense consistently turning the rock over didn’t help. Secondly, losing cornerback Brandon Carr to the Dallas Cowboys was also a tough break for the secondary.
Still, the Chiefs only allowed a 60.1 completion percentage and received sound production from Derrick Johnson, Tamba Hali, Justin Houston and Brandon Flowers. Reducing the 29 passing scores given up, though, is definitely required. Plus they must generate more than a measly seven interceptions.
Three solid gets in free agency for the Chiefs—Mike DeVito (DE), Sean Smith and Dunta Robinson (CBs)—provide much hope that the team can upgrade defensively. DeVito is a strong complement to Johnson and the rest of the front seven, while Smith and Robinson are reliable veterans to assist Flowers and safety Eric Berry in coverage.
As a result, expect a barrage of blitzes with man coverage played behind the front seven to let the experienced athletes make plays.
In a nutshell:
The Chiefs must keep riding Charles offensively and not be afraid to give Smith the green light when passing. The new defensive faces will step up, it’s just a matter of winning the point of attack at the line of scrimmage.
Darren McFadden is the only existing threat on Oakland’s offense. Without a standout starting quarterback, the Raiders can be expected to feed Run DMC early and often.
That said, it’s a major issue when the passing game lacks as a consistent threat. Denarius Moore is the team’s most reliable target, courtesy of his team-leading seven receiving scores and 741 yards on 51 receptions a year ago. Marcel Reece does provide some versatility, but he won’t produce without a reliable signal-caller.
Matt Flynn has the most NFL experience among Oakland’s quarterbacks, but even he has minimal time on the field. Therefore, how this offense executes in 2013 will come down to the offensive line. It’s imperative the ground game gets moving, otherwise the Raiders won’t establish balance to assist their unproven set of quarterbacks.
Oakland’s defense was horrendous last fall.
Giving up a 66 percent completion percentage, the Raiders also allowed 28 passing scores and managed a dismal 11 interceptions and 25 sacks. Facing upgraded offenses in Denver and Kansas City within the division, the Silver and Black won’t sniff .500 without better coverage.
Fortunately, the secondary enters this campaign with some new faces and one old one. Playmaking corner Tracy Porter comes in after a season with the Broncos and rookie D.J. Hayden has unlimited potential. Safety Charles Woodson also rejoins after some great seasons in Green Bay. His impact will be a great complement to Tyvon Branch.
In the front seven, rookie linebacker Sio Moore has complete talent to help versus the run and pass. Plus, Lamarr Houston and Nick Roach bring numbers and experience to help control the line of scrimmage.
In a nutshell:
The Raiders must emphasize the ground attack and try to win the possession battle on offense. The defense must stuff better up front, force turnovers and get off the field on third down.
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
Philip Rivers may have completed 64.1 percent of his attempts last year, but he also tossed 15 picks, fumbled 15 times and was sacked 49 times. Obviously part of that is attributed to unreliable pass protection. But a quarterback doesn’t turn the rock over that much and get pressured consistently without hesitant decision-making.
So, clearly Rivers must get back on track. On the bright side, Norv Turner was replaced by Mike McCoy as the team’s head coach. Over the past two seasons McCoy managed to adapt from Tim Tebow (2011) to Peyton Manning (2012) as Denver’s offensive coordinator. As a result, expect Rivers to be put in better positions thanks to improved play-calling.
Elsewhere the running game must get reestablished. Ryan Mathews rolled over 1,000 yards in 2011 and averaged 4.9 per carry. Last season, though, he suffered through injuries and totaled fewer than 1,000 total yards. McCoy must get Mathews going on the ground, because balance is required for San Diego to consistently move the chains.
Also keep a close watch on rookie tackle D.J. Fluker for balance and veteran tight end Antonio Gates when Rivers drops back.
San Diego lost two key players defensively in Quentin Jammer and rusher Shaun Phillips, as each moved to Denver via free agency.
On the other hand, the Chargers opted for Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o in the draft and landed veteran rusher Dwight Freeney off the market. Freeney is aging, but he does help in passing situations, and Te’o is a complete playmaker to make tackles and defend in coverage.
Other guys to eye are safety Eric Weddle and defensive lineman Corey Liuget. Weddle led the team in tackles last year (97) and defended nine passes (three picks). Liuget logged seven sacks and also defended nine passes. With some new faces defensively, San Diego must develop together quickly to challenge for the division.
Considering how much better the Broncos and Chiefs fared via the market and the draft, the Bolts’ defense has a lot more to worry about this season.
In a nutshell:
Rivers must figure out his turnover issues and McCoy needs feed Mathews to establish the running game. Defensively, Weddle has to continue making plays and it’s imperative that Te’o produces from the get go.
Denver remains – by a wide margin – the best team in pro football’s weakest division. The Chiefs have made up quite of bit of ground this offseason, which certainly adds intrigue. At the same time, K.C. has emerged as a postseason sleeper while the Chargers have regressed.
San Diego lost multiple key players and despite a new head coach the Bolts weren’t excellent at addressing all their needs this offseason. Staying in California, the Raiders have shown signs of improvement defensively. Unfortunately the offense has massive question marks across the board.
All things said, don’t discount the Broncos as a Super Bowl contender. Denver was a misjudged pass by Rahim Moore away from sending the Ravens home in the AFC Divisional Round. This may be the NFL’s weakest division, but that has not always prevented a team from making a strong playoff run (see Arizona Cardinals in 2008).
1. Denver Broncos
2. Kansas City Chiefs
3. San Diego Chargers
4. Oakland Raiders
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