AFC West Preview

The Chiefs are heavily favored to secure their sixth consecutive AFC West championship, and for good reason. Mahomes is the best quarterback in the league and gets to run an excellent offense with great coaching and weapons. Even their defense has become more of a strength than a liability under Spagnuolo. More than likely, the only way another team wins this division is if major injuries hit the Chiefs. But if they do, things get very interesting. Justin Herbert looks ready to ascend in his second year, and with a really smart new head coach in Brandon Staley, the Chargers should finally live up to expectations. The Broncos will probably field the best pass defense in the league this year, and the underrated Raiders are coming off a season where they beat the Chiefs, Saints, and Browns. Whoever emerges from this division will be battle-tested and each of these teams has the potential to make some noise as a wildcard even if they are unable to dethrone Kansas City.

Team-by-Team Breakdown

Kansas City Chiefs

2020 Recap

Record: (16-3), L v. TB in Super Bowl
Off. Rank: 1st
Def. Rank: 13th
Net Rank: 2nd
Context: Playing with an injured offensive line for most of the year, Kansas City struggled to hold big leads because they could not run effectively, so many games looked closer than they really were. The defense played well under new DC Spagnuolo, and the Chiefs rolled to a 16-1 start with Mahomes before collapsing in the Super Bowl with a depleted offense line against a fierce TB front seven.
Full 2020 Team Study

Key Offseason Changes

-Completely revamped the offensive line, letting go of several linemen (including T Eric Fisher) but adding G Joe Thuney, G Kyle Long, C Austin Blythe, T Orlando Brown, and drafting rookie C Creed Humphrey
-Lost WR Sammy Watkins
-Signed DL Jarran Reed

2021 Narrative

Everyone knows the story of Kansas City in 2020. They were the best team in the NFL in the regular season but lost virtually all their offensive linemen on their way to the Super Bowl, where they faced off against a healthy and dominant Bucs’ defensive front that did what no team has been able to do for a whole game: shut down Patrick Mahomes. The Chiefs knew exactly what to do in response and spent their offseason resources beefing up the offensive line. If this new-look line can stay healthy, there is room for substantial improvement on offense, particularly in the run game and the deep passing game. This is a scary reality for opposing defenses. A better run game will also help them protect big leads and convert in the red zone better than they did in 2020, when they allowed several teams to hang around for a close finish when they should have won easily.

Meanwhile, the Chiefs’ defense has come a very long way under Steve Spagnuolo in the last two years from its forgettable 2018 season where every game was a shootout. The defense flew under the radar in 2020 but was actually very strong, particularly against the toughest competition. Their secondary is comprised of promising young players (and stud Tyrann Mathieu), and could improve from here. They did not need to trim down too much and actually will be spending significantly more money on the defense than the offense in 2021, thanks to the structuring of Mahomes’ contract. When healthy, the Chiefs are simply in a class of their own. Since Spagnuolo took over the defense, the Chiefs are 27-5 with Mahomes. Two of those losses came in early 2019 when Mahomes was playing on an injured foot, and another came in his first game back from his major knee injury. There is simply no reason why the Chiefs should not be favored in every game they play at full strength, and anything short of a Super Bowl will be a disappointing outcome for this team in 2021.

Key Early Matchups

Week 1 v. CLE
The Browns looked sharp against Kansas City in the playoffs last year and will bring an improved defense into a revenge game with a huge opportunity to make an early statement. The Chiefs will need to play their best football.

Week 2 @ BAL
The Chiefs have manhandled the Ravens in each of the last two seasons and will look to continue the trend here in prime time.

Week 3 v. LAC
Mahomes has struggled with the Chargers’ defense his entire career, and this will be Brandon Staley’s first opportunity to go after the division champions. Huge matchup for both teams.

SharpClarke Outlook: Bullish
Projected Regular Season Wins: 12.13
Projected Season Result: 1st in AFC West (Win Super Bowl)

Las Vegas Raiders

2020 Recap

Record: (8-8), Missed Playoffs
Off. Rank: 7th
Def. Rank: 28th
Net Rank: 14th
Context: A very up-and-down season where they seemingly played to the level of their competition. Offensive line injuries and bad fumble luck held their offense back while their defense was just too bad to pick up any slack.
Full 2020 Team Study

Key Offseason Changes

-Replaced DC Paul Guenther with Gus Bradley
-Added DE Yannick Ngokue and CB Casey Hayward, Jr.
-Lost C Rodney Hudson, T Trent Brown, and G Gabe Jackson, hoping to replace them with C Nick Martin and rookie T Alex Leatherwood
-Added RB Kenyan Drake and WR John Brown for depth

2021 Narrative

Last year the Raiders could not run the ball behind a depleted offensive line, forcing Carr to play the best football of his career to keep them in games. Fortunately for them, he was very good. But relying on an average quarterback to consistently make incredible deep throws inevitably leads to inconsistency. At their best, they almost swept Kansas City. At their worst, they lost 43-6 to Atlanta in a game where they had 243 total yards of offense and 141 penalty yards. But instead of beefing up the offensive line to fix the problem, the Raiders jettisoned half of their line and signed Kenyan Drake. I fail to see how this will make them any better on offense in 2020, and they will likely once against be inconsistent and somewhat unpredictable.

On defense they have been terrible every year under Gruden. Despite trying to draft defensive players they just cannot seem to find talent. They should see improvement getting pressure with Ngokue and in coverage with Heyward in an effort to improve the pass defense, and they hired a respected defensive coordinator in Gus Bradley to put it all together. Last year they missed a lot of tackles and were exposed by basic short-passing offenses so they will need to tighten up. I’m optimistic they can be better, but unfortunately they play in a brutal division. They went toe-to-toe with Kansas City last year (and handed Mahomes his only loss outside of the Super Bowl) but the Chargers and Broncos look to be much improved and their at-large matchups are fairly tough as well. They’ll need to improve significantly to have a shot at the playoffs.

Key Early Matchups

Week 3 v. MIA
Both the Raiders and Dolphins will likely be pushing for a wildcard berth so this could end up being a pivotal game by season’s end.

Week 4 @ LAC
An opportunity to establish their place in the AFC West pecking order behind Kansas City.

Week 6 @ DEN
Another opportunity to prove that they have been underestimated by the betting public, who has them projected to finish 4th in the division.

SharpClarke Outlook: Neutral
Projected Regular Season Wins: 6.59
Projected Season Result: 4th in AFC West (Miss Playoffs)

Los Angeles Chargers

2020 Recap

Record: (7-9), Missed Playoffs
Off. Rank: 17th
Def. Rank: 12th
Net Rank: 13th
Context: Justin Herbert was forced into action earlier than anticipated but performed admirably despite a weak offensive line and skill players who were in and out of the line-up. They blew several big leads with conservative defensive play but finished strong, winning their last four games.
Full 2020 Team Study

Key Offseason Changes

-Added C Corey Linsley, G Matt Feiler, and rookie T Rashawn Slater to the offensive line
-Replaced HC Anthony Lynn with Brandon Staley
-Lost DE Melvin Ingram and LB Denzel Perryman
-Replaced veteran CB Casey Hayward Jr. with rookie Asante Samuel Jr.

2021 Narrative

The Chargers planned to bring rookie QB Justin Herbert along slowly in 2020. He was talented but raw and they were willing to let Tyrod Taylor steer the ship while he got up to speed. But when Taylor suffered an injury minutes before the Chiefs game in Week 2, the plan was thrown out the window. His first ever game was legendary. He went toe-to-toe with Patrick Mahomes and lost in overtime on a 58-yard field goal. He also played well against Tampa Bay and New Orleans, who boasted two of the strongest defenses in the league. Outside of a total collapse against Belichick and the Patriots, his rookie season was a resounding success. He is the real deal. Some analysts have pointed out that he is due for regression in key analytical metrics that are typically not sustainable, like success under pressure. Maybe so. But I think the improved offensive line will more than offset any natural regression and that he will play smarter in his second year.

The defense dealt with injuries in 2020 but has talent, particularly if Derwin James is healthy. The Chargers are a popular breakout team for good reason, and I put no stock in the narrative that the Chargers always have high expectations and seem to fall short every year. They have a new head coach who has said and done all the right things so far, a new quarterback, and what looks to be a whole new culture. Relying on trends that date back several seasons to predict how this season will play out is a losing strategy when circumstances have significantly changed. Last year, under a different head coach, they did choke away some games. But they ended strong with a four-game winning streak and I think they are ready to be a perennial contender with Staley and Herbert at the helm. 

Key Early Matchups

Week 1 @ WAS
If the Chargers fail to live up to the hype on offense, it will likely be due to Herbert’s struggles under pressure. Right off the bat, he faces a stiff challenge against a good defensive line on the road.

Week 2 v. DAL
The battle of teams who routinely fail to live up to preseason hype.

Week 3 @ KC
Potentially the game of the season for the Chargers, who can make a massive statement at Arrowhead with a win.

SharpClarke Outlook: Bullish
Projected Regular Season Wins: 9.98
Projected Season Result: 2nd in AFC West (Loss in Wildcard Round)

Denver Broncos

2020 Recap

Record: (5-11), Missed Playoffs
Off. Rank: 31st
Def. Rank: 11th
Net Rank: 28th
Context: Offensive performance was brought down by injuries to key players throughout the year and a week where they played with no QBs due to Covid. The defense was solid overall but let down by a turnover-prone offense that constantly put them in a bad position.
Full 2020 Team Study

Key Offseason Changes

-Added QB Teddy Bridgewater to potentially start over Drew Lock
-Added CBs Ronald Darby, Kyle Fuller, and rookie Patrick Surtain II
-Drafted RB Javonte Williams

2021 Narrative

The Broncos are clearly a defensive team. Their blueprint for success involves running the ball well enough to win the field position battle and converting enough plays to exciting receivers to get them just enough points to win on the back of a stifling defense. Even with Von Miller hurt last year and Bradley Chubb missing time, Vic Fangio displayed his defensive coaching ability with a strong scheme that took particular advantage against vanilla offenses. But the offense let them down. Instead of leaning in to the team’s strengths, Drew Lock orchestrated a hyper-aggressive offense and they turned the ball over more than any other NFL team. The short fields they gave opponents allowed them moderate success against a defense that was constantly behind the 8-ball.

They had some excuses for their poor offensive performance. Their pass catchers, particularly Courtland Sutton, suffered injuries. Their offensive line was average at best. But primarily, they had a poor game plan that was poorly executed. They drafted Javonte Williams, who looks like a special runner, to improve their run game and traded for Teddy Bridgewater, who arguably fits this team better than Drew Lock does. With Bridgewater, they project to complete a higher percentage of passes and keep their defense fresh. With Von Miller and Bradley Chubb returning, and a substantially improved secondary, this defense could be elite in 2021 if it stays healthy. Their ceiling may be capped due to quarterback play, but this is the closest they’ve looked to their Super Bowl caliber teams with Peyton Manning. If they can get an effective game manager in Teddy Bridgewater, or a smarter version of Drew Lock, they can be a playoff-caliber team.

Key Early Matchups

Week 1 @ NYG
An opportunity to get pressure against a weak offensive line and force one of the most mistake-prone starting quarterbacks into making mistakes.

Week 4 v. BAL
An early winnable home game against a superior team on paper and a tough test for whichever quarterback takes the reins.

Week 5 @ PIT
The Broncos could easily be 3-1 heading into this tough road game, and they match up extremely well with the Pittsburgh offense.

SharpClarke Outlook: Bullish
Projected Regular Season Wins: 8.04
Projected Season Result: 3rd in AFC West (Miss Playoffs)

Chalky Prediction

The Chargers hit some early bumps in the road, heading into their bye at 3-3. But as Justin Herbert gets comfortable and things click under Brandon Staley, they pick up momentum and secure a playoff berth by finishing the season strong, with 9 wins in their last 11 games. Staley wins Coach of the Year.

Bold Prediction

The Chiefs make history in the NFL’s inaugural 17-game regular season, as they dominate a difficult schedule and finish the regular season 17-0, including a Week 18 win over Denver without Mahomes. Unlike the 2007 Patriots, they finish the job and become the NFL’s first ever 20-0 team with a Super Bowl win.

Sharp Angles

  • Andy Reid and the Chiefs save their most creative offensive packages for key spots. This means they end up less efficient in the red zone against poor opponents, particularly if their offensive line does not play well. This makes it difficult for the Chiefs to cover large spreads, even when vastly superior to the competition.
  • The Raiders offense succeeds when Carr completes tough throws downfield, which he is capable of doing. But this creates inconsistency and makes the team difficult to bet (for or against) with confidence.
  • Justin Herbert is excellent at capitalizing on blown coverages because he keeps his eyes downfield while moving in and out of the pocket. But this makes him slightly overconfident and causes negative plays against the most disciplined coverage units (like NE last year). Unless he improves in this area, hesitate to back the Chargers against complex, disciplined defensive schemes.
  • They still have to prove it, but the Broncos may now have the NFL’s best secondary. Favor them against teams that rely on a diverse passing attack.

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