NFL Season Predictions Part 4: The AFC West

AFC West

The Denver Broncos

Peyton and friends

Record Prediction: 12-4 (5-1)

The Broncos are one of the best teams in the NFL entering the 2013 season. Last season the Broncos were the only team that finished above .500 in the AFC West. This prediction is dependent on Peyton Manning staying healthy, but if he does they should finish the year with one of the best regular season records. Twelve wins is as safe a bet as any for the Broncos.

What to like

Peyton Manning enters his second year as the Bronco’s quarterback. Any questions about about his neck or shoulder were answered pretty quickly in 2012 and any remaining concern seems to be an afterthought. Manning threw for 4,659 yards last year (6th in NFL), on his way to 37 touchdowns (3rd in NFL) and only 11 interceptions. At 37, Manning is at that point in his career where the age has to be mentioned, but if he continues his success from 2012 he will be just fine.

peyton-manning-230x300

The Broncos receivers may be the most exciting part about this team, which is very good all around. Don’t let his 5-foot-9-inch frame fool you, Wes Welker was one of the biggest signings in the offseason. Welker signed a 2-year $12 million contract, apparently slapping Robert Kraft and the Patriots in the face. Welker has been the league’s best slot receiver for several years with Tom Brady throwing him the ball and now he gets the chance to play with another future Hall of Famer.

There is no doubt that Welker makes this team better. He will replace Brandon Stokley who produced 45 receptions for 544 yards and 5 touchdowns in that third wide receiver slot. Welker joins a very established 1-2 punch with Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, who combined for 2,498 yards and 23 touchdowns last year.

Manning threw the ball 583 times last season and with these receivers he may want to throw even more. In the history of the NFL there have been 5 teams that have had three wide-outs go over 1,000 yards receiving. The last team to do it was the 2008 Arizona Cardinals, led by Kurt Warner. That team had. Larry Fitzgerald (1,434 yards), Anquan Boldin (1038 yards) and Steve Breaston (1,003 yards).

That Cardinals team won the NFC championship before losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Superbowl on this historic catch.

Fun fact: Kurt Warner was 37-years-old that season, the same age as Peyton Manning this season.

Concerns:

While the Bronco’s receiving core is one of the strongest in the league, the Broncos backfield enters the season with a lot of questions. Depth is not the issue with the backfield, the backfield is loaded with Ronnie Hillman, Knowshon Moreno and the rookie out of Wisconsin Montee Ball.

Ball seems to be the fan favorite and rightfully so. At Wisconsin he ran for 1,830 yards and 22 touchdowns last year. The issue with Ball is not his running ability, it’s his pass blocking. He failed to make a block against the Seahawks in the preseason, resulting in Manning taking a pretty hard hit. Hillman seems to be the guy they trust in passing situations, but he has had fumbling issue throughout the preseason. Not sure what the solution will be, but in a team that is going to pass 70 percent of the time, protecting Manning is going to be the priority.

The success of the Bronco’s defensive success may have been most impacted by the fax machine issue that lead to the release of Elvis Dumervil. That kerfuffle was only the start of a long offseason for the Broncos defense. The 35-year-old defensive leader Champ Bailey is out with a foot injury, which downgrades a defensive backfield that is not great to begin with.

Von Miller is the biggest loss for this team. He will miss the first six games of the year for violating the league’s drug policy. The team will not be able to replace the pressure that Miller puts on opposing quarterbacks. Miller had 18.5 sacks last season, good enough for third in the league. Miller is to this defense, what Manning is to the offense. This defense is beatable.

Bold Prediction

Peyton Manning spreads the ball around enough for Decker, Thomas and Welker to all individually exceed 1,000 yards. This is not new territory for Manning, having done so in Indianapolis in 2004 with Reggie Wayne (1,210), Marvin Harrison (1,113) and Brandon Stokley (1,077).

The Kansas City Chiefs

Fresh starts all around

Record Prediction: 10-6 (4-2)

The Chiefs seem like the easy pick for a bounce back team in 2013, so I don’t feel like a 10-6 prediction is too far out on a limb. Based on my season prediction chart, this would be good enough for the Chiefs to make the playoffs. I am not real confident that they will get there, but they should be close.

What to like:

To say the Chiefs have lacked talent over the last few years would be wrong. This is a team that has had some talented skill position players on both sides of the ball, but they have lacked the coaching and the quarterback to make them relevant.

Now they have both. Andy Reid was kicked out of Philadelphia after several sub-par seasons and the Chiefs won the coaching lottery, picking up one of the leagues best. After 14-seasons in maybe the toughest city in sports, Reid had a 130-93-1 record. Kansas City offers him the fresh start that he needed as well as a team that has some pieces.

In addition to the great Kansas City BBQ, coach Reid is also enjoying the Chief’s biggest offseason addition: Alex Smith. The unfortunate exit from San Francisco is well documented, but Smith comes into Kansas City with a chip on his shoulder. Before getting injured and replaced, Smith had found his identity as a solid game manager. I know “game manager” is kind of a backhanded compliment when used to describe NFL quarterbacks, but when a guy throws 30 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions of the course of the 2011 and 2012 seasons helping his team go 19-5-1 in that span he is starter worthy.

Smith’s favorite target will likely be seven-year veteran Dwayne Bowe. Bowe, like many of the Chief’s offensive players, had a down year in 2012, with only 801 receiving yards and three touchdowns, but that was with Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn throwing him the ball. Smith should be better than both of these guys combined and Bowe’s ability to make catches over defenders should easily make him the leading receiver.

Jamaal Charles was the one bright spot for the Chiefs last season. After suffering a terrible knee injury in 2011, Charles rushed for 1,509 yards in 2012, adding another 236 yards receiving. Adrian Peterson stole the show for running-backs coming back from major knee surgery, but Charles has a pretty incredible year himself. With Smith’s ability to pass, the defense should open up a bit more for Charles, who should set a career high in receptions in Andy Reid’s offense.

The most overlooked guy in this offense is Dexter McCluster, a dynamic little player who will play as a slot receiver and as a passing catching running-back. McCluster is one of those ridiculous athletes that does not need to touch the ball much to make an impact. He is not C.J. Spiller or Randall Cobb, but he is dynamic and should play a important role in this offense.

Concerns:

There just is not a player on defense that scares you. From top to bottom the division has pass friendly defenses, so maybe it is not a huge concern, but if the team is going to be able to beat the Broncos this season they are going to need to slow down the Peyton Manning.

Arrowhead Stadium used to be one of the toughest places to play in the NFL, but in 2012 the home field advantage was a non-factor. The Chiefs are going to need to flip their 1-7 home record this season to a 7-1 record for them to put any pressure on the Broncos in the division.

Bold Prediction:

A 10-6 finish for this team is as bold as I really want to get, but that is boring.

Dwayne Bowe ties his career high in touchdowns, duplicating the 15 he scored in 2010.

The San Diego Chargers

Not rebuilding yet, still in the middle of deconstructing

Record Prediction: 4-12 (3-3)

There is a distinct separation between the top and bottom half of this division. There is not much in San Diego that can help this team get more than a handful of wins this season.

What to like:

The Chargers defense was quietly one of the better defenses in the NFL last year, ranking 9th in the league in average yards against per game with an average of 326.6. The defense also had 14 interceptions and 14 fumble recoveries. The 28 takeaways ranked 5th in the AFC.

Offensively the Chargers are led by Philip Rivers, who has had success in this league. He has been in a steady decline over the past few years, but maybe Mike McCoy is able to muster one last run out of him. McCoy is familiar with the AFC West. He served as the offensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos last season. Peyton Manning may have been the reason for McCoy’s success, but he gets to take some credit for the 37 touchdowns that Manning threw.

The Chargers have some interesting offensive players. When Rivers was serviceable, he had great running-backs behind him and big body receivers. It is probably safe to say that Ryan Mathews is no Ladainian Tomlinson and there is not a Darren Sproles in him, but he still has the potential to be a good running back.

Mathews is a guy I just can not give up on. If he could avoid the injuries and stay on the field he should be good enough for 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns. If he is able to do that, then all of a sudden Rivers can use play action to find Antonio Gates and Malcom Floyd. Gates is one of the best tight ends in the history of the NFL. He finally made it through an entire season last year and was River’s favorite target in the red-zone, finishing with 7 touchdowns. At six-foot-five-inches Floyd has the build to be an elite wide-receiver, but he has not been able to produce at that rate.

When the Chargers are good, the NFL is just a better league because we get to see more of the best uniforms in the league. Don’t you miss this look? (Not to mention the explosiveness of LT in his prime)gal-unis-chargers

Concerns

When a defense is able to get 28 takeaways it is assumed that the team’s turnover differential should look pretty solid, but not when you have Rivers as your quarterback. Thanks in large part to his 15 interceptions, the team was only able to muster a +2 differential, something that needs to improve if the Chargers are going to even get to 8-8.

The Charger’s offensive line does not help Rivers or Mathews. Rivers is often seen on the sidelines barking at his receivers and offensive linemen. He is kind of a giant baby, but the frustration is understandable.

RIVERS WORST DAY EVER

The NFL gets more pass happy every year, so McCoy should be able to do good things with this team in the future, but I think Rivers is going to have to go before this offense can reach its full potential.

Bold Prediction:

The Chargers will be Mark Sanchez’s new home in 2014.

The Oakland Raiders

Al Davis rolls in his grave….again

Record Prediction: 1-15 (0-6)

This is my lock for the worst team in the NFL this season so 1-15 is just fine.

Things to like:

Literally the only thing I like about the Raiders is that they will get this man with the first pick in the 2014 draft:

Concerns:

Do I even have to write anything here?

There are question marks at every position, but the only one I will mention is at quarterback. Terrelle Pryor and Matt Flynn are going to flop back and forth at the starting quarterback position. Flynn keeps getting tossed around the league as the savior and he keeps losing the job before the season even starts. Pryor, who was great at Ohio State, is another untraditional quarterback who brings a threat to run. At six-foot-four-inches he is an interesting option and maybe if he had some help he could be an interesting guy, but with this team it is hard to see him succeeding.

Bold Prediction:

The Oakland Raiders average less than 14 points per game this season.

That got a bit tough to write towards the end. Next up: the NFC West.

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