The AFC West was a force to be reckoned with in 2016. The Raiders and Chiefs were 12-4, with the Broncos at 9-7 narrowly missing being the third team to make the playoffs. The Chargers were competitive all year, but failed to finish games which resulted in their 5-11 record. Now the division is battling mediocrity. 6-6 is the best anyone can muster, and no team seems to be a threat come playoff time. So what happened to the AFC West?
The teams in this division may not be playing their best, but they’re only a disappointment when compared to last year’s season. No other AFC division has three teams 6-6 or better and there is still a good chance of getting multiple AFC West teams in the playoffs. The Chargers have won six of eight, and the Raiders have won three of four, so to get a better look at why we feel so let down by these teams, lets look at them from an individual standpoint.
The Raiders’ 2016 season was an anomaly. Four of the Raiders’ first five wins came in last-second victories that could have easily gone the other way. They had breaks fall their way that aren’t falling for them anymore, but don’t tell Raider Nation that.
From a technical perspective, the issue is the offense. Sixth in the league in 2016, the offense is 21st in points per game this season. The offensive line that lead the way for this team last year is not what it was; the unit led a rushing attack of 120 yards per game in 2016, an average that has dropped to 93 this year. The Raiders also allowed 18 sacks last season and have already given up that same total heading into this week.
The Raiders were graced by good fortune a year ago, and their record this year more accurately reflects where their team is at. But their line play has been subpar, and it was something Oakland hung their hat on last season.
Kansas City has been one of the strangest teams this season. We’ve seen them fall apart before, but usually they wait til the playoffs to under-perform, not halfway through the season. It’s unusual for a team to get worse during a year where their quarterback gets better; Alex Smith has been far and away a better player this season than any other year in his career, and no matter what anyone says, this team is not in a funk because of Smith.
The Chiefs’ biggest struggle has been in the run game. Kareem Hunt and the running attack couldn’t be stopped at the start of this year and have really lost there way lately. Hunt averaged 121.8 yards on the ground in the Chiefs’ first five games, leading the league; in the last seven games, Hunt is averaging just 45.8, a ridiculous drop-off. The Chiefs rarely make noise in the postseason, but if they want to get there again like last season, they need to get the run game going.
Let’s quickly review Denver’s quarterback situation. They have a seventh round guy out of Northwestern, a shot in the dark first-rounder from Memphis that is already on his way out, and a guy that was let go by the Browns and once lost a starting job to Peyton Manning when he couldn’t throw the ball 25 yards.
Last season, Trevor Siemian held down the fort admirably, but instead of using that time to find a real solution, the Broncos made the mistake of thinking he could step up as an everyday starter. He can’t, and when you have a defense like the Broncos do, you can’t waste it on Trevor Siemian. The question isn’t how the Broncos are 3-9 this season, it’s how they ever got to 9-7 last season with Siemian starting 14 games?
Los Angeles is the one team in this division that has improved their record from a year ago. Philip Rivers is trying to get his team back into the playoffs for the first time since 2013, and it’s been primarily on his shoulders.
Melvin Gordon and the run game haven’t performed as well as 2016, but Rivers is on another level. Last year the veteran led the league in picks with 21, but has that total down to seven so far this season, and has improved his passer rating from 87.9 to 96.0.
The Chargers’ defense has turned up the heat as well. The duo of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram are getting after the quarterback, totaling 20 of the Chargers 35 sacks this season, a top five mark in the NFL this year.
Last year, 35 sacks was all the Chargers’ had the whole season, and they’ve reached it with four games to spare a year later. In today’s NFL, if you have a quarterback and can get after quarterbacks, then you can win, and the Chargers are an example of that.
Let it play out
I still think this can be the best division in football. There are four games left, and its possible this division has three teams with a winning record. They are not the division they were a year ago, but last season the Broncos and Raiders played above their actual capabilities. The AFC West is still good, they’re just not great, but who is in the AFC?
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