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BASN NFL Previews: Scouting The AFC West
NEW HAVEN, Ct. — A look at the race in the AFC West is part of today’s continuing preview of the 2006 National Football League season by your buddies at BASN. Three of the AFC’s best teams resided in this division last year.
The Broncos rode a surprising 13-3 season all the way to the AFC Championship Game before falling to the eventual Super Bowl champion Steelers. To show you just how strong the AFC was last year, the 10-6 Chiefs and 9-7 Chargers missed the postseason.
Can the Broncos repeat or will the Chiefs find the formula to take a division crown? Will Phillip Rivers be able to fill Drew Brees’ shoes in San Diego? Can the return of Art Shell spark a Raiders revival in Oakland?
Lets see if we can answer some of those questions.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
Underpaid and under appreciated in the Big Apple, Herm Edwards did what we’d all do in that situation — he went home. He inherits a K.C.team that has been one of the best offensive teams in football over the last few seasons. However, the team has taken a major hit on the offensive line due to the retirements of starting tackles Willie Roaf and John Welborn. Still an offense that features QB Trent Green, RBs Larry Johnson and Priest Holmes (if he recovers from his neck injury), and TE Tony Gonzalez probably won’t fall too far off. Defensively, the defense is still a bit suspect (its passing defense was ranked 30th overall in 2005), but the signing of Pro Bowler Ty Law will definitely help out. Something else to chew on: they were 7th best in the league against the run.
What To Watch For: Since its inception in 1960, the Chiefs has never won a division crown in its first season under a new coach. Also, they’ve never advanced to the playoffs in their first season under a new coach. While in New York, Reverend Herm went to the playoffs in each of his first two seasons with the Jets and three of his five seasons overall.
Outlook: This is just a hunch on my part, but I feel that K.C. will have just enough to knock Denver out of their top spot. They’ll be tested immediately with a home opener against Cincinnati followed by a trip to Denver. Next to the Steelers, they were arguably the AFC’s hottest team at the beginning of the postseason. This year, they should be a big part of the playoff party.
Even though Mike Shanahan and the 13-3 Broncos overcame their first-round jinx and eliminated the Patriots, the season ended on a sour note with their home whupping in the AFC title game. Now with their leading rusher and leading sacker elsewhere, can Denver keep themselves in the title hunt? Adding ex-Packer wide out Javon Walker in lieu of malcontent Ashley Lelie will help take some pressure off the ageless Rod Smith. It appears rookie MIke Bell will be the new feature back on the offense, but don’t be surprised if Ron Dayne gets some significant time as well. Defensively, the Broncos must find a way to generate a pass rush. They ranked 15th in the conference and tied for 28th in the league with only 28 sacks last year.
What To Watch For: Last year, we watched the Patriots’ offense take a slight dip with the departure of Charlie Weis. With Gary Kubiak now the head man in Houston, will the Denver offense suffer a similar fate? Assistants Rick Dennison and Mike Heimerdinger will try to do the work on one man. Their first order of business is to make sure the 2005 Jay Plummer returns and not his interception-throwing twin from years past.
Outlook: While they may take a bit of a fall in the division, they should still be a part of the overall AFC playoff picture. However, the schedule is a bit more challenging. They’ll meet both Super Bowl participants as well as three other 2005 playoff qualifiers (New England, Indianapolis and Cincinnati).
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
After enduring the league’s toughest schedule in 2005, the Bolts just missed getting into the postseason. However for them to really right the ship in 2006, they’ll have to do with a neophyte under center. With Drew Brees now in Bayou Country, Phillip Rivers has been handed the keys. The former N.C. State standout has proven he could do it in college, but he remains a relative unknown in the pros. More than likely Rivers and the San Diego offense will still lean heavily on one of the game’s best runners in LaDainian Tomlinson. However, how far or how good the Bolts will be depends on a defense that’s strong up front but a bit suspect in the secondary (28th overall). Surprisingly, they only had three of the team’s 10 interceptions last year.
What To Look For: The Bolts must make Qualcomm Stadium a much tougher place for its opponents. The Chargers finished 9-7 overall last season, but were only 4-4 at home. Of the 17 teams that posted winning records overall in 2005, the Chargers were the only one that failed to have more victories than losses at home.
Outlook: With essentially a rookie quarterback under center, it will be tough for the Bolts to get in the postseason. That is unless Rivers has a little Roethlisberger (sans the motorcycle) in him. Marty Schottenheimer and his gang may have to settle for being spoilers this season. The real question may be will Marty still be around for this in the long term.
Cue up the “Welcome Back, Kotter” music as Art Shell returns to Oakland. He’ll find more that a few Sweathogs and other various creatures roaming the Raiders locker room since he left town. Most importantly, he’ll have to separate the good from the bad and not allow the team to remain as ugly as they’ve been over the last few seasons. There is some talent sprinkled over both sides of the line, but getting them to play more cohesive and smarter will be one of Shell’s biggest tasks. Defensively,Oakland had only five interceptions last season, breaking the league record for fewest in a 16-game season. Their corner backs failed to intercept a pass.
What To Watch For: One of the first things Coach Shell must do is get the Raiders back to being a force in the division again. Oakland did not win an AFC West game last season and has a total of only 13 victories over the past three years. Given the fact that this is a top heavy division, this will be one of the many things that Shell will have to address in 2006.
Outlook: At some point this year, Shell will turn into the Danny Glover character from Lethal Weapon (i.e. “I’m getting too old for this s—t”). A 4-1 preseason has caused some early buzz, but having a winning exhibition record is like being the world’s tallest midget. Shell will eventually have the Silver and Black back on track, but me thinks it probably wont be in 2006.
Predictions 1. Chiefs 2. Broncos 3. Chargers 4. Raiders Tommorrow: The NFC East.