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AFC West

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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By Clark Judge | CBSSports.com Senior Columnist

There is no more competitive division than the AFC West, where all four teams last year wound up within a game of each other. That could happen again, though Peyton Manning's arrival in Denver means it probably won't.

Reason: When Manning plays, he usually wins -- which means no more 8-8 division champions.

But there are questions:
  How will he play?
  What did he lose while away?
  What does he have left?

If he's Peyton Manning as we know him, the Broncos win the division and make a run at the Super Bowl. But if he's not ... well, let me introduce you to the rest of the AFC West.

In San Diego, Norv Turner is playing for his job, and a raft of injuries this summer -- particularly one to left tackle Jared Gaither -- make that task more daunting. Kansas City is a preseason favorite of many writers across the country, but I'm skeptical -- and, yeah, I just don't know if Romeo Crennel makes a better coordinator than he does a head coach.

That leaves Oakland, where virtually everything about the Raiders is new -- including their commitment to discipline. The danger, of course, is that could comprise the attitude, swagger and mystique that was the Oakland Raiders. Then again, look where that got them the past nine years.

Nowhere.

"I don't think the Raiders have lost the mystique in terms of being the Raiders," said Oakland defensive lineman Richard Seymour. "Anytime you think about the Raiders, you still think tough and nasty and physical. And undisciplined can fall into that. We're definitely going to rectify that.

"We can't control what happened in the past, but moving forward I feel good about where we're going. I think it's an exciting time to be a Raider."

It's an exciting time to be in the AFC West.

  
 

Post-camp report: So Peyton Manning took that hit we've been waiting for, and he had no trouble with it. Reservations about Manning looked unfounded through the Broncos' first three preseason games as he shook off a year and a half of rust, looked decent and withstood a legitimate hit. The Broncos' defense wasn't so lucky, with linebacker D.J. Williams losing an appeal of a six-game suspension for a drug violation and the club working on its seventh defensive coordinator in seven years.

Best that could happen: Manning's the quarterback he was three years ago, the Broncos win the division and contend for the AFC championship. Denver was 8-8 with Tim Tebow. So what do you think happens if Manning is Peyton Manning, 2009? C'mon, people, this isn't a trick question.

Worst that could happen: Manning doesn't have the durability or arm strength of years past and can't last the season. If that happens, it's look out below. Trust me, Caleb Hanie will not do for this franchise what Tim Tebow did a year ago. The defense that rescued this team last season lacks depth, and it will be tested during a torturous first-half that includes six playoff opponents in Denver's first eight starts.

Last word: The Broncos are paying Manning a fortune because they believe he can take them to the next level, and that's the Super Bowl. Hey, he did it twice with Indianapolis, so why not --- right? Not so fast. Those clubs were better. Manning was younger. Plus, there weren't four neck surgeries involved. This is not a 29-year-old quarterback coming off a knee surgery; this is a 36-year-old recovering from four neck surgeries, and good luck. Manning may need it.

  
 

Post-camp report: The defense is supposed to be the concern because the Chargers were dead last in the league in third-down efficiency, with opponents converting a whopping 49.2 percent. But it's not the defense that worries me. It's the left tackle. I'm talking about Jared Gaither, a guy who played well down the stretch for San Diego but who hasn't played a down or stretched in preseason because of lingering back spasms. Pardon me, but I've heard this story before, which is why Baltimore and Kansas City got rid of the guy. But if he can't play, who does? That would be undrafted rookie Mike Harris protecting Philip Rivers' back, and now you know why there's angst in America's Finest City.

Best that could happen: Coordinator John Pagano shores up the defense, Rivers cleans up his mistakes and the left-tackle position doesn't become an issue. Oh, yeah, and Ryan Mathews makes it through the season without suffering another injury. That's a lot to ask, but if it happens look for San Diego to push Denver.

Worst that could happen: The defense stinks, Rivers keeps making mistakes and left tackle becomes a turnstile, with on-rushing defenders blowing around and through Harris. If that happens, it's look out below and no more Norv Turner.

Last word: San Diego isn't the most talented team in the league anymore. Far from it. But the Bolts are more talented than they were a year ago when a Rivers' fumble of a kneeldown kept them from the playoffs. I don't know what to make of these guys anymore, and I found myself underwhelmed by what I saw when I spent four days in San Diego. I don't doubt Rivers can take these guys to the top. What I question is how much help he gets from his supporting cast -- OK, his offensive line.

  
 

Post-camp report: The Chiefs are a preseason darling in a lot of sectors, and I can see why. They played well for three games under Romeo Crennel last season. Their quarterback is back. Their star running back is back. Their defense could be marvelous. But there are a lot of variables, beginning with Jamaal Charles. I don't know how he responds after missing last season. What I do know is the Chiefs don't have a chance without Charles returning to his 2009-10 form.

Best that could happen: It's 2010 all over again. That club won the division behind Charles, the league's top-ranked rushing unit and a quarterback (Matt Cassel) who did not make mistakes. Granted, Cassel is the fourth-best quarterback in this division, but he doesn't have to win games. He just can't lose them, and that happened last season.

Worst that could happen: It's 2011 all over again. The Chiefs can't get the running game going, injuries cripple them on both sides of the ball, Cassel struggles and Kansas City's defense can't rescue the offense. Honestly, this division is wrapped so tight I could see the Chiefs finishing anywhere from first to last.

Last word: Having Dwayne Bowe end a lengthy holdout was a plus. Getting Peyton Hillis to serve as Charles' safety net is a plus. Having Crennel teamed with GM Scott Pioli is a plus. Now, the question: Can the Chiefs put it all together for another division title? I'm skeptical, and here's why: While Crennel got something out of his players for three games last season, tell me what he's done as a head coach? He had one winning season in four years with Cleveland. OK, so it's Cleveland. I just don't know if he's the guy to take this team to the top.

  
 

Post-camp report: There's a new coach, new coordinators, new GM and new attitude with the Raiders. But the same ol' problem remains: How to get over .500. The Raiders haven't been there since 2002, and this year's lineup looks as if it could fall in line with its predecessors. Yes, I know, the Raiders should've won the division last year ... but they didn't. Carson Palmer threw too many interceptions, Darren McFadden was hurt again the defense stunk. I don't know if that that changes. What should change is the club's uncanny ability to commit stupid penalties. The Raiders last year set a league record in that department, and new coach Dennis Allen is determined to fix that. So far, so good, with Oakland averaging six penalties a game this summer, or four less than its 2011 regular-season output.

Best that could happen: Palmer turns back the clock to 2005, and McFadden stays on the field for more than 13 games. I'm not sure either happens, but if they do anything's possible. Remember, at 8-8 the Raiders tied for the best record in the division a year ago.

Worst that could happen: McFadden gets hurt again, and the Raiders put out an APB for offensive playmakers. I'm a big believer in Run DMC holding the keys to the ignition -- not Palmer -- and if he's a no-go, so are the Raiders.

Last word: There's no reason to believe Oakland can't contend for the division title. Then again, there's no reason to believe they should, either. With Palmer looking more and more like an ordinary quarterback, it's up to a healthy McFadden and what should be an improved defense to carry this team -- and I don't see that happening. The Raiders are headed in the right direction, but I say it takes Dennis Allen a year to get this club moving forward.

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