Best Case, Worst Case for each AFC West team in 2014
Can the Chargers win the AFC West? Absolutely. But there's also a scenario where the Broncos go 16-0. Meanwhile, the Chiefs will miss the playoffs and the Raiders will be the Raiders.
The whole idea started on our award-winning podcast (embedded below): what would each NFL team look like in their “Armageddon scenario”? In other words, what's the absolute worst thing that could happen to each NFL team? And, conversely, what's the best-case scenario for each team? (Yes, theoretically “16 wins and the Super Bowl works, but let's be realistic.)
We'll go by division on these and if you want to hear the breakdown for each one, subscribe to the Eye on Football podcast via iTunes. Up now, the AFC West.
There's not a lot drama here; since Peyton Manning arrived before the 2012 season, the Broncos have twice gone 13-3, including a Super Bowl appearance last February. In fact, Manning has won at least 10 games in 13 of his 15 NFL seasons, including 13 playoff appearances.
At 38, he finally appears to be slowing down physically but he's always looked like this. Manning has always been slow, always seemed lumbering, and rarely spins spirals like the league's younger, stronger-armed passers.
"I throw a lot of wobbly passes," Manning conceded last season before pointing out, "I throw a lot of wobbly touchdowns too."
And that's the point: on the surface, Manning's game isn't pretty, but get past the modern-day perception of what a quarterback should look like and it's damn-near perfection.
(Manning's arm punt finds his intended target. It ain't pretty but it doesn't need to be.)
It's akin to how women are portrayed in magazines, Photoshopped beyond recognition and representative of nothing you'd ever see in the real world. In football terms, that's Blaine Gabbert. He ticks all the boxes on what a quarterback would look like if he was constructed in a lab by an expert panel of general managers, coaches and scouts: 6-4, a muscular 235 pounds, a rifle arm, mobile in the pocket, etc. But Gabbert's production never came close to matching his measurables and the Jaguars gave up on him after three seasons.
The larger point: The Broncos are loaded on both sides of the ball but without Manning they're probably a .500 team. But other the 2011 season, when Manning didn't play a down after multiple neck surgeries, he has never missed a start in 16 NFL seasons.
And given his style of play, which relies on breaking down defenses long before the ball is snapped, and not on his ability to throw the ball 80 yards in the air, Manning's game is timeless; as long as he's able to stand without assistance, he'll be able to carve up defenses with pre-snap reads and quick passes.
All that gushing is a prelude to this: The Broncos could go undefeated this season. The two biggest obstacles to that happening: road games against the Seahawks in Week 3 and the Patriots in Week 9. There are other tough games on the schedule too -- the Colts, Cardinals and 49ers all come to Denver -- and the Broncos, even as one of the AFC's best teams, will need a little luck to approach 16-0. But after Manning's 55-touchdowns, 5,477-yard performance a season ago, no one would be surprised if he pulled it off either.
Best case: 16-0. Worst case: 11-5.
Andy Reid deserves much of the credit for taking a two-win team to 11-5 and the playoffs. Alex Smith deserves credit, too. But the reality is that neither man will be able to stave off the inevitable backslide awaiting the Chiefs this season.
There are too many questions on the offense, starting with an offensive line that is without Branden Albert (now in Miami) and Geoff Schwartz (now with the Giants), and wide receivers that don't inspire much confidence. Dwayne Bowe has struggled with drops this preseason and he'll be suspended for the regular-season opener. Donnie Avery was once the fastest man in the league before a knee injury but he's lost some of that explosiveness.
In fact, any conversation about explosiveness begins and ends with Jamaal Charles. But he can't touch the ball on every play (can he?), which means that Smith will have to be more than a game manager if the Chiefs are going to be successful. And we don't use "game manager" as a pejorative. It's what Smith is. Some guys are franchise quarterbacks, some guys are destined to be backups their entire careers, and others are game managers; coaches feel quite comfortable with them under center when in the lead but less so when they're required to mount a late-game comeback.
These are all things that will conspire against the Chiefs in 2014. Also not helping: playing in the same division as the Broncos and the Chargers.
More reason for pessimism: Kansas City hasn't had back-to-back 10-plus win seasons since 1992-1993. They've come close -- in 1995-1997 and 2005-2006 -- and stranger things have happened. Like winning the division with Todd Haley and Matt Cassel in 2010, or going 9-0 out of the gate last season after limping to 2-14 the season before.
The Chiefs' toughest stretch will come in their final seven games when they host the Seahawks, Broncos and Cardinals, travel to face the Cardinals and Steelers and face the Raiders twice.
Best case: 10-6. Worst case: 5-11.
There isn't much to say about a team that not only hasn't been to the playoffs since 2002 but hasn't had a winning season in that time. Expectations are exceedingly low, the fan base is understandably frustrated with what will almost certainly be the NFL's worst team, and the scant possibility of success rests on the sore right arm of Matt Schaub.
This pretty much encapsulates the 2014 Raiders:
Temporary Raiders QB Matt Schaub seems way too excited about helping sell tickets. pic.twitter.com/ZzhbN8zwIV— ryan wilson (@ryanwilson_07) June 20, 2014
Schaub hasn't looked good this preseason, but he's not solely to blame; the offensive line has been terrible and wideouts Rod Streater, Andre Holmes, James Jones and Greg Little don't exactly qualify as big-play threats. The running game features Maurice Jones-Drew and Darren McFadden, a player on the downside of a solid career and another who never came close to reaching his insane athletic potential.
Rookie second-round pick Derek Carr will start at some point the season but there shouldn't be a rush to get him on the field -- primarily to avoid the inevitable beating he'll take from opposing pass rushers. (Quick refresher: Carr's brother, David Carr, started as a rookie for the Texans in 2002 and was sacked 76 times. It's fair to say that he never recovered.)
Defensively, the Raiders drafted linebacker Khalil Mack, and signed veterans LaMarr Woodley, Antonio Smith and Justin Tuck. Unfortunately, Mack is raw and Woodley, Smith and Tuck are in Oakland because their previous teams didn't think they had anything left.
The hard truth is that the Raiders could win a couple games and everyone would nod their heads knowingly. Alternatively, the Raiders could play out of their minds and end up with six wins. Either way, coach Dennis Allen is getting fired and general manager Reggie McKenzie may not be far behind.
Best case: 6-10. Worst case: 2-14.
Two years ago, we all just assumed that the Chargers were done. Philip Rivers looked old and scared, direct results of playing behind a horrid offensive line, and the defense was an affront to tackle football.
But Norv Turner was fired and replaced by Mike McCoy who, along with offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt (now the coach in Tennessee), remade Rivers into one of the league's best players.
Just how good was Rivers in 2013, a year after everybody thought his best days were well behind him? He was second in total QB value, according to Football Outsiders' metrics behind -- you guessed it -- Peyton Manning. Just as important: the offensive line, which ranked dead last in pass-blocking in 2012, when Rivers was sacked 49 times, was eighth a year ago. That's huge.
The defense remains the weak link but the Chargers used their first two draft picks on cornerback Jason Verrett and linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu, and signed cornerback Brandon Flowers in free agency. And although we shouldn't put much stock in preseason numbers, the unit ranked near the bottom of the league, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
The good news: The defense can't get worse; a season ago they ranked dead last, according to Football Outsiders (31st against both the pass and the run) and the Chargers still went 9-7, including a 5-1 run to end the regular season, before beating the Bengals in the wild-card game.
If everything falls into place, the Chargers could win the division. (We've mentioned this before, with the caveat that it would only happen if Manning didn't finish the season in Denver. That's a weak hedge and you rightly called us out on that so we're amending our original statement: Straight up, we're picking the Chargers to take the AFC West. Hopefully, this turns out better than our 2013 prediction that the Chargers would be the worst team in the NFL.)
That said, this group also has the largest disparity in wins and losses. Mostly because of questions about the defense, but also because we're not entirely convinced that the ghost Norv Turner has been driven from the building.
Best case: 13-3. Worst case: 7-9.
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