NFL Playoff Projections: AFC West has been the wildest division of the 2017 season
The Chiefs started hot but have gone ice cold, but the Chargers and Raiders stumbled early before surging of late
Even before the start of the 2017 NFL season, it seemed clear that the AFC West was going to be football's wildest division. Across the NFL world, opinions were split on who would win the West, and a consensus emerged that it would be the most competitive division in the league -- and possibly also the single best division.
Befitting that status, when we did our preseason predictions here at CBSSports.com, the headline began with "Oakland Raiders) to do so. Only two writers (myself and Will Brinson) predicted the exact same order of finish for the AFC West. (By contrast, all seven writers had the same order in the AFC East; six of seven had the same order in the AFC North; and four of seven had the same order in the AFC South, with the other three only flipping the third and fourth place teams.)." Our panel of seven writers predicted three different division winners, but none predicted the preseason AFC West favorites (the
Early on in the season, it looked as though the division would be settled fairly quickly, rendering all of the close-race predictions moot. The Chiefs jumped out to a 5-0 start and looked very much like the best team in football.
They sported a borderline unstoppable offense averaging 32.8 points per game, with Kareem Hunt and Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce ripping off huge gains on seemingly every other play. Hunt racked up more 50-plus yard plays during that season-opening sprint than any running back had in an entire season since Adrian Peterson in 2012. Alex Smith was taking targeted shots downfield and hitting on nearly all of them. Through five games, he had already completed 11 passes for 440 yards and three scores on throws at least 20 yards down the field. He completed just 15 such passes for 521 yards and two scores all of last season.
Andy Reid was mixing in misdirection and college-style spread action throughout the game, and the Chiefs were just running absolutely roughshod over everybody.
Meanwhile, the Raiders jumped out to a 2-0 start before losing their next three games. Their offense and defense went into a funk at the exact same time, as they were outscored by Washington, the Broncos, and the Ravens by a combined score of 73-37 over that stretch. Not only that but Derek Carr had suffered two transverse process fractures in his back, and nobody knew then that he'd return in just a week's time. The Raiders, in short, looked done for.
At the same time, the Chargers lost four of the first five games -- almost all of which were decided by one score. They missed a game-tying field goal with five seconds left against the Broncos in the opener. They missed a game-winning field goal with nine seconds left against the Dolphins in Week 2. They pulled within two points of the Eagles with less than seven minutes left in their Week 4 game, but never got the ball back. When they finally got a win, it was by 10 points over the lowly Giants, and it necessitated them scoring 10 points in the final four minutes, 50 seconds. With games against the Raiders, Broncos, and Patriots on the horizon, the Chargers, too, looked like they were going nowhere fast.
The only team that looked like it might actually challenge the Chiefs -- and it didn't even really look that way -- was the Broncos. They started the season 3-1 before taking their bye, with their typically strong defense being supplemented by a competent enough offense. Trevor Siemian looked fine and C.J. Anderson had at least 80 rushing yards in three of four games.
What's changed since Week 5? Well, only everything.
The Broncos have lost eight in a row, and look like an absolute disaster. The less said about them, the better.
The Chiefs have gone 1-6 since their undefeated start. Hunt hasn't scored since Week 3 and hasn't topped 100 total yards since Week 7. (He did so in each of the first seven games.) Smith has seen his passer rating plummet from 125.8 to 95.1. Kelce has remained consistent, but Hill has been subject to wild game-to-game swings in his production. And the defense has not stepped up to make up for the offensive drop-off.
Carr returned after missing just one game, and has gone 4-3 in his starts since then, lifting the Raiders to 6-6. Oakland has rediscovered its running game over the last several weeks, as Marshawn Lynch has run for more yards during the last four games than he did during his first seven. (He missed a game due to suspension.) The Oakland defense is still dreadful, but a well-timed stretch of schedule featuring games against the decrepit offenses of the Dolphins, Broncos, and Giants allowed them to collect three wins sandwiching a loss to the Patriots.
The Chargers are 5-2 since their 1-4 start. The only two losses during that stretch came to the Patriots, who are the Patriots, and the Jaguars, who have the best defense in the league. Philip Rivers is playing out of his mind. Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler are making plays out of the backfield. Keenan Allen is always open. I'm pretty sure Casey Hayward last allowed a complete pass sometime last century, and undrafted free agent Trevor Williams has joined him as a plus corner on the outside. Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa are arguably the best pass-rushing duo in the league.
In other words, the AFC West has turned out to be exactly as insane as we all thought it might be. How weird has it been? Check out this graphic, with numbers courtesy of Stephen Oh from SportsLine, which shows the Chiefs, Chargers, and Raiders' chances of winning the division week-by-week.
Kansas City sat at 75.6 percent after five weeks, then didn't dip below 92.5 percent from Week 6 through Week 12. During that time, neither the Chargers nor the Raiders' chances of winning the division ever topped 2.5 percent.
That's all changed over the last two weeks, as Kansas City's losses to Buffalo and the Jets, combined with the Chargers' wins over Dallas and Cleveland, and the Raiders' victories over the Broncos and Giants, have thrown the entire division into chaos. Incredibly, SportsLine still considers the Chiefs the AFC West favorite despite their 1-6 slide, giving them a 50.4 percent chance of taking the AFC West crown. Why? The schedule.
Kansas City has three home games left. The Chargers only have two and the Raiders have just one. The Chiefs also get to play the Dolphins and Broncos in the final two weeks of the season. The Chargers play the Jets in Week 16 while the Raiders take on the Eagles, and then the two teams play each other in the regular season finale. All three teams will play each other before the season is out (Raiders-Chiefs is this weekend and Chargers-Chiefs is next week), but the Chiefs' other two opponents have a combined record of 8-16, while the Chargers' opponents are 10-14 and the Raiders' are 16-8.
Any team that rips off a 3-1 stretch to end the season will almost certainly take the division crown, and the Chiefs undoubtedly have the best chance to do it, barring one of the other two teams sweeping the two divisional games left on their schedule (vs. Chiefs and vs. each other). Of course, as we've seen over the last several weeks -- that is easier said than done.
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