If you’re a football fan waking up from a 20-year coma – welcome back! You’re just in time for a new season!
Please be advised, though, some things have changed. Pro football now has more passing, and with Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, Derek Carr and newcomer Russell Wilson, the AFC West has more people good at passing than any other division in the league.
Not coincidentally, the division also now features defenses constructed to take the ball away from the other teams’ fancypants QBs, thereby giving their fancypants guy an extra possession or three over 60 minutes. All four teams have high-end pass rushing tandems. High first-round picks and big dollars have been spent to bring in playmaking corners. The verdict is in: The QB League always favors the QB…so all defenses can do is try taking the ball away from QBs. It’s the way of the new millennium: Master the Peanut Punch or die. The rules simply don’t allow for a defense to dominate in terms of points allowed. The ’21 Bills led the league by giving up just 17.0 a game. Good…but a far cry from past league leaders like the ’76 Steel Curtain (9.8ppg), the ’85 Bears (12.4 ppg) or the 2000 Ravens (10.3ppg).
In a way, then, the Chiefs should be flattered: The other three teams in the division aren’t just generically “improved” – they’re constructed in ways meant specifically to counter Mahomes’ magic. The Chiefs have won six-straight West titles, a greater achievement now that free agency’s created so much roster fluidity no team can keep its core together for, say, a decade. (It’s not a coincidence most of the longest Super-Bowl era divisional win streaks happened in the ‘70s: Rams ’73-’79; Steelers ’74-’79; Vikes ’73-’78.)
Of course the Patriots are the outliers, winners of eleven-straight between 2009 & 2019. Loco by any standard, but Brady and company never had the level of intra-division competition KC’s gonna get this autumn. (No offense intended to the Butt Fumbler or EJ Manuel.)
Mahomes has already been on the best roster he’ll ever be a part of. That’s what happens when a superstar QB’s rookie contract turns into a huge long-term deal that consumes a much larger percentage of the team’s cap space. On the bright(?) side, Mahomes’ 2022 cap hit is only $35.7 million… a pittance compared to the $47 million he’ll average over the next five years. Frank Clark was a luxury buy KC could afford while Mahomes was making relative peanuts. Now Clark’s contract, even reworked, may be the main reason they couldn’t keep Tyreek Hill.
Bottom line, I don’t wanna bum out Chiefs fans, but for all my searching, I can’t find a single team that’s won its division for eternity. Things change: Brussels sprouts used to be terrible and college basketball used to be good. If it makes you feel any better, your streak ended the six-year stranglehold the Broncos had on the division. A half-dozen consecutive titles is a grand achievement, but the run can’t go on forever…and it says here won’t go on for a seventh year.
1. CHARGERS 12-5
(Best bets: +240 to win division; Justin Herbert MVP +900)
A year ago, the Bolts went into their bye at 4-2. The ’22 gang will improve on that mark and be 6-1 when their fortnight of relaxation begins.
Glass half-full view:
Justin Herbert is gonna elevate from being merely one of the best to the best, at least in the AFC. It’d be no small feat with January ’22 stars Joe Cool and MVP favorite Josh Allen (+700)…but as great as both those guys were, neither had a stretch quite like what Herbert put together with his team’s season hanging in the balance late in the Chargers’ Week 18 epic in Vegas.
In the team’s last three possessions, Herbert & co converted on…
4th & 6
4th & 21
4th & 10
4th & 10
4th & 10
4th & 9
4th & 6
I’ve always believed “clutch” isn’t really about a guy elevating his play in big spots so much as it is maintaining one’s high level when the game’s on the line. That nails performance from Herbert, though, is enough to make me rethink my opinion, and either way it added to a growing resume of pigskin heroism for both his fantasy owners and Bolts backers. The numbers have been there since his first possession under center, but Herbert’s ability to rise – or, at least, not shrink – makes Sofi Stadium’s AFC team a better bet to win their division than the guys who won the Lombardi in Sofi half a year ago.
The roster’s about as loaded as one can get in the age of free agency. The o-line, long a punchline, is now a position of strength. And three words for that D: “Ooh”, “la” and “la.” Khalil Mack AND Joey Bosa. Asante Samuel AND JC Jackson AND Bryce Callahan. Derwin James AND Nasir Adderley. All splashy, all great…but after missing the playoffs for failing in the decidedly old-school requirement of stopping the run, maybe the most important upgrade is the zaftig duo of Sebastian Joseph-Day and Austin Johnson. Now in his second season and with one of the best personnel guys, Tom Telesco, in his corner, Brandon Staley appears to have all the pieces.
Glass half-empty view:
2021 rookie head coach/defensive wiz Staley was looking good around Halloween as his team headed into the bye at 4-2, but by the time Christmas had come and gone, it felt like the league had unmasked him as a fraud. For all its star power, Staley’s D couldn’t stop anyone from running it right at ‘em, creating a funny bit of irony for the poster boy of analytics: “Defense wins championships” has become 21st-century hyperbole, but you still have to stop the run if you wanna make hay in January.
Kenneth Murray was considered a steal when he fell to Telesco at 23 in the 2020 Draft…but now he’s on the PUP list. Derwin James is as good as it gets…when he’s healthy. Same goes for Bosa. What I’m wondering is, WILL THE FOOTBALL GODS GIVE THE CHARGERS A BREAK ALREADY?!
2. BRONCOS 10-7
(Best bets: OVER 9.5 wins; Javonte Williams OVER 925.5 rush yards)
It was a fun run up in Seattle – an almost-dynasty – but it’s been diminishing returns since Malcolm Butler made that one play in that game eight years ago. I’m betting on Russ to be rejuvenated by a more promising spot for his second act that, among other things, will earn #3 a gold jacket.
Yeah, that potential starts with the young weapons he’s got around him, but he had some of those up in Seattle. In my esteemed estimation, no factor impacts how a QB performs as much as the quality of his offensive line…and while I don’t claim to be an o-line expert, my pals who are consistently tell me the Broncos quintet of fat guys stands as a plus-sized upgrade from the sorry group Russ just left behind.
On defense, the secondary is loaded with high-pedigree guys, and the pass rush oughta make a big jump forward if new guy Randy Gregory and Bradley Chubb can both stay on the field.
Still, the biggest splash will be provided by sophomore star-in-the-making Javonte Williams running behind that line… and that’s a good thing if Mile High history has any relevance: 30-something Elway was still great when he got those two rings, but Terrell Davis was the straw that stirred that Orange Crush soda. Same goes for 2015 Peyton Manning, who himself concedes he was a mere passenger on a Lombardi winner carried by the No Fly Zone and effective run attack that got stronger as the season went on.
Nathaniel Hackett has been a successful coordinator, but as Belichick assistants can tell you, that doesn’t guarantee success as the head man. And while it felt like the time was right to move on from (former successful coordinator) Vic Fangio, a defensive dropoff is possible, especially with disruptive DE/moose Shelby Harris now in Seattle. Bottom line, it’s no fun talking about the importance of the line of scrimmage, but it’s gonna be no fun in Denver if the Broncos front seven doesn’t do a better job stopping the run and rushing the passer.
3. RAIDERS 9-8
(Best bets: Over 8.5 wins; Derek Carr OVER 29.5 TD passes)
Hard to believe Derek Carr’s only played eight years in the NFL considering all the change he’s been through in the Silver & Black: Two cities, six head coaches, and what feels like several dozen redefinitions of who he is as a quarterback. He’s gone from an MVP finalist in his third season to an alleged scaredy cat who wasn’t willing to hold onto the ball long enough to make plays, to now being a bona fide leader of men who dragged the ’21 Raiders and their ‘Grey’s Anatomy’-level of off-the-field baggage to a feel-good story that ended with a near-playoff win in Cincinnati.
The last three seasons, Carr’s posted the best yards per attempt of his career (7.9, 7.9, 7.7), and that’s before adding Davante Adams, who’s in the conversation for the NFL’s best WR, to go along with Darren Waller, who’s in the conversation for the NFL’s best pass catching TE.
Josh McDaniels led the drive to get Carr to Foxborough over the last couple years…so it stands to reason the new head coach is optimistic about what his franchise QB can do with an offense loaded up at the skill positions. (Don’t sleep on the ground game: Josh Jacobs, Zamir White and Kenyan Drake? Sheesh.)
The defense isn’t without flaws, but it’s added talent in the secondary and also now features Chandler Jones and Bilal Nichols helping Maxx Crosby heat up the competition. Last year’s defense was woeful in terms of takeaways (six interceptions? In seventeen games?!), so it seems like turning over from a base 4-3 to Patrick Graham’s preferred 3-4 almost can’t help but provide Carr more drives.
The offensive line wasn’t good last year…and the Raiders didn’t do much to improve it this offseason.
The Belichick coaching tree remains woefully short on producing top bananas – and remember, this McDaniels’ second bite at the apple after his first go-‘round was spoiled by him reaching (on-purpose!) to draft Tim Tebow into orange back in 2010. Maybe McDaniels has learned from his callow mistakes, but the track record of Belichick assistants trying to franchise the Patriots model around Football America has been inarguably bad. Most weaknesses on the roster, though, aren’t McDaniels’ fault – no, please direct those complaints to the Mayock/Gruden braintrust if only for taking Clelin Ferrell fourth overall in 2019 with Devin White, Rashan Gary, Jeffrey Simmons, Brian Burns, Montez Sweat and a couple Ferrell’s superior Clemson classmates on the board.
4. CHIEFS 9-8
(Best bets: UNDER 10.5 wins; miss playoffs +180)
Mahomes is an all-timer. He could retire today and probably get into the Hall of Fame. But he may not be the most important piece of the Chiefs’ extended ownership of the West. After all, he was a high school senior when Andy Reid started his run in Arrowhead. Sure, Mahomes is the guy who finally got Reid over the Lombardi hump, but since 2000 the former Eagles coach has put up 16 seasons with double digit wins and two losing seasons. If anyone can guide an offense through what looks like a major philosophical shift after moving Tyreek Hill and bringing in JuJu Smith-Schuster (who’ll be #15’s most targeted WR), Marquez Valdes-Scantling & Skyy Moore, it’s Reid.
The Chiefs had the eight-ranked scoring defense a year ago…and have added star safety Justin Reid on the backend plus free agent Carlos Dunlap and first-round pick George Karlaftis to help Chris Jones get to the passer. The gap between KC’s score-at-will offense and the rest of the division has closed, so what Steve Spagnuolo’s gang does now is more important than ever.
It’s kinda-sorta understandable the Chiefs moved Hill (sidenote: It’ll be interesting a year or three from now to see if the ’22 offseason WR market reset worked for teams as well as it has the players who got those $20+million annual deals). Maybe the league’s defensive coordinators forcing Mahomes more and more to nickel-and-dime his way down the field instead of doing it all with with one throw made the Cheetah a little less valuable, but don’t buy the jive the franchise is trying to sell: Removing one of the three key players from a generational offense is not optimal.
Dunlap and Karlaftis are good adds, but the KC pass rush still might be fourth-best in the division. Justin Reid is a big talent but isn’t quite as good as creating turnovers as his predecessor, the Honey Badger.
That second half in the AFC title game against the Bengals may be what the analytics gang considers too small a sample to judge, but I hereby deem it deeply troubling.