The Denver Broncos are favored to win their fourth straight AFC West title in 2014 and just like the three previous division championships, the Broncos biggest threat will come from a different corner.
In 2011, the Broncos were the best of a bad division. In 2012, an eleven game winning streak left the other three teams in the dust. Last season, the Kansas City Chiefs bolted out to a 9-0 record pushed the Broncos. The assumption at the conclusion of last season was that the Chiefs would just continue to get better, and be the primary obstacle for the Broncos in 2014.
With training camps now less than a month away, it’s apparent that the biggest competition for the AFC West Title will now come from the San Diego Chargers. Before we take a peek at those Chargers, here’s a quick glance as to why it won’t be the Chiefs and why the Raiders are still not in the Broncos class.
It’s true the Chiefs were 9-0 last season and improved by nine games from the season before, but a 2-5 finish followed by a less than impressive offseason has the Chiefs reeling. In an effort to get better quickly after a 2-14 season in 2012, the Chiefs signed a lot of veterans to one year deals last year. The results were positive but now they are paying for those decisions, and were forced to let good players go for salary cap reasons.
The Chiefs have lost two starting offensive lineman, have few playmakers on the outside and their defense was exposed in the later part of last year. To top off their offseason, the Chiefs released cornerback Brandon Flowers for reasons not known to rational people. We’ll get back to Flowers in a minute but with all of that talent erosion, the Chiefs are set for a big regression in 2014.
There’s no denying that the Raiders will be better but what does that mean? They signed a number of older free agents to rebuild a talentless roster and if this was 2010, the Raiders would be scary. However as great as LaMarr Woodley, Justin Tuck, Antonio Smith and Maurice Jones-Drew once were, they are no longer elite players.
In addition, the Raiders still do not have a quarterback. Free agent signing, Matt Schaub is certainly an upgrade over the guys they have been trotting out there and rookie Derek Carr might be the future. However to win the AFC West, teams have to compete with Peyton Manning and neither Schaub nor Carr is ready for that.
Don’t get me wrong, those players and others will make the Raiders respectable but respectable is a long way from beating out a team like the Broncos for a division title.
That leaves the Chargers are the primary threat for the Broncos in their pursuit of a fourth consecutive division title. Outside of the Broncos, the Chargers were the best team in the division at the end of 2013 and even beat the Broncos late in the regular season. They also pushed the Broncos in the playoffs, rallying from a 17 point deficit to make a game of it late.
Unlike the Chiefs and Raiders, the Chargers did not undergo a massive roster makeover in the offseason. They didn’t lose key players and while they didn’t go on a massive spending spree like the Broncos and Raiders, the Chargers did add some key pieces.
Offensively the Chargers added running back, Donald Brown. Brown is not a flashy signing but he’s solid and makes a very good offense even better. The Chargers ranked second in many of the key offensive areas to the Broncos, and Brown gives them one more threat.
Wide receiver Keenan Allen had a very good rookie season and developed a rapport with quarterback, Phillip Rivers. It’s Rivers, though, that makes the Chargers offense a threat to the Broncos. He had a bounce back season in 2013 and is the one quarterback in the division that can go point for point with Manning.
On Tuesday, the Chargers signed cornerback Brandon Flowers. The same Flowers that the Chiefs released last week. His signing along with the drafting of highly touted cornerback, Jason Verrett gives the Chargers a very competitive secondary.
The Chargers, on paper, are set up to give the Broncos fits. They can run the ball with Ryan Matthews, Danny Woodhead and Brown and Rivers can fling it with the best of them. Defensively, the Chargers get their pass rushers back in Dwight Freeney and Melvin Ingram back. In order to contain the Broncos offense, teams must be able to rush the quarterback and cover on the back-end. Again, the Chargers appear to have the personnel to do both of those things.
Do the Chargers have enough to end the Broncos reign in the AFC West? Probably not, it’s important to remember that the team that improved the most in the division is the Broncos. However if there is a team that can at least put a scare in the Broncos, it’s the Chargers.