The AFC West gave us one of the tightest (and ugliest) division races in recent memory last year, with three teams finishing in a three-way tie at 8-8 and the last place team finishing just a game behind that group at 7-9. While it was fun dusting off the old three-way-tiebreaking procedures, it wasn’t much fun to look at or wager on from week to week.
That shouldn’t be the case this season as the AFC West appears to be massively upgraded. Denver has rebuilt itself around Peyton Manning, San Diego was hyperactive in free agency while trying to make one last run, Oakland is ready to begin the post-Al Davis Era, and Kansas City welcomes back four of its best players from injury.
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The extreme makeover of this division has set up what should be a full-on, 17-week dog fight in a division with some of the most ancient and heated rivalries in the game.
Here are my AFC West predictions and betting odds:
Denver Broncos Predictions
2011 Record: 8-8 (3-5 home, 5-3 road)
2011 Against the Spread: 7-9 ATS, 9-7 vs. Total
2011 Rankings: 23rd offense (31st pass, 1st rush); 20th defense (18th pass, 22nd rush)
2012 Odds: 22/1 to win SB, 9/1 to win AFC, 1.7/1 to win AFC West, 8.5 wins O/U
Offense: Hey, did you hear that Denver got a new quarterback? Needless to say, the Broncos attack is going to be the antithesis of the 1930’s-style approach it employed last year. Manning looks healthy and reenergized. And if he is able to play all 17 games then I expect this to be a Top 10 unit. Manning will be working with the best running game and offensive line he has had in half a decade. And if his time in Indy proved anything, it was that Manning is capable of making average players around him look extraordinary. That’s what he’ll be asked to do with an undermanned receiving corps. It is assumed that Manning will have carte blanche with this offense. And why wouldn’t he? But John Fox has always been a run-first coach and I don’t anticipate that he’s going to go all pass-wacky just because he has a Hall of Famer under center. Look for balance out of this group as Fox and the running game do everything they can to take the pressure off Manning and his mutant neck.
Defense: Denver’s defense was actually pretty awful last year. I know that the team won several games by grinding things out and playing tough, low-scoring football. But the Broncos also gave up 40 or more points five times in 18 games. Their pass defense was a mess, allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete nearly 63 percent of their passes. Injuries and a non-existent pass rush had something to do with that. But new coordinator Jack Del Rio still has a lot of work to do with this unit. Denver has some high-end talents: D.J. Williams is excellent (but will miss the first six games on suspension), Elvis Dumervil is a Pro Bowl talent, and Von Miller showed signs that he could be an elite linebacker for the next decade. Champ Bailey is also still getting it done from the safety spot. But depth is a problem at every position. And the fact that Denver signed aged veterans Keith Brooking (only seven years past his prime) and Jim Leonard (coming off injury) two weeks into camp isn’t a good sign that this unit is making progress. Manning was able to make the Colts defense look respectable for years. Maybe he can do the same here.
Skinny: There are a ton of statistical indicators from 2011 that would have had me giddy at the prospect of betting against the Broncos this year. They had seven close wins last year and their 8-8 mark was a fluke and major overachievement. But then Denver got its hands on Manning. So now not only should they avoid a big letdown after last year’s dramatic run to the second weekend of the postseason, but they may actually have a chance to improve. This team is not a real threat to win the AFC, Manning or not. But, as I mentioned, he has more talent around him now than he has had in four years so it will be interesting to see what these guys can do.
San Diego Chargers Predictions
2011 Record: 8-8 (5-3 home, 3-5 road)
2011 Against the Spread: 6-10 ATS, 8-8 vs. Total
2011 Rankings: 6th offense (6th pass, 16th rush); 16th overall (13th pass, 20th rush)
2012 Odds: 25/1 to win SB, 9.5/1 to win AFC, 1.8/1 to win AFC West, 9.0 wins O/U
Offense: Norv Turner may be a total incompetent as a head coach. But one thing the guy knows is offense. The Chargers managed to field a Top 10 offense yet again last season despite being shackled with one of the worst offensive lines in football. They were literally picking guys off the street to start for them later in the year and were able to settle things a bit when they tabbed Jared Gaither as the starting left tackle. But Gaither has been hurt through training camp, and if he can’t go then the line will once again be a weakness. Besides that, this group is stacked. By all accounts, Antonio Gates looks great and is ready to be an elite tight end again after battling injuries for three seasons. Philip Rivers is still a very good quarterback that has mastered this system. And, while the Chargers lost Vincent Jackson, I feel they upgraded the position by bringing in Robert Meacham and the very underrated Eddie Royal.
Defense: San Diego’s defense simply could not get off the field last year. They allowed opponents to convert a whopping 49.3 percent of third downs – worst in the NFL. They mercifully fired defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, and now San Diego needs to retool a stop unit that has really seen a lot of roster turnover during the last two years. San Diego used its first three draft picks on defense and brought in tough, physical free agents Jarret Johnson, Demorrio Williams and Aubrayo Franklin. San Diego may be stouter. But what they really need is more big plays. They mustered only 32 sacks last year and were No. 23 in turnovers forced. I don’t see a lot of difference makers on this unit.
Skinny: I don’t have any faith in this team as long as Turner is at the helm. If the man has proven anything it is that he is a loser and that his teams will always be undisciplined underachievers. So as much as people want to get excited about San Diego’s “talent,” the fact of that matter is that outside of their 13-3 showing in 2009 this has been just about a .500 ball club since 2008 (25-23). San Diego has a key rivalry game at Oakland in Week 1 and then gets its next two games at home. They have been notoriously slow starters under Turner. With a tough schedule this year San Diego can’t afford its annual stumble out of the gate if they want to make one last playoff push.
Oakland Raiders Predictions
2011 Record: 8-8 (3-5 home, 5-3 road)
2011 Against the Spread: 9-6-1 ATS, 10-6 vs. Total
2011 Rankings: 9th offense (11th pass, 7th rush); 29th defense (27th pass, 27th rushing)
2012 Odds: 100/1 to win SB, 37/1 to win AFC, 5/1 to win AFC West, 7.0 wins O/U
Offense: Last year’s trade to get Carson Palmer has to be considered one of the worst moves in the last decade. But now Oakland is stuck with the arrogant, slow-footed quarterback and his poor decision-making. Palmer was a farce under center last year. And even though he’s had an offseason to learn a new system he is still not someone I trust to lead a team. Oakland has proven that it can run the ball against anyone. But they desperately need Darren McFadden to stay healthy – something he’s never proven he can do. The Raiders lost Michael Bush, so they are really gambling on getting a full, productive season out of their best skill player. Oakland’s receivers are still a joke: all you need to know is that Darrius Heyward-Bey and his butterfingers are still listed No. 1 on the depth chart. The offensive line may be a little underrated. They are shifting back to a zone-blocking scheme, which should only help the running game. But Oakland only gave up 25 sacks last year. They need to keep the rush off Palmer this year because the QB has proven that he’ll crumble under pressure.
Defense: Oakland’s biggest problem on defense was its penchant for giving up big plays. At 14.3 their yards per point allowed was one of the worst in the game. They were second-worst in the league at yielding runs of 20 yards or more (24). But most disturbingly, the 8.4 points per game they allowed in the fourth quarter was No. 30 in the NFL. That means they were either consistently worn down or rolling over. The defensive line is still a strength. Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly are pro’s pros and the heart of the defense. Rolando McClain has a bright future. And the secondary actually held up just fine without Nnamdi Asomugha, allowing opponents to complete just 54 percent of their passes (No. 3 in the league). But Michael Huff is all-or-nothing at one safety spot, either making a big hit or missing it and giving up a huge play. They need to be a better tackling team and the Raiders need to be more disciplined. Once again, they led the league in penalties.
Skinny: Oakland is heading in the right direction. For all of the great things that Al Davis did for the Raiders and for the NFL, may he rest in peace, he destroyed this organization over the past 10 years and the franchise needs a complete rebuild. Oakland has some pieces to be competitive. But they don’t have any reliable top-end talents on offense or defense. Leadership and discipline are still lacking and after nearly a decade as the easiest money in football (their 58-84-2 ATS mark since 2003 is the worst in the NFL) it’s going to be a while before I trust my money on this team.
Kansas City Chiefs Predictions
2011 Record: 7-9 (3-5 home, 4-4 road)
2011 Against the Spread: 9-7 ATS; 4-12 vs. Total
2011 Rankings: 27th offense (25th pass, 15th rush); 11th defense (6th pass, 26th rush)
2012 Odds: 55/1 to win SB, 19/1 to win AFC, 3.5/1 to win AFC West, 8.0 wins O/U
Offense: It was absolutely brutal watching Kansas City on offense in 2011. The Chiefs lost their starting quarterback, running back and tight end to injury last season. The results were predictably gruesome, and K.C.’s 23.5 yards per point was the worst in the league. Todd Haley and his offensive system are gone and Brian Daboll has replaced them. That may seem like an upgrade until you consider that Daboll’s last two stops were in Miami and Cleveland, where his teams finished No. 20, No. 31 and No. 29 in scoring the past three seasons. Jamaal Charles seems healthy and ready to lead Kansas City’s dynamic running game. And when Dwayne Bowe decides to sign his franchise tender and join the team he will be one of several athletic weapons in the passing game. But I am not at all sold on Matt Cassel and his noodle arm at quarterback. I don’t think he can take over a game, and when teams start stacking up to stop K.C.’s rushing I don’t trust Cassel to make plays down the field. He will need to capture some of that 2010 magic if this unit wants to keep up with some of the others in the division.
Defense: This is the area where the Chiefs make their money. Kansas City was even better than its numbers suggest last year on the defensive side. When you consider that they had absolutely no help from the offense I think it is very impressive that the Chiefs defense posted nearly a Top 10 showing last year. And they did so without uber-athletic safety Eric Berry. New Coach Romeo Crennel has the respect of this unit and they play as hard as anyone in football. The defensive line is stocked with top draft picks – including new nose Dontari Poe – but needs to be much stronger at the point of attack against the running game. Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson are an excellent right side on the second level. But Kansas City is going to see a massive downgrade at corner with Stanford Routt trying to replace departed Brandon Carr. They need to get better in the red zone (No. 20 overall) and, again, that comes back to being solid up front. But this group is still a plus on this team.
Skinny: With three more wins than their Pythagorean Wins called for the Chiefs were the league’s biggest overachievers last year. They do have some key guys back from injury. But they were outscored by 126 points in 2011, which was a bigger point differential than either Jacksonville (5-11) or Cleveland (4-12) had. I absolutely don’t think that Crennel is a good coach and I’ve made my feelings known about Cassel. So I don’t have high expectations for a team that just seemed to roll over too often last year, losing a stunning five games by 27 or more points. I am expecting a step back and I don’t think the Crennel Era will be a long or prosperous one.
Robert Ferringo is a professional handicapper and has posted back-to-back profitable seasons (college and pro). Robert has turned a profit in three of four football seasons and over the last nine months his clients have earned nearly $10,000 in profit with his football selections. He is looking forward to building on his stellar football handicapping resume again this fall and you can check him out here. Also, you can also get $60 worth of free Robert Ferringo member picks (no salesman, no credit card, no obligation!) by clicking here for more info.