The AFC West seemed like it could be a particularly competitive division, and on that front it certainly hasn't disappointed. San Diego continues to be a bit of a mess and continues their concerning long run of irrelevance. For the other three teams in the division, though, the divisional crown is there for the taking. With that divisional title will likely go a first-round bye, and home-field advantage through the playoffs is currently in play, too - the Raiders are tied with the Patriots atop the AFC, and the Broncos and Chiefs are just a game back. Further, at this point the Dolphins seem like the only strong threat to keep all three teams out of the playoffs, and Denver and Kansas City currently have a game edge on Miami in that race.
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The AFC West has had strength at the top for several years now, but this is the deepest they have been in a while. So, the obvious question for bettors is - which team has the edge? Who is going to win the division? And what should we expect from the three teams down the stretch? Let's break the race down from four key angles:
Schedule: There are plenty of divisional games left in this division. Oakland is in rough shape on that front - they play both the Chiefs and the Broncos on the road. The Chiefs obviously host the Raiders, and they have two games against the Broncos - a road game this coming week and a home game on Christmas day. The Broncos close at Kansas City and then at home against Oakland, so the stakes are potentially very high for them. Add it all up and the Chiefs have the edge on the divisional front. Denver's other three games are a mixed bag - a trip to Jacksonville is very winnable, a trip to Tennessee is more of a tossup, and a home game against the Patriots is very tough. Oakland has it much easier - hosting the Panthers, Bills and Colts and visiting the Chargers. That relatively easy path makes up a bit for the two divisional road games. Kansas City plays at Atlanta and San Diego - both winnable games - and hosts the Titans. Add it all up and the Chiefs have the most favorable remaining schedule, but the edge isn't big enough in and of itself to overcome the one-game advantage the Raiders have in the race. Denver's path is the least favorable.
Quarterback: This race is very lopsided. Alex Smith is fine - a solid quarterback playing solid football. He isn't great, but he doesn't have to be. Trevor Siemian is far from an ideal QB. There could be upside, but he isn't a plus quarterback right now. Derek Carr, meanwhile, is a star-caliber quarterback on the rise. He's playing well, he's clutch, and he gives the Raiders a clear edge. It all depends, then, on how much importance you attach to a quarterback. Fans of the Broncos will argue that they are capable of winning without a great QB because they didn't have one last year. The difference, though, is that that underwhelming performer last year was an all-time legend of the league with all the gravitas that goes with that, while this year they have a young guy who couldn't hold down the starting job full-time at Northwestern. I attach a lot of significance to the QB position heading into the stretch and beyond, so I give the Raiders a big edge here.
Coaching: It all really comes down to personal preference here - the teams are all reasonably well coached. I'm personally not generally the biggest Gary Kubiak fan, but the guy is the defending Super Bowl champ, so I can't argue too aggressively against him. Andy Reid doesn't have a title, and has only coached in the big game once, but he has finished first or second in his division in 13 of the last 16 seasons, so he obviously knows his stuff. Jack Del Rio has the fewest accomplishments to his credit, but this is still his 11th season as a head coach, and the first nine were with one team. You don't get to hang around with one team that long if you are a complete idiot. No team gets the edge here.
Betting performance: This year the ATS performance of teams has a more direct tie to the strength of teams than we see a lot of years. It's not controversial in the slightest to suggest that the two best teams in football right now are the Cowboys and Patriots. They are also the two best ATS teams in the league - Dallas is 9-1 ATS and New England is 8-2 ATS. Next up is a four-way tie at 7-3 ATS which includes Denver and Oakland. Kansas City definitely lags on this front - they sit at a far from profitable 4-6 ATS.
The bottom line: Oakland has a lead already, and they aren't giving it up, They will win the division - they have the best quarterback and a reasonable schedule. The Chiefs had a concerning effort last week, but they will bounce back and claim a wild-card spot. Here's where it gets interesting, though - the Broncos are going to get passed by the Dolphins for the final spot. Denver's offense is going to struggle to keep up, and the weight of defending the title will start to be too much. They don't have an ideal schedule, while Miami has a reasonable path to 11 wins given their soft remaining schedule. They don't even need to play the rest of the season - we now know how it's all going to turn out.
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