As good as any division a year ago, the AFC West is about to get tested.
The AFC West sported three playoff teams last season, with late-charging San Diego and resurgent Kansas City joining Super Bowl-bound Denver in the postseason.
The path to the playoffs in 2014 has a few more potholes: The AFC West has to play the NFC West, where the Super Bowl champion Seahawks, Cardinals, Rams and 49ers boast some of the nastiest defenses the NFL has to offer.
Denver is trying to become the first team in four decades to win a Super Bowl the year after losing it, and GM John Elway suggested that facing this fearsome foursome will benefit the Broncos.
“You’ve got to be able to play physical with physical teams,” Elway said. “And that’s always a goal is to be able to have a team that physically can stay with everybody in this league. It’s a tough division that’s a very physical division, so that’ll be a great test for us.”
And for the rest of the AFC West.
Here are some things to know about the only division in the NFL that returns three playoff teams in 2014:
NO REST: Atop Elway’s wish list following that 43-8 blistering by the Seahawks in the Super Bowl was an edgier defense. Yes, like the one that had just throttled the highest-scoring team in NFL history. So, he committed more than $100 million to add free agents DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward, then drafted Bradley Roby in the first round.
Denver’s record-breaking offense wasn’t spared, either. After throwing for more yards and touchdowns than anyone in NFL history, Peyton Manning had to say goodbye to wide receiver Eric Decker and running back Knowshon Moreno. Decker was replaced by Emmanuel Sanders and rookie Cody Latimer. Montee Ball moves up as the lead back, running behind a retooled line that sports 1,000 pounds of muscle in the middle with Orlando Franklin sliding over from right tackle to left guard.
MARKET CORRECTION? After a fruitful rebuilding project under new GM John Dorsey and coach Andy Reid last year, the salary cap-tapped Chiefs endured the price of that success. They watched three starting offensive linemen leave on the same day in free agency: Pro Bowl left tackle Branden Albert and guards Geoff Schwartz and Jon Asamoah. Also, Pro Bowl punt returner Dexter McCluster signed with Tennessee, and Pro Bowl cornerback Brandon Flowers was released in a cost-saving move.
So, they’re counting on their rookie class to make immediate contributions to help them build off an 11-5 season that ended with a playoff collapse at Indianapolis. Still in search of their first playoff victory since 1993, the Chiefs also have to address the futures of quarterback Alex Smith and linebacker Justin Houston, two Pro Bowlers entering the final year of their contracts.
QUIET CHARGERS: Mike McCoy was just the right fit to help turn Philip Rivers’ career around. Emboldened by a stunning win in Denver in December, the Chargers won their final four games and got some big help from slumping Miami and Baltimore — and the officials — to end a three-season playoff drought. They beat the Bengals on the road in the wild-card round before losing the rematch at Denver.
After defensive breakdowns cost them the chance for another upset over the Broncos, the Chargers used three of their first four draft picks on defensive players. They’re also getting Dwight Freeney back. Now 34 and entering his 13th NFL season, Freeney comes off a thigh injury that sidelined him after just four games last season, his first in San Diego.
The Broncos’ offseason moves, however, might have widened the gap too much for the Chargers.
RECLAMATION RAIDERS: GM Reggie McKenzie enters Year 3 of trying to get old mistakes off the Raiders’ books. He’s hoping the route back to respectability goes through the reclamation projects he’s added. Discarded or unwanted by their former teams, players with a history of success in the NFL have gathered in Oakland this year in hopes of resurrecting their careers and ending the Raiders’ 11-year playoff drought.
“As a whole, we’re fighting for the same thing, which is respect,” said running back Maurice Jones-Drew, no longer wanted in Jacksonville. He joins fellow NFL discards Matt Schaub, Justin Tuck, LaMarr Woodley, Antonio Smith, Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers. But it’s a stretch to think they could have a similar impact as the one Jerry Rice, Rod Woodson and Bill Romanowski had in helping Oakland win the 2002 AFC title.
Predicted order of finish: Denver; Kansas City; San Diego; Oakland.