Two years ago the Denver Broncos were the best team in the NFL. Now they aren’t even the best team in the AFC West. The Chiefs captured the West in 2016, ending a run of five consecutive division titles by the Broncos. Can the Chiefs defend that crown this season, or will the Broncos return to the top? And how about Oakland, which has the best young talent in the West?
That’s the subject of our weekly Talk of Fame Network poll. We’re asking our listeners and readers who will win the AFC West this season. Here are your candidates:
Denver Broncos. Defense won a Super Bowl for the Broncos in 2015 but couldn’t get them into the playoffs in 2016. Denver finished 9-7 because the Broncos fielded the worst offense in the division, struggling with two young quarterbacks (Paxton Lynch and Trevor Siemian) in the bid to replace Peyton Manning. Denver continued to excel on defense, allowing the third fewest points in the league, but that unit will be a pass rusher light in 2017 with the retirement of DeMarcus Ware. The Broncos spent the offseason rebuilding the offensive line, drafting tackle Garrett Bolles in the first round and also signing guard Ron Leary and tackle Menelik Watson in free agency. John Elway is hoping better blocking will produce better quarterback play. Denver also has a new head coach this season in Vance Joseph.
Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs won the West last season with a 12-4 record despite finishing 20th in the NFL in offense and 24th in defense. But where the Chiefs excelled was opportunism. They led the NFL with 33 defensive takeaways, including a whopping 18 interceptions. The Chiefs believe in running the football and controlling the clock, thus shortening the game for their defense. But that philosophy could be evolving. Kansas City traded up in the first round last April to draft quarterback Patrick Mahomes of Texas Tech with the 10th overall pick. He won the Sammy Baugh Trophy last season as the best quarterback in college football after passing for an NCAA-leading 5,052 yards and 41 touchdowns. Mahomes skipped his senior season to turn pro, so incumbent Alex Smith will serve as a place-holder until the rookie is ready. He’ll have a couple of dynamic targets in tight end Travis Kelce and wideout Tyreek Hill.
Los Angeles Chargers. The Chargers fired their city and their coach, leaving San Diego for Los Angeles this season and ridding themselves of head coach Mike McCoy along the way. Sean McVay takes over as coach, crossing the country from Washington where he served as offensive coordinator of the Redskins. He inherits one of the league’s top quarterbacks in Philip Rivers. The Chargers spent the offseason building a supporting offensive cast to give their 35-year-old quarterback a better chance for success, claiming the best wide receiver in the draft, Mike Williams of Clemson, and two of the best interior blockers in guards Forrest Lamp and Dan Feeney. The Chargers also signed former Pro Bowl tackle Russell Okung in free agency away from the Broncos.
Oakland Raiders. The Raiders tied the Chiefs with a 12-4 record last season, but two of the losses came against Kansas City. That head-to-head tie-breaker is what sent the Chiefs to the playoffs as the division champion and the Raiders as a wild card. The Raiders had the best offense in the division, finishing sixth in the NFL, but the worst defense, finishing 26th. The offense is dynamic with Derek Carr at quarterback and 1,000-yard bookend wide receivers Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper. To fix the defense, the Raiders used their first three draft picks and five of their first six on defenders. First-round cornerback Gareon Conley, second-round safety Obi Melifonwu and third round tackle Eddie Vaanderdoes all should have an impact. The offense also gets a huge boost with former Pro Bowl running back Marshawn Lynch coming out of retirement to play for his hometown Raiders.