Why AFC West won’t be as dominant as you think

Denver Broncos quarterback Trevor Siemian (13) looks to throw as Los Angeles Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa (99) pursues during the first half, Monday, Sept. 11, 2017, in Denver. (David Zalubowski/AP)

Such early days in the NFL, but that never stops all of us from forecasting further ahead than we can actually see. It’s fun when you happen to be right, and it’s a wonderful lesson when you happen to be far less right, as long as it isn’t costing you too much of what’s in your wallet.

But one thing I’ve heard a lot of this week is how strong and powerful the AFC West is, above all others.

I’m impressed, also, yes. But we can’t get ahead of ourselves only because of scheduling and division format reasons. Both of those will change our perceptions of the three powers in that division, the Chiefs, Broncos and Raiders. Of course, health means everything late in the season when it comes to skill players — just ask Oakland.

Let’s emphasize the positive so far:

Kansas City (2-0): As impressive an opening two games as anyone else has put together, though Atlanta may offer an argument there. The Chiefs pasted the Patriots in a 42-27 win that looked destined to be an easy New England victory until midway through the third quarter. They followed that up with their home opener at Arrowhead, beating a very developed yet young Eagles squad, whom they trailed 10-6 with the Eagles driving late in the third quarter.

So far, the Chiefs have changed all perceptions of their offensive attack being too vanilla, too hesitant, and with far too few playmakers. Alex Smith has discovered the deep ball. I didn’t watch a lot of Toledo Rockets games with Kareem Hunt in the backfield, but, apparently some NFL scouts and general managers didn’t either (an 86th overall pick this year). But he’s electrifying. Since Andy Reid has been their head coach, they’ve been a consistent regular season winner (45-21 since arriving in 2013), but if there was one criticism of a talented roster, it was always that they didn’t play with spark or a sense of urgency. Early on in 2017, that perception has been eviscerated.

Oakland (2-0): All Raiders fans wanted to be sure of is that Derek Carr is back to full health, and can do the things he was doing with regularity all through the 2016 season before breaking his leg. Early returns say he’s fine. Carr’s completed 75 per cent of his passes, has five passing touchdowns, and has a "clean sheet" as far as interceptions go. Marshawn Lynch’s comeback story looks like a stroke of genius by Raiders’ brass. He’s been a crowd favourite, has carried the ball effectively, and the year away from the sport makes him look fresh as opposed to creaky, given he’ll be 32 next spring, and almost all running backs slide down quickly by that age in terms of effectiveness.

Meantime, the Raiders’ secondary looks the part after a very up-and-down 2016 in which Carr and the offence had to win their fair share of shootouts. Of course, a superstar like Khalil Mack is going to be double-teamed a fair bit, but Oakland’s been all over Marcus Mariota and Josh McCown, the two quarterbacks they’ve faced, with safety blitzes and other coverages to make life difficult.

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Sportsnet’s Starting Lineup
Marshawn Lynch keeping Oakland interested in the Raiders
Originally aired September 22 2017

On a side note, find me a lame-duck-we-are-moving-away franchise getting as much love from their fan base as the Oakland Raiders are. This is early for a departure announcement. The Raiders had planned to stay this season and next, and so far, there’s no sign that their supporters want them gone any earlier out of spite, or otherwise. With the Niners on the other side of the Bay Area being so dismal, the Raiders bandwagon is properly filling up and I can understand why.

Denver (2-0): No surprise that they ARE the surprise of this group. We all miss badly on a few win totals every NFL season, but some experts had this Broncos team a seven- or eight-win team. They’ll need to play a lot worse, especially at home for things to go that wrong. The biggest admission among many of us after two weeks is it seems Trevor Siemian can handle all that being an NFL quarterback is. People believe now, and are leaving behind where he was drafted (seventh round) and where he played college football (Northwestern). Eventually, you aren’t what you were evaluated at in college ball, and you actually are the results you’re putting up. I need to see more, no question, and I’m not sure Dallas just didn’t lay a giant egg in Week 2 in a weird storm-delayed contest, but it’s a great start given he’s been gifted a fantastic defensive roster that can not only get Siemian’s offence the ball in great field position, but can even score points on its own to help the win total.

Now, Siemien had a brutal run to the finish line in his rookie season. An 8-4 Broncos team lost three straight games, scoring only 23 points combined against the Titans, Chiefs and Patriots before beating the Carr-less Raiders in a meaningless 16th game. So, don’t mail out playoff ticket prices yet, Denver.

So, yes, great starts, for all three. But pay no attention to Week 3 “Power Rankings,” which are fun to compile and read but will have little bearing on final standings. A case can be made that of the five or six most impressive teams so far, these are clearly three of them.

But, as we know, they have a ton of games against each other. In basically a four-game round robin tournament among the three teams, you simply have to get results. There are too many minefields outside the division to go 1-3 or 0-4 against their main adversaries. This is exactly what tripped Denver up last season — getting swept by Kansas City and losing a 30-20 game to the Raiders, when both teams were 6-2 and both looked like obvious playoff teams.

What about the Chargers? Yes, they’re 0-2, and were a strangely "cult" pick to be a wild-card team by some, but they’ve competed very hard against both Denver and Miami, losing on missed field goals in the last minute to either force overtime (Broncos) or win the game outright (Dolphins). Can they recover and get back in the playoff hunt? No, they can’t and won’t. But are they trouble if you don’t show up on time in divisional games? Oh, indeed. They’re a bizarrely bad 1-10 in the past 11 games they’ve played decided by six points or less, and the law of averages would tell us that pendulum has to swing back the other way at some point, and it may be quite costly for a divisional rival.

Lastly, there’s the history of the two wild cards in the "eight division" era, which began in the 2002 season. Since the wild cards were shaved from three to two in both conferences, only on five occasions (of 30 chances) has a division sent two wild-card teams to the playoffs. Twice the powerhouse AFC North did it in 2011 and 2014 (Ravens/Steelers/Bengals) and that made sense given how consistent Pittsburgh and Baltimore were. But the point is, it’s a real rarity. Remember, all three AFC West teams we’re talking about were 6-2 at the halfway point. The Broncos ended up missing the playoffs, and the Raiders and Chiefs lost their first playoff game this past season. The thought no playoff victories would come from AFC West teams would have been quite the wacky prediction, so we can’t get ahead of ourselves.

But either way, the AFC West is the place where the divisional games will be the most fun, starting with Oakland at Denver a week from this Sunday. We don’t get playoff teams until after Christmas obviously, but how these three teams battle each other will dictate who’s playing when and where come January, no question.