Opening Drive 2019: AFC West

By Curtis Clayton
Aug. 05, 2019

Each team has one burning question that encompasses their 2019 season, and it's being asked here. Projected finish is in presentation order.

Will a rebuilt defense be the difference for the Kansas City Chiefs, who were a game away from the Super Bowl in 2018? Last year was special for the Chiefs. Their first round draft pick in 2017 would be given the keys to the offensive car, and Patrick Mahomes would drive it like Michael Schumacher in his prime. Mahomes' 5097 passing yards and 50 touchdowns were a league first, as his spectacular play was the catalyst in KC going 12-4 to secure the top seed in the AFC playoffs as he would win league MVP honors. But the Chiefs' Achilles heel was its defense, as the offense made it habit to bail them out on a regular basis. The 421 points against (24th league ranked) and 6488 yards allowed (31st) were not a problem.... Until the playoffs, where that defensive unit was on the field in the AFC Championship game in overtime with the season on the line against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. You know the rest of the story; the Pats win the AFC title en route to another Super Bowl triumph, the Chiefs stayed home. But instead of standing pat after such a successful campaign, someone was held to account. That person was defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, who was dismissed shortly after the conference championships. In his place is Steve Spagnuolo, an experienced coordinator, respected defensive mind, and more critically, holds championship pedigree by virtue of his fingerprints on the New York Giants defense that won Super Bowl XLII. The Chiefs' front office got into action in the spring, adding pass rushers in free agency (DE Alex Okafor from New Orleans) and through trade (DE Frank Clark acquired from Seattle), along with picking up FS Tyrann Mathieu (Houston) as the veteran presence on the last line of defense. Each of the Kansas City units should not feel pressure entering 2019. The defense doesn't need to become a top ten unit overnight, just an improvement on the past year. Conversely, the offense should not be expected to put up gaudy numbers to remain competitive, but to retain its effectiveness to permit the defense to come up to speed. Barring calamity, Kansas City will remain the class of the AFC, with the road to Miami Gardens more than likely going through Missouri in January again... And probably the most likely to be in Super Bowl LIV.

Can the Los Angeles Chargers be a contender without a home field advantage? Let's be clear, the job that head coach Anthony Lynn has done with the Chargers has been exemplary. His 21-11 record in his two year tenure may not jump off the page at you, but when one considers Lynn has put two winning seasons together with a team that was hamstrung with injuries in 2017 and, as an aside, has rarely played a home game in front of a friendly crowd! This cannot be understated. Because of the lack of popularity of the Chargers outside of San Diego and the questionable appeal of the StubHub Center in which the Bolts play, their games turn into fan club outings for their opponents. But despite all that against them, LA came within a lost tiebreaker of winning the division. The pieces are in place for the Chargers to make another push toward the AFC elite, provided they handle RB Melvin Gordon's holdout well. They have playmakers in many spots, from QB Philip Rivers and WR Keenan Allen on offense to edge rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram on defense. They could win the division and make their first serious Super Bowl push in over a decade. But not having that home base where the fans make a team feel welcome will be their most likely weakness, as that will tax the mental well being of the club as the season wears on.

Will a change at quarterback and head coach be the difference for the Denver Broncos to rebound? Executive Vice President of Football Operations John Elway is going to be dogged in perpetuity unless he can find a very good quarterback to play under center for the Broncos, as him luring future Canton inductee Peyton Manning to the Mile High City is becoming a veritable albatross around his neck. Last year, he dropped serious coin on Minnesota Vikings 2017 season savoir Case Keenum, only to witness the Broncos turn into the Orange Crushed. Some of that blame also falls on head coach Vance Joseph, who only proved that he was hopelessly out of his depth as the top man, and was shown the door at the conclusion of 2018. As the 2019 campaign dawns, new faces have come in to try their hand in turning around this precarious franchise. At quarterback, it's a man all too familiar to the Bronco faithful; Joe Flacco. The former long time Baltimore Raven signal caller (and villain of the 2012 Divisional Playoff game between the two teams) takes his turn out west after being deposed by the Charmed City Blackbirds. While his name doesn't scream excitement, he brings a cool temperament and a veteran's expertise to a fairly young offense, one that needs to complement, not hamper, their defense. The new head coach is Vic Fangio, an NFL lifer who parlayed a strong showing by his defensive unit in Chicago into a head man's gig. It seems as though Elway swung from one end of the experience pendulum to the other, but if Fangio can gain the Broncos' respect and trust, they could see sudden improvement on the field. But that uptick will have a ceiling, as Denver is a length behind AFC West front-runners Kansas City and Los Angeles in terms of talent. Besides, you never know... A 9-7 season could punch their ticket to a 6 seed in the playoffs. But that's best scenario. Bronco fan, just take 2019 as a learning year and have higher expectations in 2020.

Are the Oakland Raiders tempting fate with this experiment? The Raiders precipitous fall was so fast, their ears popped by the end of 2018. Just as a reminder; prior to a gruesome broken leg suffered by QB Derek Carr in Week 16 of 2016 and carrying over into the 2017 season, the Raiders were dark horse Super Bowl contenders. Fast forward to now, and the franchise is right back in the doldrums, coming off an embarrassing losing campaign with recycled head coach Jon Gruden turning in a 4-12 turkey, tied with the Jets as the worst in the AFC. Mind you, Gruden (who has final say in all player personnel matters) traded off LB Khalil Mack before the season began and WR Amari Cooper at the trade deadline. It's nearly impossible to give Gruden credence as a talent evaluator when he rids his roster of a transcendent pass rusher and a gifted if imperfect pass receiver in the span of three months. How has he responded? To the Raiders' credit, they were given high marks for their draft, even though it was discovered later that Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock dismissed all the work of the scouts in that draft. What a way to run a railroad. But it was free agency that bears scrutiny. First, they acquire WR Antonio Brown for the pittance of two Day 3 draft picks just so the Pittsburgh Steelers can unload him. Brown has the reputation of a cancer on the roster, so the Raiders respond by giving Brown a contract extension that made him the highest paid wide receiver today. Add to this the signings of veteran malcontents in LB Vontaze Burfict and OG Ritchie Incognito, and is it any wonder why there are zero expectations for the Pride & Poise Boys this year? Al Davis, the Iconic Iconoclast, had the pedigree to pick up players deemed too troubled to make them into Raider greats. Jon Gruden is no Al Davis by any stretch of the imagination, and 2019 will bear that out as the Raiders will head to Las Vegas with their tail between their legs.