The NFL’s division system actually creates a collection of small economic markets. In the soft NFC East, for example, the level of competition means it takes relatively little to become a division champion. The AFC West has become the polar opposite. The Chiefs have had their way with this division recently, taking the last six titles. But now every other opponent has assembled their own version of a superteam. Perhaps they were spurred on by the realization that Kansas City’s quarterback Patrick Mahomeswho is tied to the franchise until 2031 isn’t going anywhere and they can’t just wait until he’s gone.
Last year, the Chargers showed they were willing to commit. Behind the 24-year-old quarterback prodigy Justin Herbert and a 39-year-old rookie head coach Brandon Staley, they made a legitimate playoff appearance, losing 35-32 in overtime to Las Vegas in the season finale. In the offseason, Los Angeles addressed a defense that ranked 23rd in the league, signing two difference-makers at cornerback JC Jackson from the Patriots and edge rusher Khalil Mack from the Bears. Expect Mack and his colleague Joey Bosa to have many encounters with the opposing defender.
The Raiders, after reaching the playoffs for the first time in five seasons, are back this year with new leadership after coach Jon Gruden was fired midseason following the release of old emails with incriminating comments. Las Vegas pounced on the Patriots, hiring a longtime offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels as a coach and staff leader Dave Ziegler as general manager. In the field, the monstrous addition is Davante Adams, brought in from Green Bay in exchange for first- and second-round picks. It was a steep price, but Adams might be the best receiver in football — and a former Fresno State teammate of the still-improving 31-year-old quarterback Derek Carr. Defensively, Las Vegas added a veteran pass rusher Chandler Jones of cardinals to pair with Max Crosbywho signed a four-year, $94 million extension this offseason following his second-team All-Pro bid in 2021.
But the most seismic movements were made in Denver. The team replaced defensive-minded head coach Vic Fangio with Nathaniel Hackett, 42, a widely admired offensive mind who spent the past three seasons as the Packers’ offensive coordinator. While Hackett definitely benefited from working with Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, he has had success in different situations. At Jacksonville, he helped a Blake Bortles-led team to the 2017 AFC Championship Game. At Syracuse, he produced the school’s first quarterback selection (Ryan Nassib in ’14) since Donovan McNabb in 1999. At Denver, Hackett will work with Russell Wilsonwho won the Super Bowl eight years ago in Seattle and may or may not have snuck out of town after slowing down in coach Pete Carroll’s ball-control offense.
Wilson is the true game changer. If Hackett can rejuvenate the nine-time Pro Bowl QB, who last year endured his first losing season of his career, it would give Mahomes his biggest and most immediate win and complete an AFC West realignment in which every team already there is a fighting chance. And when you consider that Mahomes will line up for the first time in his career without his favorite deep target, three-time All-Pro Tyreek Hill, who was traded to Miami, consider this market officially off.
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PROJECTED RANKING OF SI
1. Kansas City Chiefs: 11–6
Best case: The Chiefs aren’t missing Hill one bit, which makes them feel great about the five picks they got in the trade. Former Steeler JuJu Smith-Schuster is performing well in Hill’s place, while first-round picks CB Trent McDuffie and DE George Karlaftis liven up an already stout defense.
Worst case: The Chiefs are missing Hill in a way that suggests coach Andy Reid’s schemes need a rare talent to work. Kansas City is coming off this season feeling the need to rebuild after seeing the team too reliant on aging stars like TE Travis Kelce (32) and DE Frank Clark (29).
2. Los Angeles Chargers: 11–6
Best case: Herbert continues his rise and their talented but aging receiving corps remains healthy. The new personnel helps Staley run the defense he envisions for Los Angeles, not the version that got twisted with a playoff spot on the line against the Raiders in Week 18.
Worst case: Additions on defense are falling apart as Jackson’s big year for the Patriots in 2021 looks like an outlier and Mack, at 31, is too old to make a difference. This is a problem now and in the future because the Chargers sacrificed draft capital and cap space to bring in these players.
3. Denver Broncos: 10–7
Best case: Wilson has been at the helm as the Broncos offense has climbed from 23rd in scoring last year to top 10 in the NFL. With defensive backs Patrick Certain II, Ronald Darby and Justin Simmons all healthy and playing full seasons, Denver also has a top-5 defense.
Worst case: It turns out that Wilson’s struggles in 2021 have less to do with Seattle’s scheme and more to do with his limitations. Denver’s big acquisition on defense, former Cowboy rusher Randy Gregory (five years, $70 million), turns out to be another misplaced gamble.
4. Las Vegas Raiders: 9–8
Best case: Thanks to new coach McDaniels and new target Adams, Carr is throwing for even more yards than last year while improving his TD to INT ratio (23–14 in 2021). Jones, as designed, pairs with Crosby to create a rush that excites the other quarterbacks in the division.
Worst case: McDaniels, like every other Patriots assistant except Bill O’Brien, can’t find his niche outside of New England’s dynasty structure. Carr is fine compared to the rest of the NFL, but he still looks like the fourth-best back in this division.
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