by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

KANSAS CITY (7-9 in 2011)...The Chiefs’ 2011 season was virtually ruined by the infamous early injuries suffered by emerging TE Tony Moeaki, game-breaking RB Jamaal Charles, defensive key S Eric Berry, and then later by QB Matt Cassel. Only K.C.’s season-ending 7-3 victory at Denver made the Chiefs appear that they had actually been in the West race.

On the plus side of that negative season was K.C.’s Game 13 victory over Green Bay, which ended the Packers’ 19-game overall winning streak. That was the first contest after the Chiefs fired in-your-face coach Todd Haley and replaced him with “players’ coach” Romeo Crennel, who was retained after the team’s 2-1 finish. With RB Peyton Hillis added from Cleveland to provide a bigger alternative to the speedy Charles, K.C. has the makings of a restored ball-control offense that can prove useful in the Novembers and Decembers of Missouri. And, with Cassel back as a now well-seasoned NFL QB, the Chiefs aren’t likely to finish 31st in scoring this season. Solid RT Eric Winston has been added from Houston. So the presence of RBs Charles & Hillis, WR Dwayne Bowe, TE Moeaki and specialty back Dexter McCluster offer the promise of the best offense K.C. has enjoyed in years.

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Still, the Chiefs need a full recovery by dynamic S Berry from last year’s ACL for its defense to reach its highest levels. The opening-game substance-abuse suspension of OLB Tamba Hali (12 sacks last season) is not a good sign. But the return to health of so many key players, plus added strength in the pits (e.g., mobile NT Dontari Poe), gives K.C. a good chance to edge aging Peyton Manning and the Broncos and the shaky Norv Turner Chargers in this closely-knit division, where teams seem likely tobe changing positions all season.

DENVER (8-8 in 2011; Won AFC West on tiebreakers; Lost 45-10 at New England in Divisional Round)...In this tightest of tight divisions last season, Denver virtually “miracled” its way to the playoffs with seven Tim Tebow-engineered regular-season victories, three in overtime, a couple more in the fourth quarter. Tebow helped the team streak to six straight wins at one point. But that momentum also proved vaporous, as the Broncos huffed and puffed to the AFC West “crown” with three straight losses to end the regular season. Even the Broncos’ sudden-strike, 80-yard TDP victory in OT vs. the Steelers in the playoffs turned out to be fleeting, as Denver was swamped a week later 45-10 at New England.

So much for Tebow-mania in Denver, as team president John Elway--who knows a bit about playing QB in the NFL--was one of the more aggressive executives bidding for the services of 36-year-old, surgically-repaired Peyton Manning.

Even though we’re not convinced of a full Manning recovery (his former velocity and flexibility were sometimes absent in the preseason), Denver does hold a slight edge in this division of small edges based on its leadership and consistency. Manning directing and steadying the offense. Coach John Fox’s four playoff appearances. The outside pass rush of Elvis Dumervil (9½ sacks) and Von Miller (11½). An OL that returned all of its starters (although G Chris Kuper will miss a few weeks with a preseason injury).

Still, Manning must establish his famous rapport with his receivers. The ground game must improve. And there is age sprinkled throughout the defense. But if it’s not Kansas City in the AFC West, its likely to be the Broncos.

SAN DIEGO (8-8 in 2011)...The Chargers once appeared set to dethrone defending 2011 AFC West champ Denver, even with the Broncos’ addition of Practically Perfect Peyton. But then...stalwart LG Kris Dielman and steady LT Marcus McNeill retired due to injury. Top RB Ryan Mathews broke his collarbone in the first exhibition game, emerging WR Vincent Brown broke his ankle in the second, and projected LT Jared Gaither (back issues) couldn’t get on the field in either. Thus, even before Game One Sept. 10 at Oakland, head coach Norv Turner and GM A.J. Smith were back on the hot seat despite what had appeared to be a productive, team-enhancing, depth-improving offseason.

Even though marvelous TE Antonio Gates (now 32) has lost weight and appears to have shaken his lingering foot injuries (knock on wood), and even though the Chargers have helped their pass rush with the addition of draft picks Melvin Ingram and Kendall Reyes, there is the feeling that the OL situation might limit the offense and that a vulnerable secondary (29 TD passes allowed last year) might limit the defense.

One-time A-list QB Philip Rivers slipped a notch with 20 ints. last season, his pick total climbing due to rushed throws because of the injury-thinned OL. Turner--respected as an offensive architect if not as a jut-jawed, insistent motivator--has some new “toys” for Rivers’ aerials this season in Robert Meachem from New Orleans, Eddie Royal from Denver, and TE Dante Rosario from Denver. Norv has termed Royal’s talents “special,” and the head coach has reportedly poured over his computer tablet in the spring and summer so he could add Meachem’s best plays with the Saints to the S.D. offense.

But slow starts to the season in recent years and/or blown late leads in key games have haunted Turner and have ended up costing the Turner Chargers dearly in Norv’s five years. But if Turner can stabilize his OL and secondary just a little bit, of if Manning falters in Denver, no surprise here if the Bolts climb to the top of the AFC West, which Turner won three straight times from 2007-2009.

OAKLAND (8-8 in 2011)...The Raiders rolled the dice last season, trading for recalcitrant Bengal QB Carson Palmer after Oakland QB Jason Campbell suffered a broken collarbone. Palmer, as expected, was plenty rusty, going 3-6 as a starter, with 13 TDs vs. 16 ints. for the season. Of course, not all of Oakland’s struggles were due to Palmer learning the Raider offense on the fly after his midseason signing. Top RB Darren McFadden (614 YR) missed the last nine games with a foot injury. And the Raider WR corps seemed to have been shorthanded virtually all season.

Oakland hasn’t had a winning campaign since its last Super Bowl season of 2002. But after seven straight losing campaigns, the Raiders have at least gone 8-8 in both 2010 and 2011. And, it’s a new era in Oakland following the passing of legend Al Davis, with Reggie McKenzie from the Green Bay organization taking over at GM and former Denver defensive coordinator Dennis Allen taking over as head coach.

Among other reasons for optimism, QB Palmer and RB McFadden never played together last season. McFadden’s foot has held up in preseason tests, allowing the big back to flash his big-play ability. And the McKenzie/Allen regime has freed the Raiders from the Al Davis tentacles that had limited the team in several ways in the past. Thus, the Raider defense will be less predictable, with more schemes and more disruptive blitzing. [Davis loved his front-four rush and constant man coverage on the corners]. The OL has changed definitively to the popular zone-blocking scheme, made to order for a healthy McFadden. [Davis preferred his Art Shell/Gene Upshaw-style power running.] But Davis’ touch was still felt in the draft, as Oakland had no pick until the third round due to previous trades!

Pardon us for being skeptical of the full resurrection of Carson Palmer (32). More than a few scouts have commented that his passes seem to have lost a little steam. And, while McFadden is fun to watch, his durability remains in question. Still, the Raiders go into 2012 with enough to hang around in the AFC West race, which was the tightest in the NFL last year, and which promises to be again this season, with one key victory sometimes making the difference between first and fourth. However, with no winning season in nine years, it’s best perhaps to place the Silver and Black in a spot that has become familiar to them.


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