by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

Throughout the month of August, TGS will be previewing each of the NFL division races for 2013, as well as providing a QB depth chart for the preseason games. We conclude our previews with the AFC West, presented in order of predicted finish, with 2012 straight-up, pointspread, and “over/under” records included...

DENVER (Straight-Up Record 13-3 in 2012 Regular Season; Pointspread Record 11-5 in Regular Season; Over/Under 10-6 in Regular Season; Lost 38-35 in 2OT to Baltimore in Divisional Round)... Are the Broncos not the easiest pick to win their division this season? (Or, is it the Patriots?). Lack of robust competition in the West last season allowed Denver to lock up the No. 1 seed in the AFC. And the Broncos appeared to be in good shape to host the AFC championship game...until allowing a 70-yard TD bomb from Joe Flacco to Jacoby Jones on a 3rd-and-3 play with :31 left. That alone was enough to stun the Mile High crowd. But there was another shock in store, as Peyton Manning--Practically Perfect Peyton himself--later in the second OT scrambled right and threw across his body, resulting in a Baltimore interception that led to the winning FG.

Credit the Denver organization (and especially young safety Rahim Moore) for refusing to dwell on the breakdowns and the ensuing depression. With 2012's second-ranked defense and with the window slowly closing on 37-year-old future Hall of Fame QB in Manning (4659 YP in 2012, 68.6%, 37 TDs, 11 ints. LY), “GM” John Elway made some definitive moves in the offseason designed to give his passer at least one more bona fide shot to get back to the Super Bowl. Joining the team through free agency have been prolific Pats slot guy Wes Welker (at least 111 recs. in 5 of the last 6 years), rugged Charger G Louis Vasquez (a pilar of the S.D. OL), veteran Jax DT Terrance Knighton, and once-coveted Philly CB Dominic Rodgers-Cromartie.

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But the best laid schemes of mice and men in Denver’s offseason went awry amid a snafu between the Broncos’ management and the agent of DE Elvis Dumvervil (11 sacks LY), resulting in the termination of his Denver contract. Before long, Dumervil was headed to Baltimore! And not too long after that, Bronco OLB Von Miller (18½ sacks) was suspended for violating the league’s drug policy. The Broncs led the NFL (along with St. Louis) with 52 sacks LY. But, in a matter of weeks, more than have of them were gone (at least for a good portion of the season). It’s a good thing Phillips was available.

Then, in the first week of camp, C Dan Koppen (the former N.E. vet) was lost for the season with an ACL. G Manny Ramirez (no, not the disgraced MLB slugger), who has never snapped in an NFL game, became the center. Elway eventually added Charger OLB Shawn Phillips (9½ sacks LY) and former Colt G/C Ryan Lilja to provide experienced veterans to the vulnerable spots.

Meanwhile, in order to boost Denver’s 16th-ranked ground game and provide a greater backfield threat for Manning, Elway spent his first-round pick on Wisconsin’s prolific RB Montee Ball (NCAA-record 83 TDs). However, it turns out that both Ball and holdover RB Ronnie Hillman have shown blocking and ball-security deficiencies in the preseason, so the better-blocking Knowshon Moreno (only 3.8 ypc LY) is likely to hold down the valuable third-down spot. WRs Demaryius Thomas & Eric Decker applauded the arrival of Manning LY with a combined 179 recs. for 2498 yards and 23 TDC.

Barring an injury disaster or an act of God, the Broncs are virtually a sure thing to make the playoffs, very likely as the champs of the AFC West. How far they will go is likely the more relevant question. Keep in mind that Peyton’s playoff record is 9-11, with only two Super bowl appearances, and only one ring. And last year’s shocker vs. the Ravens proved once again that victory in the NFL can be hard to achieve. One plus reported by Denver insiders is that Manning has been able to add a little more zip on his passes another year removed from his neck/nerve surgery. So, on paper, the Broncs figure to be in the AFC title mix in a big way. Perhaps the in-season return of chastised LB Miller and the development of Montee Ball can help Peyton vs. the other AFC powers come January.

Note that once Manning worked out the kinks following his year off, the Broncs scored 30 or more points in 9 of their last 11 games LY (10 of 12 if you include the playoff loss to Baltimore); 8-4 OVER in those games.

KANSAS CITY (SUR 2-14; PSR 5-11; O/U 7-9)...2012 was one of the more eminently forgettable seasons in the proud history of the Chiefs. Or, at least the K.C. brass hopes everyone can forget. An awful 2-14 record. A terrible -25 turnover ratio. And the horrible Jovan Belcher murder-suicide.

It was a no-brainer to get rid of soft-spoken, grandfatherly HC Romeo Crennel and seemingly-cursed QB Matt Cassel, who had to be benched for his own good due to the wrath of the fans in mid-November. Also sent packing was GM Scott Pioli after too few of his moves (including the acquisition of former N.E. backup Cassel and several questionable draft picks. John Dorsey from the build-from-within Packers takes over as GM.

And, for a K.C. team seeking stability, the addition of Andy Reid also seems to be a no-brainer. Yes, Reid’s Eagles eventually tuned him out after 13 seasons. But, with nine playoff appearances during his tenure, Reid has found a willing audience in Kansas City. After surveying the group of QBs eligible in the 2013 draft, the Chiefs decided to deal for S.F.’s Alex Smith. After his own trials due to youth, injury, and coaching changes since being the top overall pick of the 2005 draft, Smith is now a mature (29), healthy, and well-coached signal caller after spending the last two years being tutored by long-time NFL QB Jim Harbaugh in S.F.

One lesson Smith has learned well from Harbaugh is ball security, as Smith has receipted for 30 TDP vs. only 10 ints. in the last two seasons. And Smith impressed many in the league with his performance for the Niners in the 2011 playoffs. Lastly, Smith is over his early-career shoulder woes, still possesses good mobility, is 6-4 with a nice over-the-top delivery, and will be operating Reid’s well-refined, QB-friendly version of the West Coast offense. It will be interesting to see if Smith (70.2% LY) can continue that type of accuracy, as Eagle fans got used to more than a few errant throws by Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick in recent years.

Smith will not be asked to win games by himself, but rather to execute an offense featuring proven weapons such as big-play RB Jamaal Charles (1509 YR in 2012) and top WR Dwayne Bowe (three 1000-yard recs. in the last five years). Once promising TE Tony Moeaki (shoulder) has been lost for the season, but Reid has some depth in FA Anthony Fasano from Miami and 3rd-round pick Travis Kelce (Cincinnati Bearcats). The OL of LT Branden Albert, RT Eric Fisher (the top pick in TY’s draft), and second-year C Rodney Hudson offers the potential of years of quality service. So it will be up to Reid to find ways for Smith to exploit the under-used gifts of WRs Dexter McCluster and Donnie Avery. Will S.F. castoff A.J. Jenkins, a former first-rounder ever be a factor? Last year’s seventh-round selection, Junior Hemingway of Michigan, has shown better than Jenkins in the preseason.

K.C., with 26.6 ppg allowed, was 25th in points against last season. But its defense was repeatedly compromised by the league-leading 37 giveaways of the Chiefs’ self-destructive offense. But all NFL scouts know that K.C. is well-stocked with quality starters--LBs Derrick Johnson (125 Ts), Tamba Hali (9 sacks) & Justin Houston (10 sacks); CB Brandon Flowers; S Eric Berry. Chiefs insiders say LY’s No. 1 pick, athletic DT Dontari Poe, is ready to impress in a big way in 2013. And veteran corners Dunta Robinson (Atlanta) and Sean Smith (Miami) have come aboard to tighten things up in the secondary. Chances are the Chiefs easily beat their 2012 numbers of just 27 sacks and only 7 interceptions.

If Alex Smith plays up to his level of the last two years, and if RB Charles (who’s now getting some mileage on him in his sixth year) stays healthy, the Chiefs should easily outpace the Raiders and Chargers in this division, and perhaps even be a pest to the Broncos, who they play twice after mid-November. The opportunity is there for rebounding K.C. in 2013. Still, a lot will have to go right for the Chiefs to be in the wildcard mix come their last two games--home vs. Indy and at San Diego.

SAN DIEGO (SUR 7-9; PSU 7-9; O/U 10-6)... Many in San Diego would agree that Marty Schottenheimer was gone too soon and that Norv Turner wasn’t gone soon enough. Turner lasted six years in “America’s Finest City,” taking the Chargers to the playoffs each of his first three, and to the AFC title game in New England in his first. However, even with the presence of a Pro Bowl-caliber QB in Philip Rivers, the Chargers have not been able to get over the hump the last three years, slumping into mediocre marks of 9-7, 8-8 and 7-9, with OL injuries partly accounting for a Rivers decline in 2011-12, when he totaled 53 TD passes, 35 ints., and 20 fumbles.

The turnovers, the injuries, and some dubious drafts ending up costing Turner and GM A.J. Smith their jobs. The new regime includes GM Tom Telesco (the last 15 years in the Colts front office) and HC Mike McCoy, a 41-year-old California native. McCoy was a QB at Long Beach State and Utah, and he’s been an assistant in the NFL since 2000, spending nine years with Carolina and the last three as offensive coordinator with Denver (where he turned Tim Tebow into a playoff-winning QB in 2011). McCoy has impressed with his intelligence and focus. But, like all highly-regarded assistants who are elevated to head coaches in the NFL, he has to prove himself at the highest level in what has become the world’s most complicated game (what other sport uses 50 players a game, changing its on-the-field group of 11 on just about every play?).

McCoy appears to have made a couple of shrewd early moves by hiring former Arizona HC Ken Whisenhunt as his offensive coordinator and holding over John Pagano as his defensive coordinator. It was Whisenhunt who was able to make the most of another aging, rather-immobile QB with an unorthodox delivery (Kurt Warner) to get his Cardinal team to the Super Bowl. And both McCoy and Whisenhunt agree that a priority this season is to reduce the need for so many mid-range and deep throws for Rivers, as the battering he has absorbed in the pocket in recent years seems to have resulted in more risky throws into tight windows by Rivers, not to mention his fumbles in the pocket when his banged-up OL has been overwhelmed. McCoy, the former QB, has been sensitive to Rivers’ needs.

Thus, the preferred offensive recipe for 2013 will be more short passes. And McCoy is insisting on greater consistency from fourth-year RB Ryan Mathews, whose numbers dropped to an unacceptable 707 YR, 3.8 ypc, and only one rushing TD in 2012. McCoy wants Mathews, a big “home run hitter” during his days at Fresno State, to focus more on the one-cut-and-go approach, reducing the number of San Diego’s minus plays and therefore the number of tough throws later in the series for Rivers. Time will tell if McCoy can get his message across, but Mathews has appeared improved in the preseason.

There’s no question that Rivers has missed departed smurf third-down back Darren Sproles (he left for N.O.) in recent years. But GM Telesco has this year provided Rivers with a similar outlet in former N.E. utility guy Danny Woodhead. 6-5 WR Malcom Floyd remains a good No. 1 target, and high-quality TE Antonio Gates (now 33) is a reliable option, if healthy. The Chargers are hopeful that young WR Vincent Brown and that speedy second-year TE Ladarius Green will develop into receiving threats this season.

Still, the key to offensive improvement is the restructured OL. Only three teams allowed more sacks than the Lightning Bolts’ 49 last season. The draft has brought powerful Alabama RT D.J. Fluker in the first round, allowing former RT Jeromey Clary to move inside to RG, where he will be able to operate in closer quarters. C Nick Hardwick is a team leader and a savvy C, but he will soon be 32 and has been injured before. New LG Chad Rinehart was mostly a backup in Buffalo. 6-9 King Dunlap holds the LT job for now (over Max Starks), but Dunlap’s pass protection was criticized when he was with the Eagles. Perhaps the biggest positive has been the rocking run blocking of the 6-5, 335 Fluker, who helped the Crimson Tide win a rather amazing three national titles in the last four years. Fluker will need some time to learn how to handle the NFL’s speed rushers, but it’s already clear he will help improve the Charger ground game.

While the offense appears ready to show at least marginal improvement in 2013, the S.D. defense has several question marks. The most important are at CB, where Derek Cox (previously with Jacksonville) and Shareece Wright (three-year veteran from Southern Cal) take over. Former starters Quentin Jammer (to Denver) and Antoine Cason (to Arizona) had disappointed too often to be retained.

But everyone knows it’s the pass rush that helps out the corners more than anything else, and the Bolts (38 sacks LY) were good in that department, but not great. And the team lost second-year OLB Mark Ingram (Chargers’ No. 1 pick in 2012) to an ACL injury in May and top 2012 sacker Shaun Phillips (9½ sacks LY) to the Broncos. Fortunately, former Indy pressure specialist Dwight Freeney was available and healthy. The Bolts need to keep him that way, as he has excelled in the preseason and has been a valuable mentor to S.D.’s younger players. S Eric Weddle (97 Ts, 3 ints. LY) is a hard-nosed vet and constant presence. But at 5-11, 200 he is neither very big nor exceedingly fast--and opposing coaches know it. Oh yeah, there’s also No. 2 pick, ILB Manti Te’o from Notre Dame. A foot injury has slowed him in camp. But, when healthy, he has reportedly flashed the power and uncanny instincts he showed at Notre Dame. While no Junior Seau, Te’o has a chance to boost that Chargers’ pass rush and +2 turnover margin.

The bottom line for this team seems to be a likely fight with K.C. for second place behind Denver in the division. But the Chiefs have more answers overall, including a better OL, RB, and defense. Pencil in the Bolts for third place TY, but with still enough talent to play spoiler down the stretch (four of S.D.’s last five games are at home!).

OAKLAND (SUR 4-12; PSR 5-11; O/U 8-8)...The Raiders suffered an embarrassing 48-21 loss to former coach Jon Gruden and the Tampa Bay Bucs in Super bowl XXXVII. Since then, the Pride and Poise boys have not had a winning season, missing the playoffs ten straight times. Virtually everyone in the NFL community will be stunned if they don’t make it 11 in a row in 2013.

It has now been nearly two years since the death of Al Davis, and the team is still paying the price for the many rash decisions made by famed “owner” in his latter years. The new regime, led by son Mark Davis and GM Reggie McKenzie took over a roster too light in talent and too heavy in salary. An estimated 40% of the team’s salary-cap dough this season will be paid to players no longer with the team. Some adjustments were made in 2012. But 2013 is the year the Raiders have to bite the bullet hard, thus turning into a bargain-basement outfit with a roster loaded with unproven youth, a few developing veterans, and a few declining veteran free agents who were signed for the right price. Management estimates that the team Al built will finally be out of salary-cap jail after this season.

Sent on their way in the offseason have been starters such as QB Carson Palmer, TE Brandon Myers (79 recs. LY), WR Darius Heyward-Bey, DE Richard Seymour, DT Tommy Kelly, and booming punter Shane Lechler. Incoming are career backup QB Matt Flynn, aging DB Charles Woodson, outspoken punter Chris Kluwe, and oft-injured CB Tracy Porter. It’s hoped veteran LBNick Roach from Chicago can be the centerpiece of a defense that might have as many as nine new starters.

Thus, still-unproven HC Dennis Allen has a chance to save his job. That figures to be a tough task. In their first three exhibitions, the Raiders were outscored 60-16 in the telltale first half. Worse yet, prized, young, 6-8 LT Jared Veldheer suffered an arm injury and Exhibition Two and will miss about three months. This coming as the OL is changing from zone-blocking to power schemes in an effort to free top threat Darren McFadden (707 YR, but only 3.3 ypc LY) more frequently.

GM McKenzie is hoping to build through the draft, but only one (LB Sio Moore) of his top four picks has shown early starting ability. Moreover, QB Flynn, acquired in trade from Seattle after he was edged by rookie Russell Wilson LY, is more of game manager than playmaker type. And, with the valuable Veldheer sidelined, Flynn will be under fire. So third-year former Ohio State star Terrelle Pryor will get a shot to win the starting job, despite his NFL inexperience. Pryor’s stronger arm, long-legged mobility, and big-play potential must be investigated in terms of future viability, especially for a team already committed to a rebuilding, youth-laden roster.

Maybe proven return guy Jacoby Ford can make a big difference on special teams. It’s pretty clear he’ll have a lot of opportunities on kickoff returns. And maybe Pryor’s talents can be mined to fit with those of the explosive McFadden in a zone-read scheme. But it will be a surprise if Oakland can surpass either K.C. or San Diego and avoid the AFC West cellar. Success for the Raiders in 2013 will likely be measured in the how well Dennis Allen and his staff find develop Oakland’s young players.

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