by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

Throughout the month of August, TGS will be previewing each of the NFL division races for 2014, as well as providing a QB depth chart for the preseason games that continue Thursday, August 28. Next up for our previews will be the AFC West, presented in order of predicted finish, with 2013 straight-up, pointspread, and "over/under" records included...

DENVER (2013 SUR 15-4; PSR 12-7; O/U 12-7. Lost 43-8 to Seattle in the Super Bowl)...We’ll start with the bad news for this year’s aspirations of the Broncos, who were humiliated 43-8 by younger, faster Seattle in the Super Bowl last February in New York/New Jersey. No team that has lost a Super Bowl has returned to the championship game and won since the 1972 Dolphins in Super Bowl VII. That’s a long time.

While that fact might very well serve as motivation for this year’s Broncos, it indicates that the odds are against Denver right from the outset.

Nevertheless, the Broncos enter 2014 with the highest of hopes. After all, Peyton Manning is back and has given no sign in training camp of slowing down. Moreover, last year’s stats for Manning and the Denver offense were “silly,” in a good way. Due partly to the NFL’s new QB-friendly rules, but mostly due to Manning’s extreme competence and great experience, Manny passed for a league-record 5477 yards and 55 TDs. His Bronco team set new NFL standards with 606 points, 76 TDs, and five players with at least 10 TDs.

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That attack has lost a couple of key contributors in RB Knowshon Moreno (1038 YR, 10 TDR, 60 recs., 3 TDC) and WR Eric Decker (87 recs., 11 TDC). However, the Broncs fully believe they are equipped to replace Moreno with youth, as upcoming RBs Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman combined for 777 YR and 32 recs. last season when then got their turns in the backfield. [Ball had an appendectomy in camp, but he is expected to be ready for the start of the season, or close to it.] Meanwhile, the savvy 6-3 Decker has been replaced by the 5-11 Emmanuel Sanders (free agent from the Steelers), who adds quickness to the passing game and has been fast to pick up the sophisticated Denver aerial game. Besides, the other key receivers in the attack--Damaryius Thomas (92 recs., 14 TDs), Wes Welker (73 & 10; check recent concussion status), and athletic TE Julius thomas (65 & 12)--are all capable of picking up any slack. If the game officials are truly going to call “illegal contact” fouls in the regular season as they have in the preseason, only a Manning injury would likely keep the intricately-orchestrated, uptempo Broncos from eclipsing the aerial marks they set last season.

As long as Manning is hale and hearty, the offense is there for a title run. It’s on defense where Denver hopes to be improved in 2014. Stat-wise, things could be better, as the Broncs last season were 7th vs. the run, 27th vs. the pass, 19th overall in yards, and 22nd in points allowed (24.9 pg). But even with so many of their opponents playing from behind, the Broncos collected only 41 sacks (15th in the NFL), only 17 ints. (Seattle had 28), and finished the regular season dead even in turnover margin.

Of course, that wasn’t the starting plan for 2103, which saw pass rusher Elvis Dumervil end up in Baltimore due to an agent/front-office screw-up, and then OLB Von Miller limited to just nine games due to suspension and injury. Were it not for an unexpected 10 sacks by bargain signee Shaun Phillips (who signed for less to play with Denver; now with Tennessee), the Broncs’ sack total would have been even worse.

For 2014, Denver has brought in Demarcus Ware, Dallas’ all-time sack leader with 117. Ware no doubt will provide some leadership on a defense that needs a little more of it, but in his 10th season, he is neither as quick nor as mobile as he used to be.

The major improvement is expected to be in the secondary, where the newcomers are physical, tight-covering CB Aqib Talib (injury and suspension problems in the past) from N.E., hard-hitting safety T.J. Ward, who had 112 tackles last season for lowly Cleveland. No. 1 draft pick CB Rodney Roby of Ohio State has been praised by scouts for his physical ability, but questioned because of his inconsistency and risk-taking. We’ll see if defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio can “smooth” him out in an upward direction and provide improved speed in the Bronco secondary. Last year’s top tackler, Danny Travathan--a rare three-down NFL LB these days who had 129 Ts and 3 ints. LY--will miss a couple of months due to a leg fracture in preseason, but is expected to return for the stretch run.

Summary...Manning is now 38 but seems to have lost little from last season’s record-setting campaign. There are still some questions on defense, but more potential answers available this year. Denver is easily the pick for the top spot for the AFC West, but there will be plenty of severe tests in the regular season before playoff time. There are road games in the first half of the season at Seattle and at New England, and visits to St. Louis, Kansas City, San Diego and Cincinnati in the second half. Getting back to the Super Bowl is likely to be much harder to do on the field than it is on paper.

Note that since Peyton Manning arrived in Denver, the Broncos are 23-13 “over” the total in all games; 12-7 in home games.

SAN DIEGO (2013 SUR 10-8; PSR 11-6-1; O/U 7-11. Lost 24-17 at Denver in the Divisional Round)...The Chargers were perhaps the most surprising entry in last year’s playoffs, winning their last four games (including one on the road in Denver) to squeeze into the postseason at 9-7. The Chargers won 27-10 at Cincinnati in a wildcard playoff game before losing at the Broncos the next week.

Rookie HC Mike McCoy turned out to be a good hire for the Chargers, who needed a little more of an insistent, hard-driver running the ship after the dismissal of Norv Turner. Like most playoff teams, San Diego had to overcome injury adversity, as the Chargers lost top big-play WR Danario Alexander in camp, top veteran WR Malcom Floyd in the second game, and top pass rusher Dwight Freeney in the fourth game.

But even after a 2-3 start to 2013, the Chargers survived and developed thanks largely to an outstanding season from QB Philip Rivers (69.5%, 32 TDs, only 11 ints.), a mostly-healthy year from RB Ryan Mathews (1255 YR), a best-in-four-years campaign from TE Antonio Gates (77 recs.), a highly-successful rookie year from third-round pick WR Keenan Allen (71 recs., 8 TDs), and a Darren Sproles-like performance from “5-8" third-down back Danny Woodhead (429 YR, plus 76 recs.).

But perhaps most notable in 2013 was the Chargers’ improved fight and determination under HC McCoy, a long-time assistant to John Fox at Carolina and Denver. Among other signs of the Bolts’ new-found grit were 177 yards rushing and 39 minutes of ball control in their victory at Denver and a dominating 20-0 second half S.D.’s playoff victory at Cincinnati.

With those positives as a platform, the Chargers are eager for 2014. A series of sound decisions by McCoy and GM Tom Telesco have resulted in a stronger, deeper San Diego team that has more overall speed and greater potential than last year. 2013 No. 1 pick D.J. Fluker was an immediate force on the right side last year, with his 6-5, 339 frame immediately strengthening the Bolts’ ground game. Former 6-9 Eagle LT King Dunlap turned out to be better than expected.

There is impressive developing young talent in the persons of mobile, second-year TE Ladarius Green, plus sixth and seventh-round 2014 picks RB Marion Grice of Arizona State and speed WR Tevin Reese of Baylor. No. 3 pick Chris Watt of Notre Dame has a chance to start at G. Even rookie free-agent RB Branden Oliver of Buffalo appears to have a future.

Now that Rivers is familiar with McCoy’s offensive system and style, the Chargers plan to pick up the pace this season, giving Rivers more autonomy, seeking to run plays every 12 seconds...except when San Diego needs a crucial conversion or wants to slow the pace to its advantage. The main idea is for the offense to control its opponent, which it often did late last year. In their second year together, McCoy and Rivers will be more frequently on the same page. New offensive coordinator Frank Reich (QBs LY; author of magical comebacks at both Maryland and with the Buffalo Bills) was a student of the uptempo attack while at Buffalo.

The Bolts (14th in points last year) should increase their scoring in 2014. Defense is where there is the biggest room for improvement after S.D. ranked 29th vs. the pass, 23rd in total yards, and 23rd in sacks. Thus, the Chargers risked their top draft pick on Jason Verrett, a 5-9 cover corner from TCU coming off a shoulder injury. With today’s no-bump-after-five-yards rules enforcement, the super-quick Verrett should have a future when he gets healthy. Still, S.D. hasn’t enjoyed success in recent years with its CB picks. However, if Freeney can regain most of his old form, defensive coordinator John Pagano has very high hopes for a LB crew that includes Freeney, Jarret Johnson, Melvin Ingram, and No. 2 pick Jeremiah Attaochu (Georgia Tech) on the outside, while Donald Butler, Monti Te’o and Reggie Walker try to stuff the run inside. Last year’s defense produced only 35 sacks and 11 interceptions, too few to make a serious run at the big prize.

Summary...The likes of Peyton Manning and Drew Brees got more headlines in 2013, but Rivers (career-high 69.5% despite not having his top WR) was virtually as good. Now 32, Rivers needs continuing help from his ground game and an improved performance from the San Diego defense if the Bolts are to unseat the Broncs in the West.

KANSAS CITY (2013 SUR 11-6; PSR 9-7-1; O/U 8-9. Lost 45-44 at Indianapolis in the Wildcard Round)...After an eye-opening 9-0 start under new coach Andy Reid and former 49er QB Alex Smith, the Chiefs’ 2013 campaign ended in startling disappointment. K.C.’s 2-5 record to close the regular season was bad enough. But geeking a 38-10 lead at Indianapolis in the playoffs seemed to make things ten times worse for a team that had led the entire pack in the NFL through mid-November. The 45-44 setback to the Colts means the Chiefs have not won a playoff game since 1993, in the era of Marty Schottenheimer.

Surprising the rest of the NFL in 2014, like the Chiefs did last year, however, seems quite unlikely. Second-year coach Andy Reid continues to rebuild the team to better fit his schemes. But God forbid that something should happen to key RB Jamaal Charles, now in his seventh season and having lost most of one of those (2011) to a torn ACL. Charles rushed for 1287 yards in 2013 (5.0 ypc, 12 TDR) and caught 70 passes (7 TDC). His workload isn’t expected to decline much this season, even though Reid plans on giving more meaningful carries to 227-pound Knile Davis (242 YR LY, but only 3.5 ypc) while breaking in Oregon super-speedster De’Anthony Thomas, who must be spotted due to his 5-8, 176-pound size.

QB Alex Smith proved his worth after being acquired from San Francisco, completing 60.6% with 23 TDs vs. only 7 interceptions. That careful play by Smith helped K.C. finish +18 in turnover margin, second only to Seattle. And that favorable turnover margin helped a defense that ranked 24th in yards allowed to finish 4th in points allowed. During the team’s November-December slide, Smith’s TD/int. ratio was 14/3. In other words, K.C.’s slip wasn’t Smith’s fault, as the Chiefs gave up 28 ppg in its last seven contests, which turned out to be a harbinger of the collapse to come at the Colts in the playoffs.

Moreover, 2014 might prove to be a bigger challenge, as the Kansas City receiving corps is not the greatest, especially with supposed go-to target Dwayne Bowe (only 57 recs. and 5 TDs LY) suspended for the first game (substance-abuse violation) and dealing with a frequently dislocated finger that HC Reid has described as “shot.” That means the likes of fragile Donnie Avery, former 7th-rounder Junior Hemingway, and 49er bust A.J. Jenkins will have to do more. TEs Anthony Fasano and Travis Kelce should help, but not in terms of big plays.

The K.C. defense has a quality group of stalwarts in massive NT Dontari Poe (6-3, 345; 4½ sacks), OLB Tamba Hali (11 sacks), OLB Justin Houston (11 sacks), ILB Derrick Johnson (107 Ts, 4½ sacks, 2 ints.) and S Eric Berry (74 Ts & 3 ints.). However, 2013 starting CB Brandon Flowers is now in San Diego, while 6-3 Sean Smith, acquired from Miami last year to add some size on the corner, might not beat out former waiver wire pickups Marcus Cooper & Ron Parker. The Chiefs are hoping they don’t have to wait to long before No. 1 pick DE Dee Ford or Auburn and No. 3 pick CB Phillip Gaines of Rice to provide help for a defensive unit that needed some at the end of 2013.

Summary...With three of K.C.’s first six games of 2014 at Denver, at San Francisco, and at San Diego, forget about any 9-0 start for this season. With issues at WR and CB in a league emphasizing the pass more and more every year, the Chiefs will find last year’ regular-season mark of 11-5 very difficult to duplicate and will likely have to pull a few surprises to just make the playoffs. Without that +18 turnover margin of 2013 and another monster year from Jamaal Charles, the postseason might not happen in the well-balanced AFC.

OAKLAND (2013 SUR 4-12; PSR 7-9; O/U 8-8)...Annually one of the easier picks in making a division-by-division forecast for the NFL, the Raiders--while appearing improved--seemed doomed to another last-place finish. Since their Super Bowl-losing season of 2002, Oakland’s final season records have been the following: 4-12, 5-11, 4-12, 2-14, 4-12, 5-11, 5-11, 8-8, 8-8, 4-12 and 4-12. That’s 53-123, with no winning seasons in the last 11!

Head coach Dennis Allen and his staff know that they are fighting for their coaching lives this season after Oakland had been in “salary cap jail” in the previous two campaigns. With the Raiders finally enjoying some financial flexibility this season, the team has upgraded itself at several positions. Unfortunately, with their record as listed above, many premium players were not interested in furthering their careers with the Raiders. But even though this might be considered by some to be a developmental year for the team, HC Allen likely can’t afford to wait.

For example, the team tabbed prolific Fresno State QB Derek Carr with its second-round draft choice, but it also brought in interception-prone QB Matt Schaub from Houston as the likely initial starter. Carr (concussion, ribs) was crunched in the second exhibition, while 2013 free agent Matt McGloin (6 starts LY) has sometimes looked the best of the three in preseason. At RB, straight-up runner Darren McFadden (only 379 YR, 3.3 ypc LY) has been unable to stay healthy, so pocket Hercules Maurice Jones-Drew (a Bay Area high school hero at De La Salle in Concord) was signed from Jacksonville to provide a shorter, but more powerful punch.

In the OL, LT Donald Penn has been signed from Tampa Bay, and RG Austin Howard from the N.Y. Jets. Former starting T Khalif Barnes has been moved inside to G in an OL that figures to be better in blocking for the run than protecting QBs for the pass. That doesn’t figure to be good news for Schaub, who is far from highly mobile and who benefited in his best years from a successful play-action attack when he was in Houston.

Also, when he was in Houston, Schaub had the benefit of throwing to reliable go-to WR Andre Johnson and glue-fingered TE Owen Daniels. Don’t look for similar quality on a dubious Raider receiving corps that lured past-his-prime James Jones from Green Bay to be its key guy. Plus, for a franchise that helped develop the TE as a receiver in the NFL (e.g., Billy Cannon, Raymond Chester, Dave Casper, Todd Christensen), nothing close to a premium TE appears to be in the pipeline.

Defense might be another matter, as last year’s stop unit that was a non-descript 28th vs. the pass, 22nd in yards allowed, 29th in points, and 18th in sacks has been given a facelift--at least up front. The main free-agent addition is Justin Tuck from the Giants, with the hope he can repeat his 11 sacks of 2013 and provide valuable leadership. Houston’s 3-4 DE Antonio Smith has been brought in with hope he can be a penetrating DT, while Pittsburgh’s pass-rushing OLB LaMarr Woodley has been signed to be a DE. The late Al Davis might have approved of those moves. Current GM Reggie McKenzie better hope Tuck (10th year), Smith (10th), and Woodley (8th) still have enough gas in their tanks.

No. 3 pick of 2013, OLB Sio Moore (4½ sacks), turned out to be a “hit,” as did FA pickup MLB Nick Roach from Chicago. McKenzie is hoping that OLB Khalil Mack, 2014's fifth pick overall, who had 10½ sacks last year at the University of Buffalo, will complete a fine starting trio, although Mack has been a bit slow to develop in camp.

Charles Woodson (97 tackles LY; now in his 17th season) continues to be a wonderment at safety, while former 49ers Carlos Rodgers and Tarell Brown have been brought in to help at CB. However, it’s pretty clear those two have seen their best days, while 2013 No. 1 pick D.J. Hayden (12th pick overall despite a college injury) might never justify being selected so high under the cirdumstances.

Thirty-six-year-old kicker Sebastian Janikowski (21 of 30) missed nine FG tries LY, for his worst percentage (70%) since 2005. Is he losing a bit of the famed power in his leg?

Summary...While the Raiders have more talent overall, and more veteran talent, in 2014, their lineup is a bit of a hodge-podge. Some veterans are being tried at new positions. Meanwhile, management is rolling the dice on many aging players. Will they play with the same fire as the losses mount, as they inevitably have for the last 11 years? HC Dennis Allen can only hope the answer is “Yes.” Oakland might be a “tougher out” this season, but last in the AFC West is a much more likely outcome than any long-awaited playoff berth. Before the end of the season, talk of a possible Raider move to another locale might make for more headlines than the team’s play on the field.



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