The AFC West has one thing going for it. It's not as bad as the NFC West.
Here's another: The San Diego Chargers, again, appear to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
The Denver Broncos have staggered for the last couple of years as their traditional strengths, the offensive line, the running game, stopping the opponent's running game and the ability to turn the team over on the fly, have failed them. Still, the Broncos are never a terrible bet to at least contend. The Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders will reportedly field teams.
The following is in order of predicted finish.
1. San Diego Chargers (11-5, first place in 2007)
The Chargers made it to the AFC Championship Game last year, but their best player, LaDainian Tomlinson, could only watch with an injured knee. Quarterback Philip Rivers and star tight end Antonio Gates played, but were limited by injury.
Tomlinson is back, though the clock is starting to tick on his great career. If San Diego's going to win with L.T., they might want to do it this year.
But that's not to say the Chargers' window is closing. They're a deep team and, the ancient 29-year-old superstar running back notwithstanding, they're young. If A.J. Smith were working three time zones to the east, he'd be the most famous general manager in the league after Bill Parcells.
The Chargers have the horses but they're still dealing with injuries. Rivers has an embarrassment of riches in Tomlinson, Gates and receivers Chris Chambers and Vincent Jackson. But Rivers is returning from ACL surgery. Not very mobile in the first place, Rivers could really struggle in the face of strong pass rushes. Gates is still hobbled by his surgically repaired toe.
The defense, led by linebacker Shawne Merriman and cornerback Antonio Cromartie, got a lot better last year after a rough start under new coordinator Ted Cottrell, but Merriman looks like he'll play this season on a bum knee.
If all the health issues don't overwhelm them, the Chargers could again be one of the usual suspects in the AFC. This column remains unconvinced that head coach Norv Turner, who's best suited to employment as an offensive coordinator, is capable of leading a team to a championship, but believe it or not, this column has been wrong about that sort of thing before. Once.
2. Denver Broncos (7-9, second place in 2007)
The Broncos' long run of success was built on strong lines. They've been able to run -- finding a new 1,000-yard runner hanging around the practice field every season for a while -- and stop the run. They've failed at drafting but succeeded at signing impact free agents.
But the ground is changing in the NFL. As "Pro Football Prospectus 2008" points out, the rising salary cap has allowed teams to hang on to pretty much all of the players they want to hold on to. "To build a team around free agents, therefore, effectively requires a team to turn another team's castoffs into its own building blocks," Football Outsiders author Ned Macey writes in "PFP."
Be the New England Patriots, in other words.
After a couple of mediocre seasons, Broncos chief Mike Shanahan appears to have figured that out, and Denver didn't make a free-agent splash this summer. Instead, Shanahan engineered a front-office and staff shake-up and cut some key skill-position players. That done, this is more his team than ever, and he could pay if the Broncos don't rebound.
With continued improvement from quarterback Jay Cutler, that's something of a possibility, but there's not a lot of reason to believe the Broncos will be any better against the run than they were a year ago. This is going to be a rebuilding year in Denver. But since it's also a rebuilding year in Kansas City and Oakland, and they've got more to build, and the Broncos get to play them four times, everything going right might mean the Broncos get to hang around the fringes of the playoff picture for a while.
3. Kansas City Chiefs (4-12, tied for third in 2007)
There's a saying in various Southern states: "Thank God for Mississippi." However bad things might be in, say, Tennessee or Arkansas or Alabama, the people could always take comfort that it was worse for their benighted cousins in Mississippi.
For the last few years, however bad things have gone for AFC West teams, they could always say, "Thank God for the Oakland Raiders." But last year, the Chiefs couldn't even say that. They tied the Raiders for last place at 4-12. That was the first time the Raiders weren't alone in last since 2003, when the Chargers shared the cellar with them.
The Chiefs are in full overhaul mode, going young and trying to rebuild through the draft. They've taken a little heat for not doing anything to improve on Brodie Croyle at quarterback, but they've got a ways to go before that starts to really matter.
This season will be a success if the Chiefs are competitive and it looks like the youngsters are starting to come together. Kansas City has one thing going in its favor: The Raiders are trying to rebuild too. Thank God for them.
4. Oakland Raiders (4-12, tied for third in 2007)
Remember how I said I like it when teams use a top pick on a lineman because it shows right thinking about how to rebuild? The Raiders had the fourth pick. They need about six of everything. They took a running back, Darren McFadden. The next eight players drafted were linemen or linebackers.
If JaMarcus Russell, the quarterback the Raiders took with the top pick in 2007, ahem, turns out to be the greatest quarterback ever, right here in his first full season -- he staged a boneheaded holdout and missed the preseason as a rookie -- the Raiders just might win six games.
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