Broncos add Peyton, but AFC West still up for grabs

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The Denver Broncos added Peyton Manning. Peyton Manning seems to be healthy. A healthy Peyton Manning is probably the greatest NFL quarterback of the past two decades, and one of the greatest of all time. Peyton Manning is a much more proficient passer than what the Denver Broncos had at quarterback in 2011. The Denver Broncos won the AFC West in 2011. Peyton Manning makes the Denver Broncos better. Therefore, the Denver Broncos win the AFC West again in 2012. Right? Well, not so fast.

The Denver Broncos weren’t as good as their record made them seem last year. They won three games in the regular season in overtime and won only one game by more than 7 points (and that game was tied in the fourth quarter). Meanwhile, they were blown out three times. On the whole, they were outscored by 81 points over the course of the season. Most teams that are outscored by that much tend to win about 5.8 games, not 8, and when they do win 8 tend to decline the next season. Peyton Manning could improve the Broncos’ chances by three wins, but that means we should expect them to finish 9-7 instead of 6-10, not 11-5 instead of 8-8. That 9-7 mark would still be an improvement on 2011, but it’s far from a lock to win the AFC West.

The Kansas City Chiefs finished in last in the AFC West in 2011, but that only meant they finished 7-9, a mere one win behind the Broncos. Like Denver, they were fortunate to finish with that record. They were outscored by even more points, and most teams with their point different finish around 4-12. Like the Broncos, though, there’s good reason to think they’ll be better, maybe even much better in 2012. Quarterback Matt Cassel finished the season injured reserve, and attempted barely more than half the team’s passes last season. Tight end Tony Moeaki, a key complement to Dwayne Bowe, returns after missing the entire season.

More importantly, running back Jamaal Charles is back after tearing his ACL after only 12 carries in 2011. The league’s most productive running back in 2010, his absence meant the Chiefs’ running back with the most carries was instead Thomas Jones, who was one of the league’s least productive runners. Even if Charles doesn’t have all of the explosiveness that made him so valuable, fewer carries to Jones is still addition by subtraction. Peyton Hillis, who was still moderately effective even if overall not as productive as in 2010, will soak up even more carries. That should led Cassel return to the game manager role he played in 2010 when the Chiefs surprisingly won the AFC West. There’s reason for improvement on defense as well, with the return from an ACL injury by safety Eric Berry, a top-ten pick who splashed explosive playmaking ability and athleticism as a rookie in 2010, and the acquisition of first-round pick Dontari Poe, who might finally be the answer at nose tackle the Chiefs have been searching for since they switched to the 3-4 defense. The Chiefs still aren’t a top echelon team in the AFC, but they could win double-digit games and should battle the Broncos for the top of the division.

The Chargers are the great enigma of the division. Like the Broncos, they finished 8-8 last year, and were the only team in the division with a positive point differential. I expounded in team in great detail for Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, and you can get a sample of my deeper thoughts on the team here. That slight underachievement was characteristic of the Norv Turner era, and the Chargers are on the whole not as deep or as talented as they were four years ago. They’ll be hoping running back Ryan Mathews can stay healthy for a full season after his breakout second season, and will be counting on rookie Melvin Ingram to improve the pass rush and help cover up for a secondary that was too often leaky last year. If everything goes right, the Chargers could go 12-4 and win the division by a couple games. More likely, they’ll lose a few games they shouldn’t and hover around .500.

Moving on to Oakland, the Raiders, the other team I covered in FOA2012, could convince themselves, reasonably, they could win the division. Darren McFadden is a great fit for new old offensive coordinator Greg Knapp’s zone-blocking scheme. Carson Palmer’s arm strength seems to be restored to its 2008 pre-injury levels. There’s an intriguing and potentially quite good group of wide receivers. The defense can’t be much worse now that Chuck Bresnahan and his seemingly senseless schemes are no longer around. Key pass-rusher defensive end Matt Shaughnessy returns from missing most of the season. More realistically, the Raiders are poised to be the league’s most competitive last-place team. McFadden has never played a full season in his NFL career, and his primary backup, Mike Goodson, is a veteran whose team didn’t let him have a single carry last year. The return of Shaughnessy merely offsets the loss of Kamerion Wimbley. They cut their best corner last year, Stanford Routt, and look poised to start Ron Bartell and Shawntae Spencer, both veterans who weren’t starters last year. New general manager Reggie McKenzie is more firmly grounded in the modern NFL than the recent Raiders heritage, but this is still a team that lacks depth and promising young players after being without their first-, second-, and third-round picks in this year’s draft. Another 8-8 season would be great, but it’s not likely, and the playoff drought likely reaches ten years.

Then again, it’s the AFC West, and you never know. The NFL’s most tightly-packed division in 2011 looks like it could be the same once again in 2012.