Who will win the AFC West in 2016?

The AFC West was a two team race in 2015. The Denver Broncos found themselves on top of the division, for a fifth consecutive season, after a close battle with the surging Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs’ 10 game winning streak to close the season was not enough to seal the deal as Denver’s division championship was secured following a week 17 victory over the San Diego Chargers. Will Kansas City’s fortunes be better in 2016? Will the Broncos prove, for a sixth straight time, that they are the team to beat in the AFC West? What about the up and coming Oakland Raiders? Will the ascending Raiders shock the world?

The Kansas City Chiefs’ time to win the AFC West is now or never.

The Kansas City Chiefs turned a disastrous start to the 2015 season into an inspiring finish. Losing five of their first six games, and looking like a bottom five team in the National Football League, the Chiefs turned their season around following a week seven victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Running back Jamaal Charles was lost early in the season due to injury, but Kansas City won their final 10 games to reach the postseason as a wild card. The defense stiffened up, the offense stepped up and the Chiefs ran past the AFC South champion Houston Texans in the first round of the playoffs before losing to the AFC East champion New England Patriots in the second round. The 2016 season will be a momentous season for the Chiefs’ Kingdom which will finally result in an AFC West championship.

The Chiefs’ offense stepped up in the second half of the 2015 season, despite losing Charles before then. Charles is the top play maker on the offensive side of the ball and his return will add more firepower in 2016. The offensive line improved in run blocking, adding another element to an already impressive rushing attack, but the pass protection is spotty at best. Even the most mediocre defensive lines can occasionally get into the Chiefs’ backfield without any real strain or problem, which will spell trouble for quarterback Alex Smith. Smith’s protection is vital for Kansas City’s success this season; the offensive line must buckle down and keep the pocket clean. Wide receiver depth is still questionable, but top target Jeremy Maclin will be the primary weapon in the passing game for Smith. Maclin will provide stability and explosiveness to a rather dull aerial attack assuming he stays healthy. The offense displayed an ability to move the ball down the field and put points on the board in 2015, but 2016 will be better with the eventual return of Jamaal Charles.

The Chiefs’ defense was borderline elite in 2015. Most fans consider this unit to already be elite, but they will get their chance to prove it in 2016. This defensive unit is certainly good enough to keep the offense in games and push the team to a few victories on their own. The front seven was stout against the run and getting after the quarterback; one of the very best in the National Football League last season. The 3-4 scheme under Head Coach Andy Reid has transformed into a monstrous unit capable of causing havoc to opposing offenses. With talent on the defensive line, in the linebacker core and in the secondary, Kansas City’s ability to make big plays and force turnovers will be among the league’s best. The Chiefs’ defense will rank among the top-five in football in 2016, which is something any franchise dreams of having.

The 10 game winning streak at the end of the 2015 season created a great amount of momentum for the Kansas City Chiefs. This is a team that has a legitimate shot of not only winning the AFC West, but securing the top seed in the entire conference. A top-flight defensive unit, powerful running game and productive passing attack has always been a recipe for success. It will prove to be for the Chiefs in 2016 and their great home field advantage will provide for an extra boost of adrenaline. Win-loss prediction: 13-3

The Denver Broncos will fight to the finish, but wild card is most likely for them.

The Denver Broncos rose to the top of the National Football League in 2015 on their way to capturing their third Superbowl championship in franchise history. The strength of an elite defense and solid enough offensive production got the job done despite controversy surrounding now retired quarterback Peyton Manning. With Manning out of the picture, and backup QB Brock Osweiler signed with the Houston Texans, the position looks bleak for the defending champions. The Broncos will remain competitive in the AFC West, with one of the league’s best defensive units and solid running game, but it is debatable whether or not they will be able to keep up with the Kansas City Chiefs. The wild card picture is a more likely destination for Denver in 2016.

The Denver offense has a glaring hole at the quarterback position. Talent does exist at the position, but the presence of a true franchise player does not. A team with a defensive unit as good as Denver’s and a decent enough running game might not need an explosive play making quarterback, but what the Broncos do possess still might not be enough to make a real run towards another championship. Key additions to the offensive line improved its pass protection and run blocking. Wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are one of the best duos in the NFL and will provide stability and consistency in the passing game, assuming the quarterback can get the football to them. Running back C.J Anderson will get the bulk of the carries for a productive rushing attack. The play at quarterback, however, will prevent this team from having the image of a legitimate Superbowl contender. It is one thing to have one good game, but can QB Trevor Siemian put together an entire season of good performances? Will Denver fans see Paxton Lynch before the year concludes? The Broncos’ offense possesses talent, but the quarterback hole could continuously grow as 2016 rolls forward.

The Denver defense is still one of the, if not the, best defensive units in football despite losing key players from the defensive line and linebacker core. This defense’s ability to rush the passer was second to none in 2015 and it will remain a clear strength in 2016. The Broncos’ secondary is talented, deep and motivated to be recognized as the NFL’s best. There is a group of defensive backs in the Pacific Northwest that will have something to say about that, but there is no arguing the fact that the Orange Crush displays one of the best defensive backfields in football. Stout performances against the pass and run will continue at top-four levels once again and scoring on this defense will be just as tough as it was last season. Despite the losses within the front seven, this is a defensive unit that can keep Denver’s postseason hopes alive while bailing out the offense from time to time.

The Denver Broncos are a team to take seriously despite the question marks at the quarterback position. Siemian, Paxton and company will need to figure out something because a defense this elite need not be wasted. The AFC West will belong to the Chiefs in 2016, but the Broncos will hang around the wild card. Win-loss prediction: 11-5

The Oakland Raiders will finish the 2016 season with a winning record.

The Oakland Raiders are quickly returning to relevancy in the National Football League. The Raiders’ 2015 season gave fans signs of marked improvement and a glimpse into what looks to be a very promising future. This young and exciting roster will take the necessary steps forward and set themselves up for an even bigger season in 2017.

The Oakland offense showcases youth and talent at every position. The offensive line is among the NFL’s best in pass protection and run blocking, the rushing attack looks to take another step forward in production, the wide receiving core possesses young play makers on the inside and outside and quarterback Derek Carr is quickly becoming one of the most exciting young players in football. The Raiders’ offensive unit displayed the ability to move the ball down the field and put big points on the board in 2015; the expectation for 2016 is to continue developing into one of the league’s most dangerous units.

The defensive side of the ball still displays lapses in the secondary, but the front seven improved its depth and ability to rush the passer with key additions to the linebacker core. This defense will see improvements against the run, getting to the quarterback and forcing turnovers. A less than stellar defensive backfield will get exposed from time to time, but they will be able to hold their own with the improved front seven. Steps forward for the Raiders’ defense will take place in 2016.

The Oakland Raiders will eventually take over the AFC West, but this season will be another test of growth and development for the young offensive and defensive players. Head Coach Jack Del Rio and general manager Reggie McKenzie have morphed one of the oldest and worst offenses in the NFL into one of the youngest and most exciting. Fans have been waiting for the moment the Raiders return to football glory; it is one year away from happening. Win-loss prediction: 9-7

The San Diego Chargers need to evaluate their infrastructure heading into the future.

The San Diego Chargers were lonely in 2015. Their 4-12 record kept them out of AFC West conversations for the season’s entirety. A team with potential Superbowl aspirations bottomed out last year and now questions about a potential rebuild are on the surface for this franchise. The Chargers will not be competitive in 2016, but two or three more wins might happen.

Quarterback Phillip Rivers, when healthy, is still one of the most efficient and productive players in the National Football League. Rivers will have trouble with the loss of his top wide receiver Keenan Allen, but he is confident in his ability to get other receivers involved. Future hall of fame tight end Antonio Gates is still in the fold, but has clearly lost a step in his production. Gates should not be counted on to be the only weapon in the passing game, so someone else needs to step up and give the veteran tight end and quarterback some assistance with the loss of Allen’s services. The San Diego running game is solid, but more production needs to come from backs Danny Woodhead and Melvin Gordon. The offensive line is still makeshift and questionable in pass protection. Run blocking is not very good either; this will continue to plague the Chargers’ offensive plans because the front five cannot open holes or protect the pocket.

The Chargers’ defense has talent on the defensive line, in the linebacker core and in the secondary. The problem is the depth at each level of the unit: there is not much. The line appears to be the strength with key additions to the edge and interior, but the secondary’s depth is questionable behind the starting four. This is a 3-4 defense that can display flashes of potential, but more often are exposed for being an underwhelming unit. This defense will give up yards and points, as it did in 2015, which will put more pressure on Rivers and the San Diego offense to make plays happen. Normally, this kind of problem comes back to bite an organization in the backside. The Chargers are not an exception.

Overall, the San Diego Chargers are in the midst of another disappointing season in 2016. The defense will give up too much, the offense already suffered major injuries and will be leaned on way too much to make things happen. The Chargers are about to undergo a complete rebuild because this roster will not get them much. Win-loss prediction: 6-10

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