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Trying to make sense of the muddled AFC West

Read any analysis related to the AFC West and you will probably read something similar to this: "While [Team A] might be leading the division, [Team B] is playing very good football. Don't be surprised to see [Team B] make a run at the end of the year in this muddled AFC West, especially as they get [Superstar A] back for the stretch run."

Heading into the Raiders-Chiefs match-up, Team A was KC and Team B was the Oakland. Heading into Week 11, the Raiders (and Chiefs) are Team A and Team B is San Diego. Even before we saw Denver's Week 10 drubbing of KC, you would even get see writers throw a bone to the cellar-dwelling horses. After Kyle Orton hung 35 straight points on the Chiefs to start the first half, they are getting even more mentions as the dark horses in the division. So let's try to make a little sense of the muddled mess in the AFC West.

Let's start with the Kansas City Chiefs. (after the jump)

This is a team that shocked a lot of people with a 5-2 start behind the two-headed rushing attack of Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones, their offense bolstered by a QB who was taking care of the football. On the other side of the ball, the Chiefs were doing an incredible job of stopping the run, among the top 10 in the league in both yards per attempt and yards allowed per game. The defense was also getting some incredible play from young defensive backs Brandon Flowers and Eric Berry.

In their two losses since their 5-2 start, the complexion of the Chiefs has changed entirely. In the Oakland game, the Chiefs were not able to cross the 100-yard mark rushing as a team until the 1st play in overtime. Through 4 quarters, the Raiders were able to hold the best rushing team in the league under 100 yards with an average of just 3.1 ypc. On the other side of the ball, their defense gave up 112 yards on just 26 carries--for a 4.3 ypc. In that game, the Chiefs' star CB, Brandon Flowers was also victimized time and time again by young Raider WR Jacoby Ford for multiple big plays.

In the following game against the Broncos, the defense was unable to defend the run or the pass, and from a 35-point deficit with time still to go in the 1st half, the Chiefs were forced to abandon the run game (51 yds/2.3 ypc) for the pass. The run defense was gouged for 153 yards rushing and a ypc allowed of nearly 5.0 and the pass defense allowed 299 yards passing including 5 touchdowns through the air. In a departure from his normal managing style, Chiefs' QB Matt Cassel went to the air with plenty of success, racking up 469 yards in the contest, but it just wasn't enough to make a dent in the large Denver lead.

Moving forward, the Kansas City Chiefs still have the top ranked rushing attack, averaging 165.3 yards per game and #4 in ypc at 4.8. That run defense has taken a bit of a hit though, dropping down to the middle of the pack--#13 in ypg (104.4) and tied for #11 at 4.0. On the positive side, the Chiefs are still among the best teams in terms of taking care of the football with a plus-5 showing in the turnover-takeaway differential. This is largely due to their league-leading 7 giveaways. Only 2 other teams--New England and Philadelphia--are even in the single digits.

Tied for the division lead, the Chiefs have only 1 win in 3 games against division opponents. With the division leading Oakland Raiders sporting a 3-0 record inside the division, the Chiefs may have to win the division outright or they will be looking to the Wild Card race for a playoff berth. The Chiefs are still in a position of strength, they are looking at a fairly easy schedule in the final 7 games of the season, starting with the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.

Next up: Tha Rraiduhs

What a strange year it has been for the Raiders in 2010. Picked by many a dark horse playoff contender, the Raiders started the season with a miserable showing against Tennessee. With only a squeak-it-out win against the Rams, the Raiders started the season 1-3.

Since their 3rd loss which came against Houston, the Raiders are on a 4-1 run of victories--a thrilling victory against the San Diego Chargers dominated by special teams, blowouts against the Broncos and Seahawks and another thrilling victory in overtime against the then-division-leading Kansas City Chiefs.

The Raiders have been successful first and foremost because of their running game. Darren McFadden, in particular, has been the catalyst to their wins and his absence led to their sole loss in the past 5 games. McFadden, dubbed a draft bust over the past 2 offseasons, has been gaining tough yards on inside runs, making explosive plays on outside runs and stretching the defense out on swing passes and designed screen passes.

On the other side of the ball, the Raiders have the 2nd ranked pass defense, led by defensive back Nnamdi Asomugha. Unnoticed by most, however, is the stoutness of the Raiders' run defense in the past 5 games. Here's a quick look at the Raiders' run defense over their last 4 wins:

San Diego: 91 yards - 3.5 ypc
Denver: 75 yards - 4.4 ypc
Seattle: 47 yards - 2.5 ypc
Kansas City: 104 yards - 3.1 ypc

Over those 4 games, the Raiders are allowing under 80 yards rushing. The NFL's second-ranked run defense, Chicago, is allowing 82.3 yards per game. If you add the loss to San Francisco (in which the Raiders allowed 158 yards rushing), the Raiders are still averaging 95 yards per game on the ground (the #6 St Louis Rams are allowing 97.8 yards per game on the year).

Moving forward, the keys to the Raiders success are Darren McFadden and the defensive line. Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly are wreaking havoc in the backfield of opposing teams--both in the running game and the passing game (10.5 sacks combined), but second-year player Matt Shaughnessy is also making a large impact with 5 sacks and 4 tackles for a loss.

With a 3-0 record in the division and a 2-game lead in that respect, the 5-4 Raiders may be in the driver's seat in the division race, but the team is faced with a tough schedule ahead starting with the 6-3 Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh this Sunday. With the Indianapolis Colts also on the docket, the Raiders must continue to win their divisional games.

Third on the list, we have The Challenger--the San Diego Chargers.

Recipe for a playoff team:
1. Throw in the NFL's leading passer
2. Add in a dollop of the NFL's #1 offense
3. Fold in the NFL's #4 3rd down offense
4. Put in a pinch of the NFL's #2 defense
Mix it all together and allow to bake for 17 weeks--allowing 1 week for a bye of course--and voila! You have a playoff team!

This is how the recipe is supposed to work, right? Well, apparently this recipe only gets the San Diego Chargers the 3rd best record in the division--a losing record--9 games into the season. Why? There are 2 reasons--turnover differential and special teams.

On special teams, there are only 6 teams to have a punt blocked all year this year. Only 2 teams have had 2 or more punts blocked. Miami is one of those teams sitting right at 2 blocked punts; San Diego has had 4 punts blocked this year. The Chargers are dead last in the NFL with 34.6 net punting yards, they allow an average of 22.2 yards per punt return (32nd), allow 23.9 yards per kickoff return and have allowed a league high 3 special teams returns for TDs--no other team has allowed more than 1.

In the turnover department, the Chargers are in the middle of the pack in terms of creating turnovers but have an AFC-high 21 giveaways--leading to a conference-worst -9 differential. That differential is #3 overall in the NFL, better than only Minnesota and Carolina.

As a result of these, the Chargers rank 17th in the NFL in points allowed per game--worse than both Oakland and Kansas City and just better than San Francisco and Seattle. They also allow teams to extend drives, ranking #12 in the league in 3rd down defense at 36.4%. On offense, the Chargers still have the 5th best scoring defense in the league, but they rank 16th in the league in rushing yards per game--largely due to the ineffectiveness of rookie RB Ryan Matthews.

Moving forward, the Chargers are finally getting Vincent Jackson back which should add to their already potent offense and Antonio Gates should be back in the lineup in the next week or two. This is a team that is still very productive, but they must start protecting the ball and lengthening the field for opposing offenses in order to make a run at the division. The schedule appears to be fairly favorable for the Chargers as the only elite NFL team left on the horizon is Indianapolis.

Finally, we will take a look at the embattled Denver Broncos.

38. That's the number of points the Broncos allowed in Week 7--at home--against the Oakland Raiders
59. That's how many the Raiders scored before letting their foot off the pedal in the 3rd quarter
35. That's the amount of unanswered points the Broncos put up on the Chiefs to start the game in Week 10

What do the Broncos do well? They pass the ball very well with the 2nd best passing attack in the NFL averaging nearly 300 yards per game. What do they do poorly? Pretty much everything else.

Once known as the best situation for a RB, the Denver Broncos rank dead last in the NFL in rushing production averaging just over 76 yards per game. They are also among the worst in the nation--rank 30th--in rushing yards allowed per game at 143.1. Even the pass defense, which features star CB Champ Bailey, is near the bottom of the NFL allowing 229.8 yards per game through the air.

Even with all of this taken into consideration, Denver is only a couple games out of first place in the AFC West. Moving forward, however, one can't really expect a late season run from this proud franchise without some big changes. First, the Broncos need to be able to run the football and stop the run. Second, they need to be able to pressure the QB having registered only 13 sacks on the year--tied with Buffalo for 4th worst in the NFL. Finally, the team needs to create turnovers. The team that had 30 turnover last season is on pace for 18 turnovers created this season. With 2 games left to play against the Chargers, the team may get a boost in that department, but it would appear the Broncos will end this year well short of last year's mark.

Bring it in:

Although the Raiders and Chiefs are tied at the top of the divisions, the Raiders hold a commanding lead in terms of division wins, standing at 3-0. No other team in the division has won 2 games over their divisional opponents. This is a big factor in the discussion for the AFC West crown because division record is the #1 factor in the event of a tie.

What this means is, other than the Raiders, the only way for an AFC West team to win the division will be to win the division outright. With the Chiefs, this means they will have be one game better than the Raiders. Judging by the remaining teams on the schedule and the uneven play of the Raiders between their first 4 games and their latest 5 games, this wouldn't seem to be that hard for the Chiefs to do. For the Chargers, however, at 0-2 in the division and 3rd in the AFC West, the team from San Diego may have to be nearly perfect the rest of the way in order to take the AFC West crown because they have to be 2 games better than the Raiders the rest of the way. This makes every game inside the division a near must-win for the Chargers starting this Monday night against the Broncos. Even if the Raiders and Chiefs each lose this week, if the Chargers were to lose Monday night, they would have only 6 weeks to be 2 games better than the Raiders.

For the Broncos, as much as analysts would like to throw a wrench into the AFC West mix, the season would appear to be over. With 3 teams to leap in the course of just 7 games, that's too tough of a task to do.

Over the next 7 weeks, the Chargers have to tighten up on the turnovers and special teams. The Chiefs have to prove the past 2 weeks were an aberration, getting their run defense and offense back on track for the rest of the season. The Raiders, if they want to make the playoffs, have a long run ahead of them. They have 5 teams above .500 the rest of the way and another (Chargers) have been among the class of the AFC the past 3 years. If the Raiders are make the playoffs, it won't be skating in, they will have to prove they can beat contenders.

Predictions:
Oakland: 10-6 (Wins against Mia, SD, Den, Jax, KC. Losses against Pit, Ind)
Kansas City: 9-7 (Wins against Ari, Den, StL. Losses against Sea, SD, Ten, Oak)
San Diego: 9-7 (Wins against Ind, KC, SF, Cin, Den. Losses against Den, Oak)
Denver: 6-10 (Wins against SD, Ari, Hou. Losses against StL, KC, Oak, SD)

Final thoughts:
On Denver: I just can't see Denver turning their season around. I could even see them losing more than 5 or more games the rest of the way. They've got a dynamic passing attack which can pull out a couple surprise wins (like this Monday against the Chargers), but I expect this team to quit on the season with another loss or two, just like they did in 2nd quarter of the Raider game.

On San Diego: What a weird team. They have taken New England to the wire, beat Tennessee, Jacksonville and Houston, yet they lost to KC, Oakland, Seattle and St. Louis. I expect this up-and-down season to continue the rest of the way. They'll end up with a 3-3 record in the division and come up in a big way against a talented Colts team, but I expect a loss this Monday night against Denver and another at home against the Raiders.

On Kansas City: This is a young and talented team that is up-and-coming. This season will serve as a coming-out party for the Chiefs and they will be a team to be reckoned with in years to come. They have a dynamic running game and a solid QB right now to go along with plenty of young pieces on defense. However, feel the Chiefs will be hurt a little bit by their youth and come up just short at the end of the day.

On Oakland: Which brings me to the Raiders and the difference-maker: Richard Seymour. I expect the Raiders to continue their success in the trenches, all of this led by Richard Seymour. Seymour's impact on the Raiders has extended far beyond his own play as a defensive tackle--he has helped Tommy Kelly, Matt Shaughnessy and other defensive linemen refine their craft and he has been a culture-changer in the locker room. It took a full season to turn the culture around in Oakland, but it has happened--largely due to Seymour's presence. In regards to the on-field product, the Raiders will continue to live in the opponent's backfield and the left side of the offensive line will create big lanes for McFadden and Bush both on run plays as well as showing off their athleticism on screen passes.
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