With the regular season bearing down on us, let’s take a look at the 2014 AFC West Predictions.
The AFC West teams have to play the AFC East and NFC West this season in addition to their divisional schedule.
I am making predictions as if injuries did not occur unless otherwise specified and each projected finish is from looking through each game over the course of the season and predicting each winner from each matchup.
For playoff predictions and award predictions, check out Football Fan Source’s 2014 NFL Season Preview!
1. Denver Broncos
Projected Finish: 10-6
Why do I like Denver? Peyton Manning. I don’t need to explain much there. Now, the record prediction… I could explain that a bit further.
The offense is going to be as high-powered as ever. Manning is focused and driven to get back to the Super Bowl and returns most all of the old gang. Knowshon Moreno is now a running back in Miami, but second-year back Montee Ball is more than capable of stepping in. Tight end Julius Thomas is going to be even better this season. Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas is going to maybe be even more prolific than last season with Wes Welker suspended for the first four games of the season and Eric Decker with the Jets. Thomas is one of the best receivers in the game. He will be fine with the added weight on his shoulders. Newly acquired Emmanuel Sanders from Pittsburgh will be great in this offense. Manning has a way of making anyone look better around him. The offensive line should even be improved with it finally being healthy.
Defensively, Denver might be better than last season’s model. They lose Wesley Woodyard, but added Demarcus Ware from Dallas. Ware and a healthy Von Miller rushing the passer could make for the most imposing pass rush in the game. Linebacker Danny Trevathan became a force as the season progressed last year. He figures to remain involved in the big plays. The secondary was a weakness during their Super Bowl run, but Denver went out and got Aqib Talib at corner and T.J. Ward at safety to shore up those concerns. Talib was one of the top-three corners last season and Ward was highly undervalued when playing in Cleveland. These guys make this defense a lot better.
Denver is better than they were last season with healthy top-tier talent and great additions defensively. The reason I have them at 10-6 is because their schedule is brutal. Playing the NFC West is four tough games right there and with the AFC East, Denver faces off with Tom Brady and the Patriots in New England. Throw in divisional games against San Diego and Kansas City plus a road trip to face Cincinnati and you have a heck of a schedule, even for a team of Denver’s caliber. They will likely win more than 10, but either way, this is going to be a great team that has to take on the very best.
Player to Watch: DE Demarcus Ware – I could put Manning, Sanders or Ball here, but I want to see what Ware has left in the tank. He could be a menace for opposing offenses.
2. Kansas City Chiefs
Projected Finish: 8-8
A fast 9-0 start to the 2013 season fizzled out to a 2-6 finish and an early exit in the playoffs after building a huge lead on Indianapolis on the road. This season, Kansas City seeks another strong season with a stronger finish. I don’t know if they can do it.
Quarterback Alex Smith has been widely viewed as a liability, but I really like him leading the Chiefs offense. He isn’t prolific, but he does enough and having another year in Andy Reid’s system won’t hurt. Running back Jamaal Charles is one of the best, but is limited by his own durability. He is quite literally what makes this offense run. The receivers are lacking a bit after Dwayne Bowe disappeared last season. He now is missing the first game of the season with a suspension. We will have to wait and see if he can regain the form that made him Kansas City’s top receiver. I have heard good things about rookie receiver Junior Hemingway. He may make his way into the public eye. The same can be said for the explosive D’Anthony Thomas from Oregon. Thomas will mostly contribute on special teams, but he is so fast and elusive that I expect he will be sprinkled in just enough on offense.
The defense won’t be as successful as last season’s model in terms of fantasy points, but the talent is still there for a top-notch unit. Last season, Kansas City found themselves earning a number of turnovers, sacks and defensive touchdowns. The turnovers and touchdowns are unlikely to be replicated this season, but Tamba Hali and Justin Houston figure to build upon their sack numbers (11 sacks each) if they can stay healthy the entire year. Nose tackle Dontari Poe is still an athletic speciman at his size and I expect he continues to come into his own this season. Inside linebacker Derrick Johnson is underrated and very talented. In the secondary, Sean Smith is a quality player who had a bit of a down year last season. Eric Berry at safety could finally make the jump to superstar like we have been waiting to see him do.
Kansas City has a defense and a run game that makes them a factor in most any game they play. The problem is, I am not convinced they can beat Denver head-to-head and they also have to matchup with the NFC West, which means games against Seattle, San Francisco, Arizona and St. Louis. Any or all of those teams have the talent to matchup with Kansas City. Divisional matchups with San Diego and Oakland will be challenging and games against the AFC East make Kansas City’s search for improvement over last season’s record difficult.
Player to Watch: QB Alex Smith – I want to see what Smith does in Reid’s system in his second season. Smith doesn’t turn the ball over, yet I think still has the ability and mental knowhow to move the ball through the air. In fact, he played very well in Kansas City’s playoff loss. I want to see what he can do this season.
3. San Diego Chargers
Projected Finish: 7-9
I honestly didn’t think San Diego would do much last season, but they surprised me on their way to a playoff appearance and win over Cincinnati on the road. Now, I think they can replicate that success, but may be victims of their schedule.
The offense was surprisingly dynamic last season with the revival of quarterback Philip Rivers. Rivers reminded people that he was once one of the most prolific passers in the game while utilizing a new group of playmakers on offense. Running back Ryan Mathews stayed relatively healthy and Keenan Allen burst onto the scene as a number one receiver. Tight ends Antonio Gates and Ladarius Green come into this season with the ability to be major contributors in the passing game and Malcolm Floyd returns after suffering a season-ending neck injury early last season. Not much has changed outside of Floyd’s return though offensively.
The San Diego defense, last season, was solid, but failed to impact games with turnovers or sacks. The defense has talent with the defensive line featuring Corey Luiget and Kendall Reyes. Melvin Ingram at linebacker should be more impactful in his second season and Manti Te’o looks to stay healthy. Brandon Flowers at corner is an upgrade at the position for San Diego. Safeties Eric Weddle and Marcus Gilchrist are solid, solidifying the backend. The talent is there and I think San Diego will create more havoc than last season.
San Diego is, inevitably, looking up at Denver atop the division and fighting Kansas City for second. With their schedule as is, I don’t see a wild card team coming from the AFC West, which isn’t good for San Diego fans. That said, crazier things have happened and if Rivers plays like a top-5 quarterback and the defense forces some turnovers, anything is possible.
Player to Watch: WR Keenan Allen – Allen burst onto the scene last season as a rookie on his way to 71 receptions, 1,046 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. Rookie impact receivers are rare, which either means we are going to watch Allen develop further into an upper echelon receiver or he may take a couple steps back. Something to watch.
4. Oakland Raiders
Projected Finish: 5-11
For the first time in a long time, the Raiders are intriguing and there is actually something to be excited about this season. Oh… their potential record? No, not that, but there are other things…
Rookie quarterback Derek Carr is getting his first career start in the opener. That means Schaub is, in all likelihood, done as Oakland looks to the future. In that future resides Carr, who was arguably the top quarterback prospect this past spring. Okay, so he was one of them and for good reason. He could make all the throws and had the pedigree of his older brother David who is most remembered for being sacked more often than any quarterback in league history with the expansion Houston Texans. David’s career has no bearing on Derek’s career though. In the preseason, Carr was sharp and simply outplayed Schaub and despite Oakland repetitively reassuring us that there was no quarterback controversy, we have Carr starting in Week 1. On the rest of the offense, the line should be improved and the receivers added James Jones, but still have Rod Streater and Denarius Moore. Moore and Streater have upside, but who knowns when or if we will ever see it. Maurice Jones-Drew takes over at running back and Darren McFadden is the backup. The most talented player on offense still may be their fullback, Marcel Reese.
Oakland’s defense should be better than last season’s model (it has to be, right?) as the Raiders went out and added a litany of veterans. In fact, Oakland is now the oldest team in the NFL. Congrats? I don’t know how teams rebuild through veterans, but nonetheless, this strategy makes Oakland a dangerous team. With guys like Justin Tuck and Lamarr Woodley at defensive end and a young linebacking core with Sio Moore and rookie Khalil Mack, Oakland could be surprisingly stout and explosive in the front seven. In the secondary, the veteran leadership presents itself in the form of the timeless Charles Woodson, safety Tyvon Branch, corner Carlos Rogers and corner Tarell Brown. On paper, this defense could, again, present a problem for some teams, especially those who come off tough matchups the week before or short weeks. That’s not to say Oakland can’t win games straight-up, but more that a veteran-led team is most dangerous when their opponent is unfocused.
Oakland is in for an interesting season. Perhaps the veteran leadership will be enough to compliment a “Derek Carr-led” offense and make Oakland a sneaky playoff contender. I’m not as optimistic, but this is a team that is going be dangerous, especially if Carr figures out the pro game. I only have Oakland winning five games considering their schedule, but they could do better… or fall apart.
Player to Watch: LB Khalil Mack – Of course I want to see what Carr does, but Mack is the guy who was considered the next best player in the NFL Draft behind Jadeveon Clowney and even had some saying he was superior to the Houston Texan. I’m expecting Mack to come into his own, though the jump from the University at Buffalo to the Oakland Raiders may require an adjustment period.