Assessing the AFC West after Week 1

TJ recently commented that the rest of the AFC West may have watched the Broncos play Pittsburgh and realized they were playing for second place. After watching the Chiefs host the Falcons and the Chargers visit the Raiders, I think he’s being too kind. Right now, the three of them seem to be playing just to figure out who remains in the cellar and who departs.

To say that the Chiefs were bad against the Falcons doesn’t fully do them justice. The second half found them inept, bumbling, undexterous, clumsy, and dreadful: all fitting tributes to the hospitality the Chiefs provided to the Falcons. They did everything but gift them the game ball. Their fans did, however, show a lack of class when they chose to boo their former star tight end Tony Gonzalez, when he scored on a touchdown catch. Class, nothing but class. All third, but lots...

I understand that Kansas City is struggling with injuries, but this went far beyond that. Matt Cassel let the Falcons have it with the old 1-2-3: 1 touchdown, 2 interceptions, and 3 sacks. The Chiefs had 69 plays for 393 yards. They converted 11 of 16 third downs, which sounds great, gained 4.6 yards per attempt in the rushing game for a total of 152 yards, and notched 22 first downs, but still managed to get beaten by a score of 40-24. It wasn’t even that close, by the end of the third quarter.

KC was down 10-3 by the end of the 1st quarter. They drew within 20-17 by halftime before Ryan Succop hit the upright on a would-be game-tying third-quarter FG attempt. The Falcons scored on their next drive, and after a touchback on the kickoff, a sack of Cassel lost both nine yards and the football - the latter was fumbled by Cassel and recovered by linebacker Steve Nichols. It took Matt Ryan & Co. one more play to make it 34-17.

The game was essentially over at that point, but as forced to by the rules, they played it out anyway. Cassel then summoned two interceptions to go with his fumble, pretty much giving the game away single-handedly. Peyton Hillis contributed seven carries for 16 whole yards. It was that kind of game. The Chiefs are finding what a lot of people have told them for years - Cassel isn’t going to be an elite quarterback, and they’re now in a division with Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers. KC travels today to Buffalo.

The Chargers were tasked with surviving the Black Hole of Oakland on Monday night, and they and the Raiders had an equally odd, if somewhat less one-sided game. Oakland had 15 more plays, six more 1st downs, 63 more yards, and ultimately eight fewer points than SD, something which isn’t all that easy to do. The Raiders have had considerable practice at it, however. They even had less penalties: six for 35 yards, compared to nine for 85 yards by the Chargers, something they rarely accomplish. It didn’t help.

The Chargers achieved a blazing 1.6 yards per attempt in the run game with their key tailback Ryan Mathews once again sidelined, this time with a broken collarbone. They ran the ball 20 times for 32 whole yards. Oakland beat them handily there, rushing the ball to a searing 2.6 YPA of their own. The perennially preseason-hyped Darren McFadden charged out of the gate with 32 yards on 15 carries, an average of 2.1 YPA. He did have an impressive 13 receptions, though, for nearly half of Carson Palmer’s 32 completions. Palmer had a net of 276 yards on those completions, for but a single touchdown.

The Chargers won the game by sticking with a simple enough plan - with Mathews and wide receiver Vincent Brown both injured, they ran the ball enough for Philip Rivers to succeed at play action, and he went to throwing short to his tight ends and tailbacks. The Raiders also used up three of their six penalties on a single drive, each of them granting San Diego a first down. Tommy Kelly alone had two offsides penalties on third downs. Malcom Floyd, who played well, finally caught a 23-yard pass for the touchdown. 

Oakland had 204 yards in the first half, but they had to settle for field goals of 51 and 19 yards by Sebastian Janikowski, who’s still their most effective player. They were finally driving in San Diego territory when wide receiver Rod Streater fumbled at the 29, and the Bolts recovered. The Raiders never did, eventually going under by a score of 22-14.

The Raiders continue to play both their opponent and themselves each week. Their worst enemy has been their own unique ability to implode; Dennis Allen has his hands full with this crowd. The Raiders travel to Miami to take on the 0-1 Dolphins.

San Diego is the closest thing to a contender other than Denver, but running back Ryan Mathews appears to be made more of balsa wood than oak, and they are continually substituting for him. Their secondary was thin to start - at this point, it’s anorexic. Norv Turner has much the same set of problems he did last year - a thinner roster than he talks about, a corresponding vulnerability to key injuries, a steady diminishment of the stellar personnel of a few years ago, and a team that’s struggling badly along the offensive line and in the defensive secondary. An undrafted (but talented) rookie named Mike Harris is guarding Philip Rivers’s blind side, and the Broncos pass rush hasn’t been better in many years.

The Chargers' secondary has been annihilated by injuries: Quentin Jammer broke his hand in the fourth quarter Monday, and slot cornerback Shareece Wright sprained his ankle on the opening kickoff. San Diego was happy to escape with a win, and Norv Turner smiled for the cameras and seemed to see a bright side in everything during his presser. Even so, this wasn’t the look of a team that would battle someone like the Steelers to a standstill. It was all they could do to beat the hapless Raiders. At least the Chargers have the advantage of playing at home, and hosting the 0-1 Tennessee Titans. The game pits the two worst running games of the opening week. Titans QB Jake Locker may not play - if not, Matt Hasselbeck has to guide his group to a victory. Chris Johnson, where are you? The Chargers are heavily favored.

It was just Week 1, and while I’ve had some deliberate fun with this in mixing a bit of cheerful hyperbole with some of the actual facts, I don’t want to overstate the case. Teams are going to change their fortunes, clean up their mistakes, and see the return of some of their injured brethren, and others will suddenly tank. Still other teams are going to stay as mediocre to poor as they were this weekend. In the case of the AFC West, the good news is that it would be hard to play worse than these three teams collectively did.

The bad news for them is that it’s still possible.

I don’t think that you can ever take a divisional game lightly. I’ve seen a lot of lousy teams take out unbeaten and overconfident divisional rivals who believed their press clippings and forgot that in the NFL, all players are talented, and all games vulnerable. After watching six months of Peyton Manning, though, I strongly doubt that he’d let the team take any game lightly. This almost has to be the year that Denver takes the division with a winning record, breaking a cycle of mediocrity and worse that extends back to the 2005 AFC Championship game.

Denver has the weapons and the defense to conquer all three of these teams handily, and to carry a 6-0 divisional record with them into the playoffs - all they have to do is to live up to it. They have relatively few weaknesses and fewer holes - so far. Injuries have hit the DL, but for once there are good players ready to handle the ‘Next man up’ mantra that’s so necessary. Absent multiple critical injuries, the Broncos should walk away at the end of the year with the divisional crown and their ticket to the playoffs firmly in their grasp.

Reality within the division starts on October 15th. That’s the night the Broncos play the Chargers in San Diego on national television, and we’ll find out a lot about both teams before that evening ends. Right now, it looks to me to be more likely to be a long Monday Night for the Lightning Lads. Still, they’ve got a month to put their season on its tracks.

I have to wonder if it can be enough.

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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