The Kansas City Chiefs have had an impressive run throughout their division and the NFL in recent years. They are back-to-back defending champions in the AFC. They started off the 2020 season red hot, winning 14 of their first 15 games. They looked well on their way to repeating as defending Super Bowl champions until meeting Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense in the final game of the season. Although Kansas City was impressively dominant throughout the season, the Buccaneers made the Chiefs look mortal while exposing many of their issues on the offensive line.
Now that we know the Chiefs are not infallible, who’s their biggest threat within the AFC West?
The Los Angeles Chargers have intriguing pieces to make a valid case for the division crown. It may shock you to know that the Chargers have the second-best record in the division over the last five years. Although Philip Rivers has moved on, they still have a talented young quarterback in 2020 NFL Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert. It’s important to note that Los Angeles didn’t play well on defense in 2020 and losing key veterans like tight end Hunter Henry, cornerback Casey Hayward, and EDGE Melvin Ingram will hurt overall. What are the chances that Herbert avoids a sophomore slump by Los Angeles running the football well enough and improving on defense to support their young quarterback?
The Las Vegas Raiders seemingly spent most of the summer prior to 2020 trying to upgrade the quarterback position. All Derek Carr did was respond by having the best year of his career. With tight end Darren Waller having an amazing year along with Josh Jacobs running the football, the Raiders figure to be formidable on offense. However, they moved on from a bunch of players along their offensive line, including trading away Rodney Hudson, one of the best centers in the NFL. Plus, the question still remains: Have they improved enough on defense to challenge the Chiefs? Although they split the series with Kansas City last year, they were atrocious defensively with only two teams allowing more points in the entire NFL. Can Yannick Ngakoue generate enough pressure on the edge to assist a very young but talented secondary?
Although, I believe no one unseats the Chiefs, my dark horse candidate to challenge for the division crown is the Denver Broncos. This may surprise many because they’ve had a losing record in four of the last five seasons. However, not only am I a believer in Vic Fangio's ability to coach football, but they have one of the best young rosters, top to bottom, in the NFL.
Defense is Fangio’s specialty and Justin Simmons is one of the best young safeties in the NFL. If Von Miller can return to half the player he was prior to his latest injury, he would provide a formidable pass-rushing tandem with Bradley Chubb. However, the team will go as far as the quarterback position takes them—whether it's Teddy Bridgewater or Drew Lock.
In 2020, Lock struggled mightily, throwing 16 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. With the offense being inept, the defense grew tired from being on the field extensively toward the end of the season. Running the football with Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon should take some of the pressure off whichever quarterback starts the season. If Jerry Jeudy can fix his focus drops and Courtland Sutton can stay healthy—along with the continued development of the exceptional young talent at tight end in Noah Fant—the Broncos could prove to have the best receiving corps in the NFL.
Ultimately, this is a make-or-break year for both Fangio and Lock. Lock clearly has seen the writing on the wall. If he responds with his best year to date and takes care of the football, my prediction is the Broncos will finish second in the division and challenge for a wild-card spot in the AFC.