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KrazyCatFan
08-22-2005, 03:30 PM
AFC West: Chargers now the hunted

(With the NFL regular season set to kick off on Thursday, Sept. 8, NFL.com has put together an eight-part series previewing each team division by division. Here is the AFC West.)

At this time a year ago, the San Diego Chargers were the popular pick to finish last in the AFC West. The situation was so bad that the head coach was supposed to be on the hot seat, the general manager was supposed to be on the rocks and the starting quarterback was supposed to be on his way out of town.

One year later, nothing has changed and everything has changed. The Chargers again are the popular pick ... only this time it's to win the division and challenge for a trip to the Super Bowl.

Their improbable run to a 12-4 record and a division title -- one year after finishing 4-12 -- was so stunning that head coach Marty Schottenheimer, GM A.J. Smith and quarterback Drew Brees each received new contracts, as did linebacker Steve Foley, defensive tackle Jamal Williams and wide receiver Keenan McCardell.

With every starter and both kickers returning, management signed only one veteran free agent in the offseason -- safety Bhawoh Jue. That stability is in direct contrast with the rest of the division, which underwent dramatic changes in hopes of chasing down the Bolts, who went 5-1 in the division and finished two games ahead of the Denver Broncos, five ahead of the Kansas City Chiefs, and seven ahead of the Oakland Raiders.

Movers and Shakers
Kansas City: The Chiefs were a popular preseason choice to reach the Super Bowl last season, but they won only seven games because of deficiencies on defense. The unit ranked 29th among 32 teams in points allowed, 31st in total yards allowed and 32nd in passing yards allowed.

Hoping to avoid a repeat performance, GM Carl Peterson brought in a half-dozen veterans -- acquiring defensive backs Patrick Surtain, Sammy Knight, Ashley Ambrose and Dewayne Washington; linebacker Kendrell Bell; and defensive end Carlos Hall -- and used his first-round draft choice on linebacker Derrick Johnson, a playmaker from Texas.

Hall and Bell should help upgrade the pass rush, and Surtain and Knight are proven ball hawks on the back-end. Johnson is an exceptional athlete who could develop into one of the league's better pass defenders at his position. He has the potential to remind Chiefs fans of linebacker Donnie Edwards, who's now with the Chargers.

Denver: The Broncos are 0-3 in the playoffs since John Elway retired, with each defeat coming in the first round after double-digit victories in the regular season.

Coach Mike Shanahan has never been afraid to tinker with the roster, but he might have outdone himself in the offseason by acquiring four ex-Cleveland defensive linemen who underachieved or were injury-prone during their time with the Browns -- ends Courtney Brown and Ebenezer Ekuban, and tackles Gerard Warren and Michael Myers. There are three first-round selections among the group, but to date none has lived up to expectations. End John Engelberger, acquired in a trade with San Francisco, also should figure in the mix.

The Broncos are going to need a strong performance from the line because there are question marks in the secondary following the departures of Kenoy Kennedy, Kelly Herndon and Willie Middlebrooks. Shanahan used his first three draft picks on cornerbacks, so that speaks to the problems opposite standout corner Champ Bailey.

Interestingly, the Broncos' struggles last season had as much to do with Jake Plummer suffering 20 interceptions than they did with the defense failing to consistently come up with big plays. Still, the only significant additions Shanahan made to the unit were at running back, where he signed free agent Ron Dayne and drafted Maurice Clarett in the third round. Jerry Rice was added at wideout, but the future Hall of Famer is not guaranteed a roster spot.

Oakland: The Raiders have won only nine games since reaching the Super Bowl three seasons ago, but they made the rest of the division sit upright by trading for wideout Randy Moss and signing running back LaMont Jordan and defensive end Derrick Burgess.

Moss should put the vertical back in the Raiders' passing game, and Jordan should flourish after four years as the backup to Curtis Martin with the Jets. If Burgess can have the same type of impact on a defense that ranked 30th overall and produced only nine interceptions (second fewest in the league) and 18 takeaways (third fewest) last season, the Raiders could be a surprise team.

San Diego: The Chargers added only one veteran free agent -- Jue, who is expected to compete with incumbent Jerry Wilson at free safety. Management used the offseason to reward several of its veterans with new contracts and would prefer to take care of its own players before signing outsiders. First-round draft choices Shawne Merriman, a linebacker/defensive end, and Luis Castillo, a defensive tackle/end, will get significant playing time and might start. Merriman will be counted on to upgrade a pass rush that produced only 29 sacks, which tied for the third fewest in the league. Fourth-round pick Darren Sproles has impressed with his running abilities, but his first chance for action will come as a returner.

WHAT TO EXPECT

Have John Browning and the Chiefs defense improved enough to contain the division's great offenses?

After failing to make the playoffs for eight consecutive years, the Chargers will try to make back-to-back appearances for the first time since 1994-95. They won nine of their final 10 games last season and return a good blend of youth and experience.

Still, there are doubters because the Chargers were 1-5 against playoff teams last season. Their schedule this year includes seven games against clubs that went to the postseason last year, including five in the first nine weeks. They will play each of the Super Bowl XXXIX participants on the road.

The Chiefs believe respected defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham finally has the personnel to reduce the pressure on Kansas City's high-flying offense. If so, coach Dick Vermeil might make his final season a memorable one by taking a third franchise to the Super Bowl.

The Broncos have the potential to be very good or very bad, depending on how the new acquisitions perform. Shanhan has to get better play from Plummer, who in two seasons with the Broncos has lived down to his reputation for being streaky. If Dayne, Clarett or Tatum Bell can run effectively, it could take pressure off the quarterback.

The Raiders have the talent to be the league's highest-scoring offense. However, with so many questions on defense, they also could give up more points than any other team. Coach Norv Turner has to get more out of defensive tackles Warren Sapp and Ted Washington -- and his secondary -- otherwise the unit has little chance of succeeding.

JMarkJohns
08-22-2005, 04:06 PM
San Diego (12-4)
Denver (10-6)
Kansas City (9-7)
Oakland (7-9)

BigO
08-22-2005, 05:07 PM
Kansas City 11-5
San Diego 10-6
Oakland 8-8
Denver 7-9

losgatosaz05
08-26-2005, 05:42 AM
Go Bolts!!!!!

Wolfman Duke
08-30-2005, 06:19 PM
Go Raiders!!!