By Jack Johnson, Sports Radio 810 Contributor
For the better part of five seasons, the Chiefs have reigned over the AFC West. Since 2016, the
Chiefs are 26-4 against their division and haven’t lost to the Denver Broncos during that span.
For the foreseeable future, it appears Kansas City has a stranglehold on first place in the West.
However, 2021 should see changes within the division. Justin Herbert enters his first full season
as a starter, the Broncos have a new quarterback, and the Raiders lost key members of their
offensive line. So how will the AFC West look this season?
Here’s an early breakdown of the division:
1. Kansas City Chiefs (1st place)
It’s hard to refute the Chiefs taking their sixth straight division title barring a collapse. With a
revamped offensive line and the rest of the West in a limbo, Kansas City has few roadblocks.
This isn’t indicating that the Chiefs have a cakewalk, though. The club split with the Raiders and
the Chargers last season, albeit the loss to the Chargers was a rest week.
For the most part, the Chiefs have the power to control the division from the start. In past
seasons, a 4-0 or 5-0 start has set the tone for the rest of the year. In the case of 2021, Kansas
City opens with the Browns, Chargers, Ravens, Eagles, and Bills. A 4-1 or 5-0 start with a win
over Los Angeles can pay huge dividends when looking back in December.
2. Los Angeles Chargers (2nd place)
If we’re being direct, the Chargers have been the lone divisional opponent that has
given Kansas City trouble since 2018. The Bolts defeated Patrick Mahomes at
Arrowhead in 2018, nearly won in Mexico in 2019, and took the Chiefs to overtime in
2020. With 23-year-old Justin Herbert shouldering a weight of expectation in year two of
his career, the Chargers not only have a chance to finish second in the West, but
compete for a playoff spot.
As always, there’s reason to be skeptical. Can Herbert be the same guy in a season
with sold out crowds? Is it possible for the defense to move into the top half of the
league (23rd in 2020)? Most importantly, how will Brandon Staley do in his first season
as head coach?
3. Las Vegas Raiders (3rd place)
There could be an argument for the Raiders finishing one spot behind the Chiefs this
season, however, there’s a glaring reason as to why they cannot. One of the strengths
of Las Vegas in 2020 was its offensive line. Rodney Hudson, who was one of the
highest graded lineman in the NFL, was released by the Raiders back in March. The
organization also let six-year veteran Gabe Jackson walk in free agency. In total, the
Raiders have three new starters to its offensive line, including one rookie at right tackle
in Alex Leatherwood.
On the defensive side of the ball, Las Vegas still lacks a pass rush. Last season, the
Raiders were third-to-last in takeaways and bottom 10 in pass defense. Most of that can
be attributed to inconsistent pressure on the quarterback. As was seen in Super Bowl
LV, “hellish” pressure can disrupt even the most prolific offenses.
4. Denver Broncos (4th place)
In the current day NFL, quarterback play is paramount. Since the day Peyton Manning
retired, the Broncos have been searching for a man to run a high-powered offense in
the Mile High city. First it was Brock Osweiler. Then it was Trevor Siemian and Paxton
Lynch. In 2018, it was Case Keenum. 2019 saw three different quarterbacks in Joe
Flacco, Drew Lock, and Brandon Allen. After Drew Lock’s second season in the NFL,
Denver made a move to add another quarterback to the list of growing names.
Teddy Bridgewater, who threw for 3,733 yards and 15 touchdowns for the Carolina
Panthers last season, joined the Broncos quarterback room on a one-year, $11.5 million
deal. Despite his numbers in 2020, Bridgewater has traditionally been a backup
quarterback. He’s only started all 16 games one time in his career and has never thrown
more than 15 touchdowns in a season. The former Louiville Cardinal had a rating of
92.1 in 2020, which was good for 22nd among NFL quarterbacks.
On the positive side, the defense brings back Von Miller and Bradley Chubb to its pass
rush — making them a difficult matchup for teams coming to Denver. However, even
with their receiving core of Jerry Jeudy, Courtland Sutton, Noah Fant, and Tim Patrick,
the production solely relies on Lock or Bridgewater.