Peyton Manning has led the Denver Broncos to three years of dominance in the AFC West, with the team going 48-10 over that span. However, the San Diego Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs have been pretty competitive in the past two seasons, with both putting together consecutive winning seasons. Denver should still be the favorite in 2015, but, as we’ll discuss below, they’ll have some fierce competition.
4th in Division: Oakland Raiders; 5-11 W/L Projection
Strengths: Oakland moved in the right direction by hiring Jack Del Rio, who should bring a winning attitude to this organization. As for the players, linebacker Khalil Mack headlines this group, having proved himself as a top-flight player in his rookie campaign. Defensive tackles Dan Williams and Justin Ellis will help Mack form one of the league’s better run-stopping defenses.
Weaknesses: The Raiders are finally building the right way, but it’s going to be a long process. This is particularly true in the secondary, where young corners D.J. Hayden and Travis Carre just haven’t gotten the job done so far. Charles Woodson is at an age (38) where he needs to think about retirement, especially if he allows a 72.1% completion rate again. Despite deficiencies in the secondary, young players like QB Derek Carr, RB Latavius Murray, WR Amari Cooper and Mack should help this team improve.
3rd in Division: San Diego Chargers; 8-8 W/L Projection
Strengths: San Diego boasted one of the league’s best secondaries last year, and that won’t change in 2015. Brandon Flowers and Jason Verrett are Pro Bowl-caliber cornerbacks while safety Eric Weddle is also elite at his position. The team upgraded their linebacking coverage by taking Denzel Perryman in the second round. If Perryman lives up to the hype, opposing QBs will have trouble finding open receivers this year.
Weaknesses: The Chargers need to stop the run, plain and simple. They failed do this last season, allowing 124.1 rushing yards per game, which ranked 27th in the league. San Diego didn’t do a thing to fix the situation this past summer, so Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes must play better if the team has any chance of stopping running backs. If they can improve, then QB Philip Rivers and the secondary will help this team compete for a postseason slot.
2nd in Division: Kansas City Chiefs; 10-6 W/L Projection
Strengths: The Chiefs have a devastating combination of pass rushers, speedy linebackers and safeties who can make plays; so expect opponents to turn the ball over plenty against this team. DE Justin Houston headlines this group one year after tying for second place all time with 22.0 sacks in a season. Things won’t get any easier for opposing teams when linebackers Derrick Johnson, Dee Ford and Tamba Hail are taken into account. Then there’s safety Eric Berry and rookie corner Marcus Peters waiting in the secondary.
Weaknesses: Kansas City can only go as far as Alex Smith takes them. The team added Jeremy Maclin in the offseason, which should help Smith, who is, to his credit, an excellent game manager. However, the former top overall pick lacks the arm strength to stretch the field and keep defenses honest. Smith should at least throw a TD pass to a receiver this year – which amazingly didn’t happen in 2014 – but will he throw enough to keep defenses from keying in on RB Jamaal Charles?
1st in Division: Denver Broncos; 11-5 W/L Projection
Strengths: While the passing game should once again be a huge strength, with Manning and WR Demaryius Thomas leading the way, the run game is what figures to shine in 2015. New head coach Gary Kubiak has led 10 offenses to top-5 run rankings while coaching running backs like Terrell Davis, Arian Foster and Justin Forsett to career seasons. C.J. Anderson figures to benefit from Kubiak’s zone-blocking scheme this time around after gaining 1,173 yards from scrimmage last season – despite not playing much until the last five games. Ronnie Hillman and Monte Ball round out what’s a pretty versatile backfield.
Weaknesses: Another reason why the run game will be relied on heavily this season is because Denver faces uncertainty at both tackle positions. Left tackle and 4-time Pro Bowler Ryan Clady is lost to a torn ACL, leaving second-round rookie Ty Sambrailo to take his place. Right tackle will be manned by Ryan Harris, who’s an experienced but not outstanding player. At 39 years old, Manning can’t take too many vicious hits, so these guys need to play well for Denver to win. But with a great overall offense and excellent defensive players (Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Derek Wolfe, Aqib Talib), the Broncos should have enough to take the division.