John Elway thinks the Chargers might be the team to beat
Since the start of this decade, the AFC West has essentially been a two-team race.
The Chiefs started things off with a division title in 2010 before the Broncos reeled off five straight AFC West championships.
Kansas City then reclaimed the throne and has won the last two divisional titles while the Raiders and Chargers have been fighting to stay out of the bottom of the division (although Oakland did tie the Chiefs at 12-4 in 2016).
But despite the dominance of two teams in recent memory, Broncos GM John Elway thinks one of those “other” teams could be the team to beat in the division.
“It’s the wild, wild West. I thought the Chargers did a really nice job with the draft,” Elway told Sports Illustrated. “They’ve got the settled quarterback, even though the Raiders do too. Looking at it, [the Chargers] may be the ones to beat. As I stand here, looking at it, the Chargers might be the team to beat.”
The Chargers have one playoff appearance in the last eight seasons and haven’t won the AFC West since 2009.
But they’ve had a strong offseason, unlike the Raiders, and they do have a proven quarterback, unlike the Chiefs and Broncos.
Denver signed Case Keenum this offseason, but note that the man who signed him, Elway, didn’t even include his own team as one with a “settled quarterback.”
The Chargers had a strong finish to last season; after starting the year 0-4, they won nine of their final 12 games, with their only losses coming to playoff teams.
Philip Rivers and Keenan Allen turned in Pro Bowl seasons, while Melvin Gordon posted his first 1,000-yard rushing year and had over 1,500 yards from scrimmage.
That offense will be even better with a healthy Mike Williams, who was the team’s first-round pick in 2017. Due to a back injury, Williams was a non-factor last year.
The Chargers’ No. 3 scoring defense returns three Pro Bowlers, and it added FSU safety Derwin James with the 17th overall draft pick. They will also welcome back cornerback Jason Verrett, who made the Pro Bowl in 2015 but played in just five games over the last two seasons.
Everywhere else in the division, there are question marks, from the coaching staffs to the quarterbacks to both sides of the ball.
Many people incorrectly think that the Broncos are just a quarterback away from competing, and while Keenum is an upgrade, Denver also has problems at the perceived strength of the team, its defense.
The Broncos had the 22nd-ranked scoring defense last year and have traded away their best defensive back in Aqib Talib. The Denver offense will also have to replace 1,000-yard rusher C.J. Anderson, who was released and signed with Carolina.
The Chiefs will have a first-year starter at QB with Patrick Mahomes and will have to rebuild their gutted defense.
Veterans Tamba Hali, Marcus Peters and Derrick Johnson combined to make 11 Pro Bowls in red and white but were jettisoned this offseason for either younger players or players easier to manage in the case of Peters.
The Raiders and Jon Gruden will try to run a 1998 scheme in 2018, and seemingly every player they added this offseason was still in the league when Gruden’s first run as head coach ended in 2008.
The AFC West is there for the taking, and the Chargers have as good a shot as anyone to win the division. Perhaps Elway was employing some reverse psychology and just blowing smoke up the Chargers’ bolt to make them overconfident and susceptible to surprise defeats.
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