2021 AFC West Preview

Trying to predict the future is sort of what my blog is all about. I have spent more time this year keeping up with the NFL action than any time before, whether it’s watching The Pat Mcafee Show, listening to the PFF Podcast, or just scanning Twitter for the day-to-day minutia.

I did this exercise last season — the one where I gave a few paragraphs to every team and tried to guess whether they would go over or under their projected win total. I enjoyed it, so I’m doing it again. Being a typical American and working five days a week makes me appreciate the time I have to myself, and I can’t help but spend the overwhelming majority of that time following the sports I love. Everything that follows is the culmination of how I have spent my February (since the Super Bowl) through June (a couple weeks before training camp starts), at least as it relates to my free time.

With that being said, I imagine it will be pretty easy to tell which teams I paid more attention to and which teams I didn’t have much to say about. I also imagine I’ll have a few instant regrets once I get done posting all the divisions, since that’s the nature of betting over/under props — theoretical coin flips — and since the NFL is so unpredictable. For purposes of this, two-plus months before the actual season starts, I consider it to be more of a snapshot of what I feel right this second. So take it all with a grain of salt.

Disclaimer: All over/under win totals are provided courtesy of Bovada.

Part I: NFC East

Part II: NFC North

Part III: NFC South

Part IV: NFC West

Part V: AFC East

Part VI: AFC North

Part VII: AFC South

Part VIII: AFC West

Common opponents: AFC North (Bengals, Browns, Ravens, Steelers), NFC East (Cowboys, Eagles, Football Team, Giants)

My AFC West record last year: 2 wins (Broncos, Chiefs), 2 losses (Chargers, Raiders)

1. Denver Broncos

2020 record: 5-11
2021 over (-135)/under (+105): 8.5 wins

Every year people seem to be in love with the Broncos as a dark horse in the AFC, and every year Denver finds a way to let those people down. They have a roster that is apparently stacked at nearly every position, so then why do they constantly put together sub-.500 seasons?

The answer is obvious: the Broncos have no quarterback. This offseason they traded for Teddy Bridgewater to give competition to Drew Lock — who is in his third year and has yet to prove he’s a capable starter — but if he ultimately wins the job (whether to start the year or sometime midseason), does that really make Denver markedly better?

This team bulked up in their secondary this offseason, adding former Bears first round pick CB Kyle Fuller in free agency, and they drafted Patrick Surtain II with the 9th overall pick in the NFL Draft. They also added veteran CB Ronald Darby from the Washington Football Team, who ought to be a solid upgrade over CB A.J. Bouye (who signed with the Panthers).

One big thing: If Drew Lock can’t make this offense work, then he can’t make any offense work. Even with an average QB the Broncos should be a playoff team, but without one they could find themselves in the basement of the AFC West for a second straight year. It might be a boring pick, but as long as Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater are Denver’s options at QB I will be rolling with them to go under 8.5 wins.

2. Kansas City Chiefs

2020 record: 14-2
2021 over (-115)/under (-115): 12.5 wins

In the 2018 AFC Championship Game the Chiefs lost in overtime to the Patriots, 37-31, and never possessed the ball in the final period. Tom Brady marched New England down the field, and RB Rex Burkhead punched it in the end zone for a walk off win. Two weeks later, Brady and the Patriots won their sixth Super Bowl.

Kansas City’s response that offseason was clear: behind Patrick Mahomes they had an all-world offense, but until they improved on the other side of the ball it didn’t much matter what the offense did. So the Chiefs fired their defensive coordinator, Bob Sutton, and replaced him with Steve Spagnuolo. They traded their first round pick to the Seahawks for EDGE Frank Clark, and signed safety Tyrann Mathieu in free agency. What followed in 2019 was Kansas City’s first Super Bowl win in 50 years.

The theme of the Chiefs’ 2020 campaign was “Run It Back,” and that’s what it looked like was going to happen for most of the year. They won 14 out of 15 games that Mahomes started (before losing Week 17 with all their backups), including a perfect 8-0 road record. In the playoffs, they beat the Browns (even after Mahomes got knocked out of the game in the 3rd quarter) and crushed the Bills 38-24 in the AFC Championship.

Fundamentally, however, Kansas City had huge problems. They lost left tackle Eric Fisher to a torn achilles in the AFC Championship, which was just another in a long line of O-line troubles the team experienced. Earlier in the year they lost guard Kelechi Osemele to two blown out knees, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz to a bad back, and had two players (guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardiff and tackle Lucas Niang) opt out because of COVID. By the time the Chiefs got blown out in the Super Bowl, they had just one starter remaining from Week 1.

I mention the transition from 2018 to 2019 — and improving the defense — because I think there’s a clear parallel to what they accomplished, or at least attempted to accomplish, during the 2021 offseason. They (again) traded their first round pick, this time to the Ravens, and this time for a left tackle (Orlando Brown Jr.). They signed LG Joe Thuney to a four-year, $80 million contract in free agency. And they added RG Kyle Long out of retirement, re-signed swing tackle Mike Remmers, and drafted former #1 high school prospect Trey Smith in the 6th round of the NFL Draft.

Ironically, for a team that has revolutionized the NFL by having weapons all around the offense, my biggest fear heading into the 2021 season is that the Chiefs don’t have enough weapons. Sure, WR Tyreek Hill and TE Travis Kelce are going to do their thing and be the best in the business at what they do. Patrick Mahomes is going to light it up behind center. But beyond that, do they expect Mecole Hardman to make a big jump in his third season? Is Demarcus Robinson suddenly going to be better than average? Can rookie 5th round pick Cornell Powell come in and replace some of Sammy Watkins’s production at X receiver? I don’t know the answers to these things.

One big thing: Is head coach Andy Reid going to stick to his guns and keep passing the ball, or will he utilize his much improved offensive line and use second-year RB Clyde Edwards-Elaire more frequently? I understand the temptation to keep using Mahomes and the passing attack — because if it ain’t broke, and all that — but at some point it needs to be realized that the more Patrick Mahomes drops back, the more he’s in harm’s way. I think it would be interesting if the rest of the league finally caught up to the Chiefs in terms of accumulating playmakers and passing the ball over and over, and all of a sudden Kansas City went the other way and started running it down the throats of the opposition and picking their spots in the passing game. I don’t know a lot, but I do feel pretty good going Chiefs over 12.5 wins; but there’s a chance that they get there a different way in 2021 than they have the last three seasons.

3. Las Vegas Raiders

2020 record: 8-8
2021 over (-115)/under (-115): 7 wins

The Raiders had one of the weirdest seasons in the NFL in 2020. They were the only team to beat the Chiefs in a game Patrick Mahomes started (and nearly did it twice), and they had quality wins against both the Saints and Browns. On the flip side, they had some of the worst losses: they got torched, 43-6, by the Falcons. They lost 26-25 to the Dolphins even though they had a commanding lead with like 30 seconds left. They lost in overtime to the Chargers, 31-28, in a game they should have won. And if it weren’t for a hail mary against a zero blitz they would have lost to (at the time) the winless Jets. To make it to 8-8, they went for two with two seconds left in the season to beat the Broncos 32-31.

I probably could have summed up “one of the weirdest seasons in the NFL” by mentioning that it’s the “Raiders,” or that “Jon Gruden” is their head coach, but what’s the fun in that? The 2020 Raiders had a few of the best wins in the league, and they balanced that by having a few of the worst losses. QB Derek Carr had perhaps the best season of his career, but the success of the offense (27.1 ppg, 10th-best in the NFL) got held back by the third-worst defense in terms of points allowed (29.7).

They followed one of the weirdest seasons by having on of the weirdest off-seasons. They basically replaced their entire offensive line (Trent Brown, Rodney Hudson, Gabe Brown) even though it was a relative strength. They allowed Nelson Agholor (Patriots) and oft-injured Tyrell Williams (Lions) to walk in free agency. And they signed a running back (Kenyon Drake) even though they have one of the better backs in the league (Josh Jacobs).

Long story short, the Raiders are clearly running their own program and don’t seem to give much of a shit how anyone else thinks about them. They used their first round pick on a run-blocking offensive lineman, Alex Leatherwood, even though most people had a mid- to late-second round grade on him. They spent the rest of their draft taking three safeties and a cornerback. Maybe more than anyone, they have built their team to beat the Chiefs. But with all they lost and all they got back, I don’t see how they are competitive with the rest of the AFC West, let alone the best team in the NFL.

One big thing: The Raiders are a polarizing team, and I don’t know what to do with them. It feels like I’m holding pocket aces on a dry Hold ‘Em board, and the Raiders just made a river bet three times over the pot. They either have my pocket aces completely dominated, or they are trying to bluff me off my hand. I’m going to bet with zero confidence under 7 wins, but I can’t honestly say I have any idea what Las Vegas is up to when it comes to football decision making.

4. Los Angeles Chargers

2020 record: 7-9
2021 over (-145)/under (+110): 9 wins

The Chargers have a Guy, and his name is Justin Herbert. They also have a new head coach (former Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley) and one of the best safeties in the NFL (Derwin James) returning from injury. They have been lauded for having one of the best offseason campaigns in the league — reconstructing their offensive line — and a very good draft. If we are buying stock, this is probably a good team to invest in.

If everyone on the defense is healthy, which is a big if when Joey Bosa and Derwin James are important characters, it should be a strong unit. The same can be said about an offense that returns WR Keenan Allen, WR Mike Williams, RB Austin Eckler, and is adding rookie WR Josh Palmer and veteran TE Jared Cook. I try to take the optimistic approach with everyone, but with a club like the Chargers it’s very easy to envision a playoff team.

But we can’t say that Los Angeles hasn’t done this to us before. They, like the Broncos, are often considered breakout candidates and nothing really happens. This is the best team the Chargers have fielded on paper since going 12-4 in 2018, but while that team was carried by a standout defense this year’s club has a lot higher ceiling because of the potential of Justin Herbert.

One big thing: Does Herbert cement himself as a top-5 quarterback, or does he regress from his outstanding 2020 season? I’m betting on the former and taking the Chargers to go over 9 wins, and possibly challenging the Chiefs late into the season for AFC West supremacy.

AFC West Prediction

  1. Chiefs: 14-3
  2. Chargers: 11-6
  3. Broncos: 7-10
  4. Raiders: 6-11