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AFC West breakdown: Broncos raise the bar with Peyton Manning

September 3, 2012

If Peyton Manning still is Peyton Manning, the Broncos will make this year’s division race a lot less competitive. It’s easy to forget just how good Denver was around Tim Tebow, even when it was getting little in the passing game. After the reigning West champs, it’s up in the air. The Chargers and Chiefs might rebound, but both teams still have a lot to correct from last season. The Raiders, who at one point looked like they might win the division last year, will fall back as they break in a new coach. So Manning’s health is just one of the unknowns in this division.

The big questions

Will Peyton Manning meet his great expectations? There will be some who think, based on the investment in Manning and decision to look past just how far the team went with Tebow a season ago, that it’s Super Bowl or bust in Denver. But that would be unfair. For Manning, 2012 is just as much about showing he’s back at full strength as it is making a deep playoff run. For the Broncos, after an 8-8 year, they should look to better separate themselves from the division and return to the postseason.

Have changes lit a fire under the Chargers? The Chargers have seen their typical late-season surges fall short the past two seasons. Philip Rivers now has Manning and Carson Palmer to duel in the division—neither was part of it at this time last year. As a competitor coming off a disappointing individual season, expect some of Rivers’ best play in 2012. The near misses also caused San Diego to realize its defensive shortcomings and address them with a new 3-4 coordinator (John Pagano) and additional pieces (Jarret Johnson, Melvin Ingram) for it.

How will being healthy change the Chiefs? Running back Jamaal Charles and safety Eric Berry powered the Chiefs to a division title two seasons ago, then torn ACLs befell them in consecutive weeks to open the 2011 season. Charles, with his rushing and receiving abilities, is the lifeblood of the offense, and Berry’s dynamic playmaking against both run and pass was impossible to replace. The concern is how Matt Cassel, who was lost for the season after a November hand injury, will perform. He’ll be in a new system under coordinator Brian Daboll.

Can the Raiders stay out of the cellar? Don’t bet on it. The Broncos and Chargers brought in help, and the Chiefs will benefit from injury returns. The Raiders lost some experienced players for the sake of the salary cap and, at the same time, are welcoming a new coaching staff led by former Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen.

 Will this division be won on the ground again? The Broncos (No. 1) and Raiders (No. 7) were both top 10 rushing offenses last season. The season before, the Chiefs and Raiders finished 1-2 in the NFL. The quarterbacks in the West will get more attention because of Manning, but running backs will still play a big part in determining who wins it. Charles, Oakland’s Darren McFadden and San Diego’s Ryan Mathews are gifted all-around threats, but it was the Broncos’ older workhorse, Willis McGahee, who was most durable and most productive last season. And the presence of Manning figures to make the Broncos’ rushing offense more formidable.


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