By MARK KNUDSON @MarkKnudson41 Special to WoodyPaige.com
It was just a few months ago when all the prognosticators were talking about the very real possibility that the AFC’s Western Division was going to produce not one, not two (as they did in 2016) but possibly three play-off teams come January. And none of them were the team that was the off season laughingstock – due to the ill-fated relocation of the franchise – the San D…err, Los Angeles Chargers.
Back in August, the Oakland Raiders were the consensus team to beat in the AFC West with serious Super Bowl aspirations. Quarterback Derek Carr was/is a superstar in waiting. The offensive line was on par with the very best in the NFL. The running game was powerful and the defense was picking up steam. The Raiders were back!
Right on their heels, their arch-rivals the Kansas City Chiefs. Also a play-off team the season before (KC won the AFC West in 2016 on a tie-breaker with Oakland) the Chiefs had made significant improvements. They added weapons on offense and were being coached by one of the best in the business, Andy Reid. Watch out for Kansas City, they said.
And despite questions at quarterback, we were advised not to sleep on the Denver Broncos. The 2015 Super Bowl champs still rolled out that all-world defense led by Von Miller. The offense would be much better coached by former Chargers head man Mike McCoy, and with a break or two, Denver could be right in the thick of things too, they said.
Well…about those pre-season predictions…
It’s important to remember that NFL predictions made in the summer are very rarely right on, and often time not even close. While it’s easy to speculate that New England is going to be good, it’s far harder to guess correctly that team’s that don’t have Tom Brady are going to ascend to the highest levels just because they’ve been on a good trajectory. The pickers don’t even get their Patriots picks right. Remember when those “experts” were predicting that the Patriots would go unbeaten – and then the Chiefs went to Foxborough for Week 1 and buried them?
That night, Alex Smith looked like an All-Pro as he carved up New England…and Brady looked washed up. In the weeks after that, Smith continued to play at an MVP level. Kansas City looked like they would easily live up to those pre-season expectations. The Chiefs won their first five games…then reality hit. Smith started to look like the Alex Smith we’ve all grown accustom to. Injuries started to factor in. The 6-5 Chiefs suddenly aren’t all that.
The Raiders were the bigger mystery. Nearly every key element from last season’s division winning team returned, including Carr and NFL Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack. They expected the defense to be improved, and if they could just hold their own on that side of the ball, the offense was going to be dynamic. Marshawn Lynch now in the backfield with Carr. Only it hasn’t meshed. Carr missed a couple of games, which hurt of course, but more than that is missing on a club that goes into December one game under .500 – but just a game back of the division leading Chiefs. On a positive note, Oakland does have the league’s best, most entertaining punter…so they’ve got that going for them.
And despite pre season hype (wishful thinking?) and even after getting off to a 2-0 start that included a bludgeoning of the Dallas Cowboys in Week 2, the Broncos have proven once again that a team needs a big time player at quarterback in order to be in the play-off mix. There’s an old adage that says “If you have two quarterbacks, you don’t have one.” Denver has started three different QB’s this season with less than stellar results. While the defense has been solid, they have not been up to their own standards a lot of the time, and the special teams have been a disaster. The Broncos are headed for a high draft pick.
Through all this division-wide disappointment, it’s the Chargers of all teams have been outplaying expectations. While playing their “home” games in front of sparse crowds, Anthony Lynn’s young team has won five of their past seven games after a 0-4 start. Phillip Rivers is having a banner season and the red-hot Chargers too are just one game out of the division lead – with a tilt against winless Cleveland on tap. Now a good number of the prognosticators have changed their tune, and are picking San D…err, Los Angeles to win the beleaguered division.
That should make those who are still pulling for the Chargers a little…make that A LOT… nervous.