Guest Post by Niles Pender of NFL Fan Appeal
As 2011 came to a close, all four teams seemed to be in similar positions, with the Chargers standing as the only team without a question mark at the quarterback position. That all changed when the Colts released Peyton Manning, though. Denver swooped in and signed the four-time MVP.
If Manning returns to his old form, his talent at the position combined with Denver's strong defensive and offensive units could give the Broncos an opportunity to run away with the division. Fans will get a chance to see how the Manning-led Broncos stack up against the NFL's elite this year, as Denver plays against the Steelers, Patriots, Saints and Ravens throughout the season.
The Kansas City Chiefs are widely expected to be the strongest competitor for the division crown. This offseason saw the team take a nucleus that already consisted of young talent with loads of potential and add some proven skill players. The acquisition with the most potential is easily Peyton Hillis. Although Hillis had a down year in 2011, he can provide a major lift to a Kansas City running game that was anemic in 2011. The addition of Kevin Boss and retention of wide receiver Dwayne Bowe will also help ensure that the quarterback has plenty of weapons to work with.
That said, quarterback is the biggest unresolved part of this Kansas City team. Matt Cassel has been decent enough to hold onto the starting position ever since he left New England after the 2009 season. With that said, he's going to be on a short leash, as the Chiefs have two very talented quarterbacks ready to go if he can't. Ability isn't so much the issue as durability is, so it will be interesting to see how the season plays out for Cassel and the rest of the team.
Even with most people expecting the Chiefs to be the next best team in the division after Denver, fans can't be too quick to discount the Chargers, either. They still have Philip Rivers, a quarterback who has proven that he can spread the ball around whether he's throwing to Vincent Jackson or Malcolm Floyd. Their defense, while not spectacular, is adequate enough to close out games if the offense is performing.
That means that in San Diego, the big hole is at running back. In the two seasons without Tomlinson, the team has tried to rely on Ryan Matthews as the every-down running back, but both years have seen him go down with injuries in some form or another. Mike Tolbert was a great backup, but he's now playing in Carolina. The team signed Ronnie Brown, a terrific third-down back, to spell Matthews. If both players stay healthy, the SD Chargers will excel. If they don't, then the offense will sputter. It's as simple as that.
The last team in the AFC West, the Oakland Raiders, are widely expected to take a step back. This is mainly due to poor management, such as squandering draft picks in the Carson Palmer trade. Oakland didn't pick until the fourth round this year, leaving them short on young talent for the new season. This, couple with the losses of Kamerion Wimbley, Michael Bush and Samson Satele, means that the Raiders will be struggling to stay relevant this season.
For fans of heated division rivalries, the AFC West is going to be a fun bunch of teams to watch. Denver's potential is only as limited as Peyton Manning is - if he's healthy, it's hard to imagine that Denver won't be in the Playoffs. At the same time, both the Chiefs and Chargers have enough firepower to compete strongly for the AFC West division title. 2012 will, without a doubt, be one of the most exciting seasons for the AFC West in some time.