AFC West Preview

HANDICAPPING NOTEBOOK

CHARGERS MAY SLEEPWALK
TO ANOTHER AFC WEST CROWN

by Mathew Hurley, Managing Editor

You really have to bend over backwards to create drama right now in the AFC West. Sure, there are interesting stories with every team. But, can anybody truly challenge the San Diego Chargers for first place this season?

Nobody challenged them last year, after Denver faded down the stretch. The Chargers won the group by five full games. As long as Philip Rivers stays healthy, they're very likely to keep posting victories in an era where holding is only called on the clear pulldowns. Rivers is lethal when given time. Nobody else in the AFC West has a lethal quarterback. Well, not the good kind of lethal anyway.

Kyle Orton (Denver) and Jason Campbell (Oakland) are conservative plodders. Matt Cassell (Kansas City) did well when he had a strong supporting cast in New England. Last year he was inconsistent at best, and horrible on third downs. None of those guys is going to win a shootout with Rivers unless the Chargers are having an off day.

That being said, the Chargers weren't as good as their 13-3 record made it seem last year (which became clear when they lost at home to the Jets in the playoffs). And, the young coaching blood in the division at least provides hope for a big surge forward from somebody. Let's review performance in key stats from 2009, then talk about what might be on tap this coming season.

2009 FINAL AFC WEST STANDINGS
San Diego.....13-3...+8 turnover differential....27th ranked schedule
Denver..........8-8...+7 turnover differential....19th ranked schedule
Oakland.......5-11...-13 turnover differential....12th ranked schedule
Kansas City...4-12...+1 turnover differential....23rd ranked schedule

If you focus on won-lost records, there's just not much to see here. Scoot over to strength of schedule though. San Diego went 13-3 against a very weak schedule (helped, obviously, by playing in THIS division!). Here's how the six AFC playoff teams ranked last year in strength of schedule:

NY Jets 4th
New England 6th
Baltimore 10th
Indianapolis 11th
Cincinnati 17th
San Diego 27th

The Jets kicked out the bottom two teams in successive weeks. Indianapolis had too much arsenal to be derailed in terms of the Super Bowl. San Diego played down to their strength of schedule rather than up to their 13-3 record that came with home field advantage and a bye.

If you're thinking of San Diego as an elite AFC superpower, that's probably overstating the case. They have a great quarterback. They're a threat to win the conference because of that and the perks they can get from playing in a soft division. They're not as good as their record, that's what you need to remember.

And, as we check some of the key indicator stats, you'll realize that the potent offense is about all they have going for them.

OFFENSIVE DRIVE POINTS PER GAME
San Diego 14.8
Denver 11.3
Kansas City 9.3
Oakland 6.4
NOTEBOOK: You regulars know these are points scored on drives of 60 yards or more. We believe this is the single best indicator stat in all of sports. No fluke points are counted from defense or special teams. You had to drive the field or make a big play to register in this category.

San Diego registered and registered often. They weren't a top five offense because a few teams made it up around 17 per game. Anything at 14 or better is clearly getting the job done. Philip Rivers moves the ball and puts points on the board. Even if you don't like his personality, give him credit for that.

Nobody else really mattered in the division offensively, which is why we've mostly been talking about the Chargers to this point. Denver looked like they were going to matter in the first half of the season. They couldn't keep it going. Kyle Orton isn't a gunslinger...which limits how much damage you can do unless your team has an elite defense. Is Denver going to get better than 11.3 this year? Hard to see them getting much better.

Kansas City was a disappointment considering the attention they were paying to their offense. Oakland was an embarrassment of historical standards given that scoring went up on long drives because of the liberalization of holding. You REALLY have to be incompetent to register a 6.4 in this stat in a high scoring year.

DRIVE POINTS ALLOWED PER GAME
Denver 10.9
San Diego 13.2
Oakland 14.1
Kansas City 16.3
NOTEBOOK: These are very poor numbers as a group considering the caliber of offenses in the division. Well, they're very poor even before you adjust for that! San Diego never had to face Philip Rivers, yet basically made everyone else look as good as Rivers in terms of driving the field. Kansas City was the worst in the AFC, and second worst in the NFL in this stat (St. Louis was at 16.6). The Chiefs basically made everyone they played look like Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. Oakland was awful on this side of the ball too. Do all the Jamarcus Russell jokes you want. The Raiders defense was vulnerable to the big play, and not anything to be proud of last year.

Only Denver held it's own, playing what could be called 'playoff caliber defense' considering that New England, Baltimore, Dallas, and Minnesota also registered in the 10-11 range. That and a soft offense will get you to 8-8.

OFFENSIVE 3RD DOWN PERCENTAGE
San Diego 44%
Denver 36%
Oakland 30%
Kansas City 27%
NOTEBOOK: Just abysmal once you get past San Diego. Oakland and Kansas City looked like they were in kindergarten. Denver should have done better than this considering that one of Orton's strengths is supposed to be game management. Even if you pencil in improvement for the bottom three...it's hard to see them catching San Diego from behind. It's not like Rivers is going to get dumber on big plays. He knows how to move the chains, and is still young enough to improve.

We've heard some pundits suggesting Kansas City is ready for a breakthrough season. That could happen. Just be aware that they're starting from 27% third down conversions on offense, and a 16.3 mark defensively in Drive Points. They've got a ways to go just to get back to respectability in a couple of areas that define quality, or the lack of quality very well.

DEFENSIVE 3RD DOWN PERCENTAGE
Oakland 36%
Denver 37%
Kansas City 38%
San Diego 40%
NOTEBOOK: A bit of a conundrum here. Were these defenses really this good? Or, did they pad their numbers with six divisional games against each other? San Diego grades out badly in our view because they never had to face Rivers, yet still couldn't get below 40%. San Diego actually finished fifth of the six AFC playoff teams last year in third down defense. But, the team behind them was Indianapolis. You can overcome softness in this stat with a great quarterback.

Let's give the group credit for showing up defensively on big downs...but we'll keep in mind that it wasn't a defining characteristic of the group in a meaningful way last season.

2010 AFC WEST OUTLOOK:
Until a surprise makes itself known, this is still San Diego's division to win in easy fashion. If Rivers gets hurt, all bets are off. Denver is 'capable' of making a move. Kansas City is 'capable' of getting better. Al Davis of Oakland says his current team reminds him of the Super Bowl champs led by Jim Plunkett. That's probably true. Davis has been out of touch for years, trying to build teams for the wrong era with an eye for body types that don't work any more. He very well could have, once again, built a team that would do very well in a long passed decade. Retire already!

Coming into 2010, this is one of the least compelling divisions in our view. There's certainly potential for business to pick up if one of the young lion head coaches can achieve a breakthrough. We'll wait until our indicator stats are suggesting it's happening before making any assumptions that it's going to happen.

That wraps up our look at the AFC West. Our eighth and final report will run tomorrow, focusing on the NFC West. Did we save the best for last? Well, it's the NFC West...obviously not! Heading East to West across the map has helped frontload the series with drama...saving some of the ugly teams until the very end. We've seen multiple projections suggesting San Francisco could win the NFC West with a 9-7 or 8-8 record. There are certainly some interesting stories in play though. Matt Leinart takes over the Arizona Cardinals offense. Sam Bradford will do that as a rookie for the St. Louis Rams. Come back tomorrow for the final piece to the 2010 NFL puzzle!

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The Chargers have been at the top of the heap for awhile now in the AFC West, and may hold that position for a few years to come. In the world of sports handicapping, JIM HURLEY HAS BEEN AT THE TOP OF THE HEAP FOR ALMOST 25 YEARS...AND HE'S AT THE PEAK OF HIS GAME RIGHT NOW!

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