AFC West Preview
PEYTON MANNING CHANGES DENVER'S DYNAMIC IN AFC WEST RACE
There were two training camps that got the bulk of early media attention right out of the gate. The talking heads were obsessed with Tim Tebow running around shirtless in New York...and with Peyton Manning throwing passes in Denver....the place where Tebow was running around like a madman on the field last year!
If Manning can regain anything resembling his form prior to neck surgery, then the Broncos become a very serious threat to win the AFC West. They tied for first with San Diego last year even with Tebow seemingly scrambling around blindfolded hoping for the best. But, that was with an 8-8 mark in a year of bedlam in the conference. It's probably going to take at least 10-6 to win it this year. A healthy Manning can take Denver to 10-6 and beyond.
Before we talk about this year, let's review the key indicator numbers from last year. Why did San Diego struggle to reach .500 given all of their talent? How did Oakland make it to 8-8 given their seeming LACK of talent?! And, how did Kansas City, with the stats of a 5-11 type team make a run at the division as well? We get our first Preseason look at an AFC West team tonight when San Diego hosts Green Bay on ESPN (at the same approximate time, Manning and Denver will be making their debut in Chicago). You must have last year in mind as you transition your handicapping to this year.
2011 FINAL AFC WEST STANDINGS
Denver: 8-8 (-12 turnovers, 10th rated schedule)
San Diego: 8-8 (-7 turnovers, 26th rated schedule)
Oakland: 8-8 (-4 turnovers, 20th rated schedule)
Kansas City: 7-9 (-2 turnovers, 23rd rated schedule)
Notebook: That tells you right there about the quality of play in this division. All four teams had negative turnover differentials even though they played six games apiece against each other, and even though three of the four teams played below average schedules. The good news if you're a Denver fan is that Manning is extremely likely to fix the turnover problem. He plays smart...and he prefers to throw the ball away rather than take high risks. So...if the Broncos can go 8-8 with a bad turnover differential against a top ten schedule without Manning...then there's reason for optimism about what's ahead in 2012.
If you're a San Diego fan, you REALLY have to wonder about the stagnation of the Norv Turner/Philip Rivers era. Things aren't moving forward. They're moving backward. Rivers has become too reckless. The Chargers were blessed with a very weak schedule last year. In the past...that would mean a 12-4 type record with big stats before getting embarrassed by a good team in the playoffs. San Diego kept getting embarrassed by bad teams.
Oakland fired their head coach even after losing out on a postseason spot only via tie-breaker. Kansas City has given the reigns to Romeo Crennel, who didn't have championship chops at prior stops. On the one hand, it's good that management realized the won-lost records were misleading. On the other, few teams respond to constant turmoil!
San Diego: 6.0
Kansas City: 4.9
Notebook: Only New England was better offensively on a per-play basis than San Diego and Oakland in the AFC. Those teams played wide open football...but they did it in sloppy fashion against weak schedules. Denver and Kansas City struggled with the ball all year. Tebow really didn't do much of anything unless it was the final minutes of a close game. Kansas City couldn't do that much.
It's probably all coming back to you now. San Diego and Oakland played a lot of high scoring shootouts that felt more like the AFL days last season. Denver and Kansas City were stylistically more like the old NFL of that time. Offense pays well. You need a defense of you want to win a championship!
YARDS-PER-PLAY ALLOWED DEFENSIVELY
Kansas City: 5.4
San Diego: 5.8
Notebook: Here's where San Diego and Oakland gave almost everything back because of that AFL style. Both were up at 6.0 on offense, but a very poor 5.8 on defense. They played shootouts. They played sloppily in shootouts vs. weak schedules. Denver and Kansas City were better on defense, and gave themselves fighting chances to pull games out of the fire. Tebow was able to do that to a degree that was historic but unsustainable. Kansas City has a chance to be relevant this year if they can figure out how to move the ball more consistently.
OFFENSIVE THIRD DOWN PERCENTAGE
San Diego: 49%
Kansas City: 36%
Notebook: This is where Rivers does show some signs of maturity. It's a great sign for his future that he's moving the chains at this level. Remember, last year was a season where third down conversions were lower than historical norms. Rivers led San Diego to the best mark in the whole AFC (better than Tom Brady and New England), and second best in the NFL (trailing only Drew Brees). Everybody else struggled. Oakland's productive offense came from big plays rather than moving the chains. Tebow and Denver literally had no idea how to move the chains. Manning will help tremendously in this regard.
DEFENSIVE THIRD DOWN PERCENTAGE
Kansas City: 34%
San Diego: 49%
Notebook: All the good Rivers was doing offensively at moving the chains was given back here by a ridiculously passive San Diego defense. You regulars know we respect defenses who can force punts. Denver and Kansas City deserve your respect for that. And that's another reason to be optimistic about Denver in this coming season. The defense is there. The offense is about to have a serious upgrade. San Diego must do the same kinds of things in reverse (fixing the defense instead of the offense) if they want to keep up.
Here's what the Las Vegas and offshore markets are projecting for regular season victories...
AFC West Regular Season Win Projections
San Diego 8.5 or 9
Denver 8.5 or 9
Kansas City 8
Well...there's not much respect there for either San Diego or Denver in terms of high end potential. The winner of the division only has to get to 10 victories to win their proposition. That suggests the markets want to see that Manning is back to his old self before pricing the Broncos that way. And, it also suggests that nobody has any faith in Norv Turner! We do think one of those teams will make it to 10 wins this year (at least). You'll have to be a part of our seasonal service to deduce who that's going to be.
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If you want to test the waters, you can purchase JIM HURLEY'S Thursday Night slate for a taste. Along with Green Bay/San Diego, we're also looking at Washington/Buffalo (and the debut of RGIII), New Orleans/New England (what a matchup!), Pittsburgh/Philadelphia (grudge battle), and Denver/Chicago (Peyton's Broncos debut). TV games the rest of the weekend include NY Jets/Cincinnati Friday on the NFL Network, Houston/Carolina Saturday on the NFL Network, St. Louis/Indianapolis Sunday on the NFL Network, and Dallas/Oakland Monday Night on ESPN.
Back with you Friday for Showcase Series baseball coverage of the Detroit Tigers/Texas Rangers battle. Our college football conference previews continue Saturday and Sunday with the Big 12 and Big East. We move back to NFL Divisional previews next Monday through Thursday with the four NFC Divisions (we'll look at the NFC East Monday to get you ready for the Cowboys game).
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