AFC West preview: Best bets for every team

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The VSiN pro football experts have been hard at work this summer, writing up team previews and predictions for all 32 teams, including their favorite individual season win total and College Football Playoff bets.

Here are the team previews and best bets for the AFC West:

Kansas City Chiefs

In his nine years in Kansas City, coach Andy Reid has averaged 11.4 wins in the regular season, only winning fewer than 10 games once. The Chiefs have won the AFC West six straight years. Despite that consistent track record, many handicappers are predicting a Chiefs decline in the division after wide receiver Tyreek Hill was traded to Miami for five draft picks. DraftKings lists Kansas City as the + 175 favorite to win arguably the toughest division in the NFL. The other three teams are closing a wide gap, but Reid still is king of the hill until he gets knocked off.

Offense: Patrick Mahomes passed for 37 touchdowns with 13 interceptions last season, the worst TD-to-INT ratio of his four years as a starter. His numbers were down even with Hill in the offense, so was that the beginning of a trend? Probably not. Instead of busting the salary cap to re-sign Hill, the Chiefs rebuilt their receiving corps by adding JuJu Smith-Schuster from Pittsburgh, Marquez Valdes-Scantling from Green Bay and Skyy Moore in the second round of the draft. Mahomes is more than happy to welcome back wideout Mecole Hardman Jr. and tight end Travis Kelce, who combined for 151 receptions. The Chiefs can run the ball when they need to with Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Ronald Jones II. Left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. anchors a line that ranks among the league’s best. An offense that ranked fourth in the league in scoring (28.2 PPG) might be more explosive, and Mahomes likely wants to show he can put up bigger numbers without Hill.

Defense: The need to rebuild the defense was addressed in the draft, with the Chiefs using five of their 10 picks on cornerbacks and safeties. Kansas City’s two first-rounders – cornerback Trent McDuffie from Washington and end George Karlaftis from Purdue – are expected to start immediately. Karlaftis joins Frank Clark and Chris Jones on a strong D-line. The pass defense ranked 27th in yards allowed and strong safety Tyrann Mathieu was allowed to walk away to New Orleans, so there will be doubts about this unit until some young players step up. The Chiefs allowed 36 points to Buffalo and 27 to Cincinnati in the playoffs. Without any guarantees the defense is improved, expect Kansas City to get into several high-scoring AFC West shootouts with Derek Carr, Justin Herbert and Russell Wilson.

Outlook: If there’s a knock against Reid, it’s his lack of postseason success going back to his 14 years in Philadelphia. Kansas City has reached the AFC title game four years in a row, but has one Super Bowl win to show for it. Reid has a 19-16 career record in the playoffs, and his team blew a 21-3 halftime lead against the Bengals in last season’s conference title game. Mahomes, who threw a career-high 50 touchdown passes in 2018, was not as sharp last season and deserves some blame for the team’s playoff flop. Mahomes got careless with the football and seemed to lose his edge, but his talk in training camp indicates he’s highly motivated to bounce back. After a 3-4 start, the Chiefs finished 12-5, including 5-1 in division play, and will be challenged to match those records against a more difficult schedule.

Kansas City opens with eight straight games against teams that finished above .500 a year ago, and that brutal stretch features road games against the Buccaneers, Cardinals, Colts and 49ers. Reid always finds a way to reach double digits in wins, and Mahomes is 50-13 as the starter, while never winning fewer than 11 games in a season. Bottom line: Bet Over 10.5 and force the Chargers, Broncos and Raiders to prove the gap has closed.

Pick: Over 10.5

Los Angeles Chargers

Few teams can tease bettors quite like the Chargers. Almost every year, it seems, many so-called sharps tout value in the Chargers to top their win total, take down the division and reach the Super Bowl. And most of that never happens. Los Angeles last won the AFC West in 2009 and a playoff game in 2008. But this is a new era – the Justin Herbert era – and everything is about to change, right? The Chargers are becoming a trendy pick to conquer Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs.

Offense: Herbert, the No. 6 pick in the 2020 draft, has started 32 games and posted some historic numbers. He holds records for passing yards (9,350) and passing touchdowns (69) in a player’s first two years in the NFL, while keeping his interception total (25) relatively low. But he has yet to appear in the playoffs, compiling a 15-17 record, and was on the wrong side of last season’s wild Week 18 game in Las Vegas, which the Raiders won 35-32 in overtime with a postseason spot on the line. Make no mistake, the Chargers did not come up short because of Herbert.

It’s the organization’s responsibility to avoid screwing this up with a legit franchise quarterback to build around, and credit general manager Tom Telesco for realizing as much and surrounding Herbert with weapons. Keenan Allen (106 receptions, 1,138 yards, six touchdowns) and Mike Williams (76 receptions, 1,146 yards, nine touchdowns) return after a highly productive year for each wideout. Running back Austin Ekeler also comes back after totaling 1,558 yards (911 rushing, 647 receiving). Telesco added veteran tight end Gerald Everett and drafted running back Isaiah Spiller from Texas A&M in the fourth round after taking guard Zion Johnson from Boston College in the Round 1. The line, anchored by left tackle Rashawn Slater and center Corey Linsley, looks like a top-10 unit. Herbert ranked second in the league in passing yards (5,014) and the Chargers ranked fifth in scoring (27.9 PPG) last season — it will be tough to top those numbers, but this offense should be even better.

Defense: Outside linebacker Khalil Mack and cornerback J.C. Jackson should solidify a defense that kept the Chargers home for the playoffs. Mack’s stay in Chicago was a disappointment, but Los Angeles coach Brandon Staley is planning on Mack and Joey Bosa teaming up to form a relentless pass rush. The Chargers ranked 30th in run defense and 29th in scoring while also ranking in the bottom half of the league in interceptions and sacks. Jackson, a major free-agent addition from New England, is an elite corner and strong safety Derwin James is among the league’s best at his position. The organization invested big money in this defense (five years, $82.5 million for Jackson; four years, $76.5 million for James) and it looks outstanding on paper. The results should show up if Bosa and Mack stay healthy.

Outlook: Staley makes most of his decisions based on advanced analytics and mathematical probabilities, so he’s viewed as a genius by some and a fool by the old-school critics. The Chargers converted more fourth-down plays (22) and more two-point conversions (seven) than any team in the league last season. Of course, some of Staley’s moves backfired, and he was largely to blame for a few ill-fated decisions that cost the team in the season-ending loss in Las Vegas. The truth is he’s an aggressive risk-taker who does more right than wrong, and he’s probably the right coach to help Herbert and the Chargers finally get to the next level. Still, it will be difficult to win 11 games in the NFL’s toughest division, and the Chargers really have only seven home games because they host the Rams on Jan. 1 and the defending Super Bowl champs will have the crowd advantage.

Pick: Under 10

Denver Broncos

After stumbling through five straight losing seasons and a couple of bad head-coaching hires — Vance Joseph (2017-18) and Vic Fangio (2019-21) — the Broncos are turning to Nathaniel Hackett to restore order on the sideline. Hackett, former offensive coordinator for the Packers, is not bringing Aaron Rodgers with him, but he is starting a new era with a Super Bowl-winning quarterback who plans to replicate what Peyton Manning did for his final act in Denver.

Offense: It’s an understatement to say there are high hopes for Russell Wilson, who led the Seahawks to a Super Bowl blowout of the Broncos in 2014. Wilson sulked his way out of Seattle, a year after Rodgers tried unsuccessfully to force his way out of Green Bay with his sights set on Denver. Wilson is a good bet to be the answer, yet at 33 years old, is he still the dynamic playmaker he was for 10 years with the Seahawks? He missed three games with a finger injury on his throwing hand last season, when the Seahawks went 6-8 in his starts. Wilson passed for 25 touchdowns with six interceptions, but he appeared overweight and slower while totaling a career-low 183 rushing yards.

Now he steps in behind a stronger Denver offensive line with two quality tight ends, three wide receivers (Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler) and two running backs (Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon III) with big-play ability. Gordon and Williams each rushed for more than 900 yards last season. Hackett will call plays for the Broncos, something he did not do for the Packers when coach Matt LaFleur handled those duties and Rodgers won two MVP awards. Hackett will give Wilson a lot of freedom to run the offense, and the Broncos should significantly improve last year’s scoring average (19.7 PPG). For those who enjoy dramatic storylines, Wilson will make his Denver debut on Monday, Sept. 12 at Seattle.

Defense: Fangio had an impressive track record as a defensive coordinator, and Denver ranked third in scoring defense (18.9 PPG) last year, but he could not solve game-management questions as a head coach. While the Broncos have had a playoff-quality defense, it was the offense that handcuffed the team. With outside linebackers Bradley Chubb and Randy Gregory, Denver should pack some punch with its pass rush. The run defense is solid up the middle with Dre’Mont Jones and D.J. Jones on the line in front of inside linebacker Josey Jewell, who is the definition of a blue-collar tough guy. The secondary has depth and talent – led by cornerback Patrick Surtain II and safeties Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson – and that will be imperative in a division that features high-powered passing attacks.

Outlook: Denver has been plagued by clumsy coaching and a broken quarterback carousel for the past five years. Wilson is the long-awaited sequel to Manning, who retired following a Super Bowl win in 2016. The post-Manning era has produced 11 different starting quarterbacks and zero playoff appearances. Manning compiled a 45-12 regular-season record as a four-year starter for the Broncos, who are 39-58 in the subsequent six years while finishing either third or last in the division five times. Denver made a bold but necessary move in March by trading five draft picks (two first-rounders) and three players to the Seahawks for Wilson. The schedule includes a few soft spots (Texans, Jets, Jaguars), yet there are no gimme putts inside the division, where it’s going to be extremely challenging for any team to attain 11 wins. For the Broncos to top their win total, Wilson would need to have an MVP-type year.

Pick: Under 10

Las Vegas Raiders

It’s rare when a 10-win team cleans house in the coaching staff and front office, but the Raiders experienced a unique year that included an abrupt resignation from coach Jon Gruden in October. Las Vegas owner Mark Davis tapped the New England organization to hire a new coach, Josh McDaniels, and general manager, Dave Ziegler. The offseason plan was a good one that helped the Raiders reel in two of the NFL’s most-wanted free agents. Las Vegas still has the lowest posted win total of the four teams in the division, so getting to double-digit wins again will be a grind.

Offense: Derek Carr is on the fringe of being ranked a top-10 quarterback in the league, yet he’s unanimously considered the worst of the four QBs in the division, so that says a lot about what the Raiders are up against with the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes, Chargers’ Justin Herbert and Broncos’ Russell Wilson as the opposition. McDaniels is implementing a new offense that will obviously feature wide receiver Davante Adams, the big free-agent catch from Green Bay. Adams made 123 receptions for 1,553 yards and 11 touchdowns last season as Aaron Rodgers’ top target. Adams picked the Raiders because of a desire to be reunited with Carr, his quarterback at Fresno State. Darren Waller is an elite tight end and a matchup problem for any defense. Hunter Renfrow is a do-it-all possession receiver who had 103 catches for 1,038 yards and nine touchdowns last season. There are some potential problems on the offensive line, although left tackle Kolton Miller is a solid starting point. The running back position is highlighted by Josh Jacobs and Kenyan Drake. After finishing 18th in the league in scoring (22.0 PPG), the Raiders — with new coordinator Mick Lombardi — are ready to make a major leap and should be a top-five scoring offense.

Defense: Chandler Jones, who tops the NFL with 107.5 sacks since 2012, arrives from Arizona via free agency. Jones will form a fearsome edge rushing tandem with Maxx Crosby, who had eight sacks and led the league with 82 quarterback pressures last season. Denzel Perryman, off a 154-tackle year, is a high-motor inside linebacker. The Raiders have some appealing options in the secondary — Trayvon Mullen and Rock Ya-Sim are solid corners — but the overall success of the defense will depend mostly on the pass rush delivering the pressure. Las Vegas ranked 26th in scoring defense (25.8 PPG) and paid for some personnel mistakes made by former general manager Mike Mayock. This unit should be better with Crosby and Jones leading the charge.

Outlook: There is a lot of excitement about the McDaniels-Carr combo, a year after Carr ranked fifth in the league with 4,804 passing yards. McDaniels last was a head coach from 2009 to 2010 with the Broncos, but he lacked a stable quarterback and lost 17 of 28 games before being fired. After spending the past decade under Bill Belichick, McDaniels should be wiser the second time around. He’s got a team capable of winning high-scoring shootouts and capable of dominating on the defensive front. The Raiders had a lot of close-game luck last season, going 4-0 in overtime games, and won 10 despite trailing in 15 of 17 games. A difference-maker was dead-eye kicker Daniel Carlson, who made five game-winning field goals and went 40-for-43 for the season.

Carr is a candidate to lead the NFL in passing yards (10-1 odds at DraftKings). McDaniels is a creative, motivated coach who helps make the Raiders a realistic long shot to win the division (+ 650). It’s a team with star power, scoring potential and a strong pash rush, so Over 8.5 wins is a reasonable wager.

Pick: Over 8.5

 

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