Print the shirts. Design the hats. The Chiefs will be the AFC West champs once again. Based on season win totals, the gap between the Chiefs and the next-best team in the division is as high as four games in some books, far and away the biggest gap in the NFL between projected first- and second-place teams. They are appropriately chalky at -400 to win the West and might still be a bargain at that high price. This would be the fifth straight division title for the Chiefs, piggybacking a run of six straight Broncos division championships from 2011-16. Peyton Manning won all five division titles in his Broncos tenure, all as favorites, right after a season in which the ’11 Broncos stunned bookmakers as they cashed in as 14-1 long shots.
My first instinct when analyzing any game or future field is to be a contrarian. Find an underdog or long shot that is live and make a case for why the favorite is vulnerable. Anyone can pick the Chiefs or describe why they will be good. My goal was to be open-minded and perhaps find another team to pick in the West. The division is more interesting when a non-obvious contender has reason to believe and, more importantly, a reason to be bet. But I simply couldn’t find an alternative.
In a season when Patrick Mahomes missed multiple games and was hobbled by injuries in others, the Chiefs ran and hid. They not only won the division by five games, they swept the rest of the division, going a perfect 6-0. They have a young quarterback who in two years as a starter has already won a regular-season MVP. He also owns a Super Bowl championship and a Super Bowl MVP, and if Dee Ford had lined up onside against the Patriots, he might have had two of those. The rest of the division combined does not possess a starting quarterback who has won a playoff game. Marcus Mariota won one in Tennessee but is not projected to start for the Raiders in Week 1.
The rest of the teams in the division have reason for optimism, but none show signs of greatness. The Raiders were 6-4 at one point last year and began to rewrite the narrative on the Khalil Mack trade, at which many had scoffed. The Chargers suffered some tough luck in losing nine games by one score or less and are only a year removed from a 12-win season and a playoff win in Baltimore. The Broncos also suffered more than their share of heartbreak but finished the season strong, and adding some firepower in the draft has made them everybody’s darling heading into the new season. Under the expanded playoff format, the West is the lone division that would not have had multiple postseason teams last season. Will this year be different?
Broncos to make the playoffs: Yes (+ 170). A great number for a team on the rise. Last year the Broncos led the Bears and Jaguars with three seconds left, led Indy with 20 seconds left and had a 20-0 second-half lead in Minnesota. They lost all four games. Yet a late-season surge left them a respectable 7-9. Most of their games were started by Brandon Allen or Joe Flacco, neither of whom is likely to ever start again in the NFL. Drew Lock started only five games but won four and still managed to throw nearly half the team’s touchdown passes. New offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur is coming off a forgettable two-year stint as Giants head coach. But before that, he was the offensive coordinator for the 13-3 Vikings, helping them reach an NFC title game in which they were 3.5-point favorites. He guided Case Keenum to a 22/7 TD/INT ratio, helping Keenum win a lot of games and make a lot of money. Arrow up for the Broncos.
Chiefs-Texans Week 1 Under 56.5. The 24-0 lead that was swiftly vanquished by the Chiefs is now infamous to Texans fans. A 51-31 drubbing was how the season ended at Arrowhead, and now the Texans return. Despite the 82 points posted that day, the game opened last January with a total of 49 before being driven up to 51. This 56.5 seems like an overreaction. A quick TD to open the game on a busted coverage, followed by a blocked punt, a fumbled kickoff, a muffed punt, a fake punt gone awry and a long kick return. Got all that? Fluky scoring and some really bad Texans defense shot this number way Over the total. I would have to imagine the Texans won’t try to play another full-court, fast-paced shootout with the Golden State Warriors and instead opt for a vintage Utah Jazz, Jerry Sloan-type half-court pace. Eight TDs and you still stay Under. Perhaps the lack of offseason prep will throw off the timing and synchronization of these offenses. Root for some punts and field goals, and take the Under.
Chiefs to win AFC championship: + 375. The Patriots’ streak of eight straight conference-title games finally ended in 2019 in the wild-card round. The common thread among those eight appearances? They never had to play in the wild-card round. A bye, then a home win from being a win from the Super Bowl. Postseason success was set up by regular-season dominance and consistency. The Chiefs are now in position to replicate that model. Bury everyone in the division and recharge the batteries in the first week of January while awaiting your opponent for Round 2. It’s not as easy this year, as my biggest gripe with the new format is not the extra playoff team but the somewhat unintended consequence of the No. 2 seed no longer getting a bye. But I give the Chiefs a leg up on the Ravens for the top seed, since they don’t have a Steelers-level team in their division to knock them around and fight them tooth and nail twice a year. Remarkably, only a handful of times has Mahomes not put up 30 points in his career as a starter, and here are the QBs who will try to keep up with him: Jarrett Stidham, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Teddy Bridgewater and Derek Carr, Tyrod Taylor and Drew Lock twice each. That’s 11 of the Chiefs’ 16 opponents who are bringing BB guns to a rifle range.
Place Raiders finish in the division: Fourth + 160. At 6-4, the Raiders were a great story as they flew east to play the Jets. What happened after that was who they really were. The Jets exposed the Raiders, manhandling them from start to finish and winning by 31 points as 3.5-point dogs. The three games after the 6-4 start revealed whom the Raiders really were. They got outscored 106-33, losing five of their last six, including at home to Jacksonville. The Broncos are on the rise. The Chargers have an easy schedule and are perhaps the lone beneficiary of empty stadiums, and despite being 5-11 they were outscored by only eight total points last year. Contrast that with the Raiders, who were bottom five in point differential, outscored by 106 points, despite a very misleading 7-9 record. The Raiders might be the worst team in the division, and it might not be very close.