Now at the official halfway point of the 2006 NFL season, the one division that looks like it is going to be a barn burner down the stretch is the AFC West. Yes, the NFC East also looks like an interesting race, but now that the New York Giants have made it through the early part of what may have been the most brutal schedule in the league, I think they have the definite advantage to take the top spot in that division. This is not to say that Dallas and new wonderboy Tony Romo won’t give them a fight, but no doubt that right now the division title looks as if it will stay in the Big Apple.
Back to the AFC West. We have three teams that are going to be slugging it out for the right to be called champion at the end of the regular season, and three teams that are very different. Each has big question marks, and each has some scary talent that makes them contenders to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl in Miami in early February. right now each of the teams have played seven games, and the breakdown is rather even:
San Diego 5-2
Kansas City 4-3
The particular article will focus on the Big 3, as the Raiders are a team that has way too many holes to even come close to challenging any of these three teams. Oakland has won two straight, and I for one would not be shocked if it is the only two wins they get the entire season. Art Shell didn’t expect the problems he had when the accepted the job to come back to Oakland, and the entire franchise is going to have to look at itself if it is at some point going to become a contender again in the division.
On to the three teams that will contend – the Broncos have lead the division from the start, and now after losing Sunday at home to the Colts, find themselves in a tie for the lead with the Chargers. Denver’s defense, up until Sunday, had been on a roll, making plays as well as not allowing teams to crack the endzone. Then came Peyton Manning, and there went the Broncos defense. One game a season does not make, and you can bet that the beating the defense took Sunday will make the Broncos defenders more determined to get back to the form they had the first six games of the season, when they were allowing just over seven points a game.
The Denver offense seems to be where the bigger problems lie. Coach Mike Shannahan has flirted with the idea of inserting Jay Cuttler at quarterback for a struggling Jake Plummer, but has yet to pull the trigger. Plus the team continues to go back and forth at running back between Tatum Bell and Mike Bell. Sunday vs the Colts, it was Mike Bell who shined, going off for 136 yards on 15 carries. Up to that point, he was clearly the second back as Tatum had run for 585 yards going into Sunday. Against the Colts, Tatum Bell only had 27 yards on 13 carries. Look for Shannahan to continue to use both and go with the hot hand each week.
The Broncos schedule does them no favors the remainder of the year, starting with an AFC Championship game rematch this weekend in Pittsburgh. After a game November 12th in Oakland, the team then will host San Diego, head to Kansas City, host Seattle, then head to San Diego. They do wrap up with two of the last three games at Arizona and vs the 49’ers.
The Chargers also sit at 5-2, but are in trouble on defense with injuries and with the recent suspension of linebacker Shawne Merriman. The 2nd year LB was tied for the league lead with 8.5 sacks, but will sit the next four games as he was suspended for testing positive for a performance enhancing substance. Add to that the injuries to defensive end Igor Olshansky (knee) and linebacker Shaun Phillips (calf), the Chargers are scrambling a bit on D.
The offense is still high powered, and first year starter Phillip Rivers’ play at quarterback has made the decision to not resign Drew Brees in the offseason the right one. Rivers has thrown for 1536 yards and 10 touchdowns, with just three interceptions. With a 97.6 QB rating, his decision making has been strong, and if is able to maintain his play down the stretch he will be a key to the Chargers success. Another player that finally got it turned back up Sunday was RB LaDainian Tomlison, who had his first 100+ yard rushing day since week one. Despite that, he is still one of the top three most dangerous players in the league, and will continue to be the jump starter on the Chargers offense the second half of the season.
San Diego has a bit of an easier schedule the second half of the season, with the two huge games vs Denver, they also have what should be victories against Cleveland, Oakland, Buffalo, and Arizona. The Denver games, at home for Kansas City, and at Seattle will be the tougher games remaining for the Chargers.
The 4-3 Chiefs may be the darkhorse of the division, and if overlooked can walk away with the AFC West title. After early struggles that included scoring 16 points in their first two games, and a 45-7 thrashing at Pittsburgh, the Chiefs have righted the ship and have won two home shootouts over the Chargers and Seahawks the last two weeks. Considering the last three games at home the Cheifs have scored a total of 106 points, teams more than ever had better beware entering Arrowhead Stadium.
A lot of the Chiefs success can be linked back to quarterback Damon Huard, who has been superb in relief of an injured Trent Green. Huard has thrown eight TD’s and just one pick over his six starts, and his QB rating is 100.4. Even when Green is cleared to actually play, it may be in the teams best interest to consider Huard as their man. Another key has been Larry Johnson starting to turn it up again at the running back spot. After some early struggles, Johnson has rushed for 132 and 155 yards the last two weeks, putting up five touchdowns.
The defense has still allowed too many points, and too many yards on the ground at 112 per game. If the Chiefs are going to overcome the Chargers and Broncos in the long run, the defense is going to have to play better, and make more big plays. The last two weeks at home against the Chargers and Seahawks, they did make plays, and sure enough went 2-0 in the process. The next two weeks will be big challenges as they will play at St.Louis and at Miami Four of their last seven games are at home, including back to back weeks vs Oakland and then on Thanksgiving night a huge showdown with the Broncos.
So how will the West be won? Right now despite the injuries on defense I give the nod to the Chargers. Rivers has played much better than I thought he would for a first year starter, and with LT making plays, the Chargers have too much offense for Denver. With that said, I would not count the Chiefs out yet. I would leave Huard as the starter the rest of the season, and keep feeding the rock to Larry Johnson. If they can get that defense turned up like the last two weeks, they have a shot as well to be there at the end.