The Kansas City Chiefs have won the AFC West for the past six seasons, the longest active divisional winning streak in the league after the Buffalo Bills usurped the New England Patriots in 2020. It’s something the other four teams in the division probably raged every season. since 2015.
But last year, the cracks began to show. The Chiefs reeled from the starting blocks and saw the precipice of not only letting the division go, but also missing the playoffs. We all know how that story ended: Kansas City won nine of its last 10 games of the season, including 5-0 against the division, and retook the crown.
However, it’s a brave new world in the wild, wild AFC West. The Los Angeles Chargers, Denver Broncos and Las Vegas Raiders made sure of that. Every day during the first week of NFL free agency (and the legal handling period), one of those teams made a blockbuster move to bolster their roster. The Broncos effectively lit up the game when they traded for Russell Wilson. The Chargers then traded for running back Khalil Mack. Los Angeles signed JC Jackson soon after, to which the Broncos responded by swooping in to steal Randy Gregory from Dallas.
The Raiders saved the biggest upset for last. After signing running back Chandler Jones, they traded two first-round picks to acquire All-Pro wide receiver Davante Adams and give Derek Carr arguably the best offensive weapon in the division.
In a matter of days, the AFC West went from Kansas City to losing in a legitimate race between the four teams. The Chiefs are still the betting favorites at +135 to win the division with BetMGM, but the Chargers (+270) and Broncos (+280) are no slouch anymore, and the Raiders’ +600 odds are no slouch either. bad. .
“Our division is incredible right now. We’re all chasing Kansas City,” Chargers general manager Tom Telesco told The Pat McAfee Show on March 18. “Denver makes a move on Russell Wilson. We make a move on Khalil Mack. The Raiders make a move on Davante Adams. Fortunately we signed JC Jackson. We’re all trying to keep up and go after Kansas City.”
AFC West is the best QB division in the NFL
This is a quarterback league, and the AFC West has the best collection of four in the NFL. Between Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, Derek Carr and now Wilson, the division has 17 Pro Bowls, two Super Bowl titles, three of the top five leaders in passing yards in 2021 and four of the top 14 in passer rating this season. past among its headlines. quarterbacks
“It’s an arms race, really, what everyone’s doing [in the division]” Broncos general manager George Paton said on March 18. “You look at all the teams and you look at all the quarterbacks. If you don’t have one, how are you going to compete? If you don’t have a running back, how are you going to go after the quarterback? If you don’t have the corners…how are you going to stop Davante Adams. There are weapons throughout the division.
When every team in his division was blocking his franchise quarterback, it made sense that the counterattack would be to find the player who could block him. That’s why every team in the division has signed, traded or extended a pass-rusher.
The trio of Mack, Gregory and Jones added 22.5 sacks to the division. Even shallow signings like defensive tackles Sebastian Joseph-Day and Austin Johnson to the Chargers, DJ Jones to the Broncos and Bilal Nichols to the Raiders added another 10.5 sacks. That’s not counting pass-rushers already in the division like Joey Bosa, Bradley Chubb, Chris Jones and the recently revamped Frank Clark and Maxx Crosby.
The proliferation of defensive standouts doesn’t end at the line. The Chargers recognized they needed to pair safety Derwin James with a cornerback, so they paid for Jackson. The Raiders also traded for cornerback Rock Ya-Sin, and the Chiefs added safety Justin Reid. Las Vegas is also reportedly interested in cornerback Stephon Gilmore.
And the quarterbacks? They got some new weapons. The Chargers already locked up their No. 2 receiver in Mike Williams earlier this offseason. The Raiders then went out and acquired Adams to give Carr a true No. 1 option alongside tight end Darren Waller, wide receiver Hunter Renfrow and running back Josh Jacobs.
The Chiefs added JuJu Smith-Schuster to give Mahomes a bona fide third option catcher. The Broncos didn’t bring in anyone new, but they already secured their young offensive staff with extensions for wide receivers Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick, as well as third-year wide receiver Jerry Jeudy and second-year running back Javonte Williams.
This is what made the AFC West better on paper
When the dust of all moves settled, the Broncos, Raiders and Chargers ranked first, second and fifth in Pro Football Focus’s offseason improvement index, respectively. All three got a Wins Above Replacement increase of +0.76, +0.62 and +0.41, respectively, too, while the Chiefs were largely unchanged at -0.02 WAR.
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The AFC West wasn’t the only division to improve. The entire conference is involved. The defending AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals upgraded their offensive line with three new starters. The Baltimore Ravens signed safety stallion Marcus Williams. The Buffalo Bills, the current favorite to win the Super Bowl at +650 with BetMGM, signed Von Miller to a six-year, $120 million deal ($51 million guaranteed). Even the Browns improved their receiver-quarterback situation by trading for Amari Cooper and acquiring and paying Deshaun Watson despite 22 sexual assault allegations and possible NFL suspension hanging over his head.
The AFC will be difficult to win. But you have to make the playoffs to have a chance. Nowhere will it be more difficult to do so than in the AFC West.
AFC West teams paid big bucks to compete
The Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus once said, “You must spend money to make money.” And, oh, the West spent money.
Denver allocated $99 million guaranteed between just Wilson, Gregory and Jones. Los Angeles split $135.3 million guaranteed between Mack, Jackson, Joseph-Day and Williams. Las Vegas further backed Brink’s truck, leaving $150.7 million guaranteed on Crosby and Adams alone.
But this is the NFL, and the best teams don’t sit on their money and watch the rest of the league grow. Half of the playoff teams in 2021, including the Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams and runner-up Bengals, finished in the bottom half of salary-cap space heading into the season and five playoff teams finished in the bottom nine, according to Spotrac.
The Broncos made it very clear to the division when they traded for Wilson that they were going to do everything in their power to compete. The Chargers and Raiders followed suit, while the Chiefs stood their ground and added a few complementary pieces to shore up some weak spots. Now all four teams will turn to the NFL draft, though the Broncos, Raiders and Chargers gave up premium picks for some of their moves, to fix some of the peripheral issues.
It all makes for the most interesting divisional race in the NFL. One that could also decide the winner of the AFC.