The AFC West, like the NFC West, had 3 teams in playoff contention heading into the final week of the 2021 season. Unlike its NFC counterpart, though, the AFC West ended up with the Raiders and Chargers playing an incredibly compelling virtual play-in game to end the season, eventually sending Las Vegas and Kansas City into the playoffs as the division’s only two representatives. There has been a lot of change in the AFC West, but the quarterbacks are all the same but one (Russell Wilson replaces Teddy Bridgewater/Drew Lock in Denver).
Las Vegas has bolstered its passing game with the addition of Davante Adams, who is now reunited with former Fresno State teammate Derek Carr. In Kansas City, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Ronald Jones have all been added in an effort to mitigate the loss of Tyreek Hill to Miami. The Chargers’ offensive personnel has remained mostly the same, but Khalil Mack represents a significant addition on the defensive side of the ball.
The AFC West is projected to be the toughest division in the NFL this season, partially because every team in it has playoff aspirations and beyond. Mahomes, Carr, Herbert, and Wilson represent the unquestioned best group of QBs of any NFL division, and preseason win total projections have 3 of the division’s 4 teams projected to win 10 or more games.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
2021: 12-5 / 1st in AFC West / L, Conference Championship vs Bengals
Best Case Scenario: 13-4, Super Bowl Champions
With Patrick Mahomes at quarterback, the Chiefs will always be capable of winning the Super Bowl if things break their way. Tyreek Hill has left town in a trade to Miami, but Kansas City has done a better job than they’re being given credit for reloading at wide receiver heading into this season. Juju Smith-Schuster and Marques Valdes-Scantling aren’t going to replace Hill, but they compliment each other well. Juju provides Mahomes with a potentially elite possession receiving option, while Valdes-Scantling has an ability to take the top off the defense with speed that can at least act as a poor man’s Tyreek Hill. If rookie Skyy Moore becomes the player Andy Reid thinks he can be, Mahomes will still operate in an offense flush with weapons beyond just Travis Kelce. The offensive line returns in its entirety as well, and was an excellent unit last season.
The biggest question mark for Kansas City is their defense, but they don’t need to be even in the top-half of the league for the Chiefs to be capable of winning it all. We saw this late in the Divisional Round against Buffalo, when Kansas City’s defense couldn’t come close to stopping Josh Allen and Gabriel Davis. Patrick Mahomes found Travis Kelce over and over anyway against an elite Bills’ secondary, and willed the Chiefs onward. That isn’t to say that Kansas City hasn’t improved its defense, either – they drafted highly touted rookies Trent McDuffie and George Karlaftis and signed safety Justin Reid and linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr. If the pieces come together and the defense improves despite the loss of Tyrann Mathieu, the Chiefs will be a really tough out.
Worst Case Scenario: 9-8, Miss the Playoffs
While it’s nearly impossible to imagine the Chiefs being terrible, there are more factors working against them this year than in recent years past. The AFC west is one of those things, as a whole – it was a pretty deep division last year, but has only become tougher with the additions of players like Russell Wilson and Davante Adams. There will be no easy games in division, which makes up 35% of Kansas City’s schedule to begin with. Outside the division, they don’t get many breaks either – they play the entire NFC West, along with the Bengals, Buccaneers, Bills, Titans, and Colts. Warren Sharp’s 2022 Football Preview calls their schedule the league’s toughest, and I’m inclined to agree – the only games they’ll be truly massive favorites in are against Seattle, Jacksonville, and Houston.
The Chiefs also dealt with hardly any injuries last season when compared to the rest of the NFL, especially on the offensive line. There is a decent chance that changes, and they’ll need to make adjustments they didn’t have to make in 2021. Last season, Chiefs running backs averaged just 1.76 yards per attempt per Warren Sharp’s 2022 Football Preview – if the offensive line begins to falter, it’s difficult to imagine their run game providing Patrick Mahomes any help at all.
The defense remains a concern as well, and why I detailed above that its made additions, there have been multiple notable subtractions as well. Charvarius Ward and Tyrann Mathieu departed in free agency, along with the losses of Melvin Ingram, Anthony Hitchens, and Mike Hughes. The rest of their division is now much closer behind them, making the margin for error a lot smaller for Kansas City in 2022.
LAS VEGAS RAIDERS
2021: 10-7 / 2nd in AFC West / L, Wild Card Round @ Bengals
Best Case Scenario: 10-7, NFC West Champs, 1-2 Playoff Wins
The Raiders are nothing if not interesting, and the offensive talent they’ve assembled at skill positions is starting to look pretty staggering. Derek Carr is more than capable of making the throws needed to take advantage of Davante Adams’ talent, and Hunter Renfrow and Darren Waller remain elite pass catching options as well. It’s not the most talented running back room in the league, but we’ve seen flashes of how good Josh Jacobs can be and don’t yet know how good rookie Zamir White out of Georgia just might be.
Las Vegas has made notable additions on defense as well, and could look a lot better on that side of the ball if their young players continue to develop. They return Trayvon Mullen, Trevon Moehrig, and Jonathan Abram to a secondary that acquired former Colt Rock Ya-Sin as well. They added significantly to the front seven as well, with Chandler Jones, Bilal Nichols, and Jayon Brown joining budding star Maxx Crosby up front. Jones and Crosby make up a fearsome pair on the edges for teams to deal with, and the Raiders face a number of young quarterbacks late in the season when they’ll be needing wins:
Week 9: at Jacksonville (Trevor Lawrence)
Week 12: at Seattle (Drew Lock)
Week 15: vs New England (Mac Jones)
Week 16: at Pittsburgh (Kenny Pickett?)
Week 17: vs San Francisco (Trey Lance)
If the Raiders can get through the first portion of their schedule without the season disintegrating, they’ll have plenty of opportunities late to potentially make another playoff push. They’ve shown an ability to beat Los Angeles and Denver over the past few years – if they can steal a win over Kansas City as well, they’ll put themselves in a great position to be playing in January.
Worst Case Scenario: 4-13, Missing the Playoffs
The floor for the Raiders is by far the lowest in this division, and there are plenty of reasons to believe they might land there. Las Vegas was arguably an exceptionally lucky team last season, for one – per Warren Sharp’s 2022 Football Preview, the Raiders went 4-0 in overtime last season, 5-1 in games decided by a field goal or less, and 7-2 overall in one score games. They also trailed at one point in 15 of the 17 games on their schedule, needing frantic comebacks on many occasions to reach the 10-7 record they finished with.
This season’s schedule is more difficult than last year’s, too. They draw the NFC West instead of the NFC East, and play 9 on the road instead of 9 at home. Over the first 5 weeks of the season, Las Vegas will face Justin Herbert, Kyler Murray, Ryan Tannehill, Russell Wilson, and Patrick Mahomes. If the defense doesn’t come together quickly, the Raiders could easily start the season 1-4 or 0-5 before their week 6 bye.
It’s difficult to know what Josh McDaniels’ tenure in Las Vegas will look like, but his track record as a head coach isn’t good. One of the challenges he’ll face this season is his own offensive line, a unit that projects to be the worst in the division per Warren Sharp’s 2022 Football Preview. Outside of Kolton Miller, there aren’t any offensive linemen who grade particularly well on the roster and it’s an exceptionally young unit. Adding Davante Adams and Zamir White to Derek Carr’s chest of weapons is only worth its weight in that offensive line’s performance. McDaniels also has a secondary in Las Vegas that is much younger and comes with much lower expectations than what he had for most of his time in New England, a major adjustment to deal with while entering a division with these quarterbacks. If Las Vegas starts cold and can’t solve these issues, their unrelenting schedule could quickly land them in the dregs of the league.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
2021: 9-8, 3rd in AFC West, Missed Playoffs
Best Case Scenario: 13-4, Super Bowl Champions
The Chargers have one of the strongest rosters in football, period. Justin Herbert’s rookie deal and incredible early-career success have allowed them to spend freely, and they’ve certainly done so heading into 2022. Last season’s team had serious problems defending the run, and they’ve addressed that in spades this offseason with the signings of Sebastian Joseph-Day, Khalil Mack, and Austin Johnson to play alongside Joey Bosa. The secondary was already a relative strength in 2021, but made a huge addition as well with the signing of JC Jackson. There’s an argument to be made that two of the NFL’s strongest defenses now reside in Los Angeles.
The LA Chargers have consistently addressed their offensive line in recent years as well, which has now become a much stronger unit than it was when Justin Herbert first arrived in town. Rayshawn Slater broke out as one of the NFL’s best tackles his rookie year, and they just drafted another highly touted guard in Zion Johnson to play alongside center Corey Linsley. The ability of the rest of the offense is no secret to the league at this point – Justin Herbert is already at top-5 quarterback by many measures, Austin Ekeler continues to put up great numbers both rushing and receiving, and Keenan Allen and Mike Williams are one of the NFL’s better one-two punches at wide receiver. It’s a lethal roster from top to bottom.
Compared to Las Vegas and Kansas City, Los Angeles has big schedule advantages as well. They draw a particularly soft group outside of divisional play, facing the Falcons, Dolphins, and Browns in games not shared by the rest of the division. Of the 7 games they play before their bye, they’ll likely be favored to win all but 1 (at Kansas City, week 2).
Worst Case Scenario: 9-8, Miss the Playoffs
At this point, it’s hard to project a low floor for a team with the level of talent Los Angeles has. They’re capable of finishing 1st through 4th in the AFC West though simply because of how difficult the journey will be facing the other three as many times as they do. If for whatever reason they don’t take advantage of the soft schedule they have over the first half of the season, they’ll struggle to make up ground late against a rather difficult closing stretch. Six of their last nine games come against teams that made the playoffs last year, and 2 of the others (Indianapolis and Denver) are capable of doing so in 2022.
2021: 7-10 / 4th in AFC West / Missed Playoffs
Best Case Scenario: 12-5, Conference Championship Appearance
We saw in 2021 just how much better a team can look after acquiring an experienced quarterback without a track record of playoff success when the Rams acquired Matthew Stafford and won the Super Bowl. The Broncos are arguably taking that a step further, acquiring another impressive veteran in Russell Wilson who has the playoff pedigree Stafford didn’t when he arrived in Los Angeles. Wilson is now free of Pete Carroll’s old school shackles, and pairing with an offensive-minded head coach in Nathaniel Hackett could work really well. He inherits an already impressive receiving corps, and is better positioned to take advantage of the talent he’ll be throwing to (Jerry Jeudy, Courtland Sutton, etc) than Drew Lock or Teddy Bridgewater ever were. Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon give this offense a solid backfield tandem, and the offensive line ought to be a serviceable unit as well.
They’ve also made improvements to their defense, adding Randy Gregory, D.J. Jones, and K’wuan Williams to complement a defense that already boasts several playmakers in Bradley Chubb, Patrick Surtain II, Justin Simmons, and Kareem Jackson. The secondary should be quite good, and the unit as a whole could be elite if the investments they’ve made up front pan out.
Denver’s schedule works in their favor as well, at least relative to the rest of their division. Warren Sharp’s 2022 Football Preview ranks Denver’s schedule the 17th-most difficult in the NFL, and they’ve got a conveniently soft pair of games (at Seahawks, vs Texans) to get things started as an entirely new quarterback and coaching staff figure each other out. Of Denver’s first 8 games, they’ll be heavily favored in 4 of them and will have a respectable chance to win all of them. If they start 7-1 or 6-2 while Russell Wilson and Nathaniel Hackett are just finding their footing, who is to say they can’t stay hot enough to win the division down the stretch?
Worst Case Scenario: 7-10, Miss the Playoffs
There are two sides to it when an NFL team brings in as many new faces as Denver is for the 2022 season. With an entirely new coaching staff and quarterback, everyone in the building is having to learn new systems and adjust to new expectations. While I think it’ll be more likely net positive than negative, it cannot be ruled out that putting it all together may take time. Should that process result in early losses in games the Broncos are favored, they will really struggle to make up for it in the back of their schedule. Six of their final nine games are against 2021 playoff teams, and 2 of the other 3 are heavy favorites to make the playoffs in 2022 (Chargers, Ravens). Their final three games specifically will leave no room for error, as they’ll travel to Los Angeles to play the Rams, travel to Kansas City to play the Chiefs, and host the upstart Chargers.
With a quarterback of Russell Wilson’s age, there is always the risk of injury and/or decline as well. Wilson battled a wrist injury for much of 2021, and clearly wasn’t himself when he rushed back to return from it. I’m not a doctor, but it’s not difficult to imagine the potential for lingering issues or the impact those issues may have on a now 33-year old quarterback. There’s also a non-zero chance that Denver’s front 7 doesn’t see the improvement they’re hoping it will, and it was a group that struggled mightily last season after Von Miller’s departure. If Denver’s elite secondary is forced to help out more than they’d like to against the run, they suddenly become a more vulnerable unit in a division full of lethal quarterbacks.