Tuesday always feels like the most productive day of the week for me. Unlike Monday - I'm not still wishing it was the weekend and unlike Thursday or Friday - I'm not looking ahead to the weekend. And as we all know, Wednesday is just purgatory. So on this productive Tuesday, I decided to tackle one of the most difficult and unpredictable divisions in the NFL. The wild AFC West.
Since 2000 - the West has been a division of cycles. The Raiders took the division from 2000 to 2002. Each team won once from 2002 to 2005. Then the Chargers won 4-straight, followed by the Chiefs and then 5-straight for the Broncos. The Chiefs have claimed the last two, but each team has made the playoffs at least once since 2013. So this year - it again feels like any team could reach up and grab the title. But each team also has its share of questions heading into the season...
5) Is Case Keenum the guy for the Broncos? Case Keenum turned in an improbable season for the Minnesota Vikings last year. Keenum signed a one-year, $2 million deal to back up Sam Bradford. To no ones surprise, Bradford got hurt and missed a significant amount of time. Keenum stepped in and led the Vikings all the way to the NFC title game. The career back up threw for 3,547 yards, 22 touchdowns and just 7 interceptions. His ability to keep plays alive with his feet proved to be his most valuable asset. He cashed in on that season by signing a two-year, $36 million contract with Denver. John Elway and the Broncos are banking a lot on a guy that was just 9 and 15 as a starter before 2017. If Keenum can play like he did last year, the Broncos will be happy with their investment. But if 2017 proves to be an outlier season in a fairly pedestrian career - it may be a long year at Mile High.
4) Can the Chargers defense stop the run? When Anthony Lynn was hired as head coach in 2017, he knew revamping the defense was a top priority. One of his first moves was hiring Gus Bradley to take the 29th scoring defense in the league and turn it around. Bradley did a masterful job in his first season. The Chargers cut almost 10-points per game from their average and finished the year third in scoring defense. The biggest change came from their passing defense which ranked 3rd best in the NFL. But as good as LA was at stopping the air attacks, they were just as bad at stopping the run. They were the second worst team in the league giving up 131.1 yards per game. In year two, Lynn and Bradley will need a better showing from the big guys up front. If they can get that - the Chargers may boast one of the best defenses in the league and make their first playoff appearance since 2013.
3) Was hiring John Gruden the right call for the Raiders? John Gruden has spent the better part of the last decade in the broadcast booth. He hasn't coached since 2008 when he went 9 and 7 with the Tampa Bay Bucs. That didn't stop the Raiders from giving Chucky a 10-year, $100 million contract. Raider fans my love having Gruden back on the sidelines, but may also forget how average of a coach he really was. Gruden has a career .540 winning percentage and won a Super Bowl with a team he didn't build. The game has changed a lot in the last decade and Gruden will need to update his playbook if he hopes to live out his 10-year deal. This is a team that was a Derek Carr injury away from a deep playoff run in 2016, so the talent is there. We'll just have to see if the Gruden grinders can reach the high expectations awaiting them.
2) Can Patrick Mahomes lead the Chiefs to the Super Bowl? That's a lot to put on the shoulders of a 2nd-year quarterback. But those are the expectations in Kansas City. The Chiefs are so confident in Mahomes that they traded Alex Smith to the Washington Redskins. Smith won 50 regular season games in his five-years in KC, but was just 1 and 4 in the playoffs. Coach Andy Reid, who has never had much playoff success himself, needs Mahomes to take a giant leap in year two. The Texas Tech grad has played just one game in his pro career, but with weapons like Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, Travis Kelce and Kareem Hunt at his disposal, lack of experience won't be a good enough excuse for another early playoff exit.
1) Who claims the division title in 2018? I honesty think it's a toss up. Every team has the talent and ability to win with just as much potential to crash and burn. The Chiefs have won the division each of the last two years and have the offensive weapons to make it three. As of now - they have to be the favorites, but only by the slimmest of margins.
Who do you think will win the AFC West this year?
Wednesday - AFC North