The AFC West got a lot of hype this offseason. On top of the Chiefs, who have gone to 4 straight AFC Championship games and won 50 regular season games in those 4 seasons, the Raiders, Chargers, and Broncos all made major additions in free agency. The Broncos, commonly considered to be a quarterback away, traded for a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Russell Wilson. The Chargers already had a young stud quarterback, but made major additions to their subpar defense by signing cornerback J.C. Jackson and trading for pass rusher Khalil Mack. The Raiders suddenly find themselves as the team with the best worst quarterback in the NFL (i.e. or the quarterbacks who are the worst in their division, he’s the best) in Derek Carr, but added arguably the best receiver in the NFL in Davante Adams and a star pass rusher of their own in Chandler Jones.
This seems like the formula for a historically good division, but have the Chiefs’ rivals really closed the gap?
Los Angeles Chargers
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For as long as I can remember, the Chargers have been a perennial offseason favorite, but they always disappoint. For all the hype around Justin Herbert, his Chargers teams have managed to be painfully mediocre so far. He has more losses in his 2 seasons as a starter as Mahomes does in his 4. Sure, his defenses haven’t been great, but it’s not like Mahomes has been blessed with elite defenses either.
And Herbert himself has gotten a lot of hype, but statistically hasn’t been truly elite. Sure, his ANY/A+* has been a quite good 108 and 109 his first two seasons. But Derek Carr has exceeded that mark 3 times in his 8 seasons, so it’s not like he’s been some spectacular, sure-fire Hall of Famer. That means he’s going to need a good team around him if the Chargers want to pass the Chiefs.
*ANY/A+ is a passing metric from Pro Football Reference that’s similar to passer rating, but statistically better reflects actual quality of play. The + means it’s adjusted so that 100 is league average.
That wasn’t the case in 2021, as the Chargers defense was 29th in the NFL in points allowed and failed to make the playoffs despite only needing a tie against the Raiders in the last game of the season. Their major additions are obviously aimed at improving that weakness, but will they really be that much of an improvement?
Khalil Mack is not a sure thing. He will be going to Canton someday and has played well recently, but at 31 years old coming off a season ending foot injury, there is no guarantee that he’ll come in and dominate. He will likely be an improvement over Uchenna Nwosu, but will it be a significant upgrade?
J.C. Jackson has the opposite problem. He was one of the top corners in the NFL last year in his 4th ad final year of his rookie deal in New England, but was mostly mediocre before that. It’s not unheard of for a player to have one great year in a contract year, get paid, then never be heard from again. You also have to wonder how much of his play was due to playing under Bill Belichick, who is the greatest defensive coach of all time. If he’s so great, why did the Patriots not try harder to keep this supposed young stud?
Overall, the Chargers had a lot of space to close if they want to keep up with the Chiefs, but two guys might not be enough. Herbert himself will need to take a big step if the Chargers truly want to contend.
Las Vegas Raiders
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Unlike the Chargers, the Raiders actually made the playoffs last year. And you could argue their additions were more impressive, as Adams is arguably the best at his position and many consider Chandler Jones to be better than Khalil Mack at this point. Jones, however, is even older than Mack so could face a similar decline, and of course Adams put up huge numbers with Aaron Rodgers, who is quite a bit better than Derek Carr.
But the biggest problem with the Raiders is that they weren’t actually all that good last year. Despite their 10-7 record, they had a negative point differential due to their combined 89-23 deficit in 2 games against the Chiefs and a 32-13 drubbing at the hand of the Bengals. On the flip side, their only multi-score wins were relatively narrow 11, 10, and 9 point victories over the Eagles, Broncos, and Steelers respectively. Not to mention, they were 4-0 in overtime games (which you’d expect to regress to the mean). If the NFL didn’t have overtime (which is actually a real possibility in the future) the Raiders would have had a losing 6-7-4 record.
Point differential is one of the best predictors of future results. In every sport, analytics have consistently shown that point differential is better at predicting future outcomes than actual record. Even with some nice additions, it’s still possible (if not likely) that the Raiders have a worse record in 2023 than they did in 2022.
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If I had to pick one team that’s most likely to knock off the Chiefs in the AFC West, I’d have to pick the Broncos. While I had them rated the lowest in the most recent power rankings, They have much more potential to be scary good with Russell Wilson.
The problem, as I pointed out in those rankings, is that the Seahawks with Wilson really weren’t any better on offense than the Broncos with Bridgewater. I’ve always believed Bridgewater is criminally underrated, and Wilson was injured for most of last year, so I’m not all that shocked by it. But this should be very concerning for Broncos fans. For this trade to work out, their passing offense needs to dramatically improve. Even if Wilson is an upgrade, they’re not going to go very far if the improvement is minimal.