AFC West preview: Chargers' route wide open


Expert

By Pete Prisco
Tell Pete your opinion!CBSSports.com Senior Writer
Sep. 2, 2010
Training camp tour
Does any team have it easier than the San Diego Chargers?

If the Chargers don't win the AFC West, coach Norv Turner might be facing a firing squad. That's how much of a favorite they will be this season.

The Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs might all be improving, but they aren't in the same class with the Chargers. It's hard to imagine San Diego not winning this division, barring an injury that knocked out quarterback Philip Rivers.


Even if receiver Vincent Jackson and tackle Marcus McNeil, two players in contract disputes who haven't been around, don't show up, the Chargers still have way too much talent for the rest of the division.

It starts with Rivers, but it includes tight end Antonio Gates and rookie running back Ryan Mathews on offense. The defense has to get more from outside rusher Shawne Merriman, who is in a contract year again, if they are to improve.

The opening six games of the schedule are favorable for a team that has usually started slow under Turner. The Chargers play one playoff team from last season in the first six weeks, and that's Arizona at home in Week 4.

San Diego will start fast -- and should cruise to the division title.

The other three teams have issues. The Broncos have settled on Kyle Orton as their quarterback, and he has played pretty well in the preseason. But he is limited down the field. The Broncos have also been hit hard by injuries.

The Chiefs will be improved, but not by much. Quarterback Matt Cassel has to show me more before I think this team can push for a playoff spot.

Oakland is an interesting team. If Jason Campbell can play well, the Raiders will be competitive and, dare I say, maybe in the wild-card mix come the end of the season. This is a team that has talent, but must find a way to put it all together.

As it looks now, though, the Chargers ticket office might want to get a head start on printing those playoff tickets.

Either that, or Turner might want to look for a real-estate agent.

San Diego Chargers

Significant additions: RB Ryan Mathews, CB Donald Strickland, CB Nathan Vasher, S Darrell Stuckey and DT Cam Thomas.

Significant losses: RB LaDainian Tomlinson, CB Antonio Cromartie, DT Jamal Williams, ILB Tim Dobbins, WR Kassim Osgood.

Biggest offseason move: Letting Tomlinson go and drafting Mathews to take over as the No. 1 back. It's the right move, but risky.

Will go to the playoffs if ... Things go as planned. They are clearly the team to beat in this division. It's not even close.

Rookie to watch: Mathews. They traded up into the first round to get him for a reason. He has impressed during the preseason.

Predicted Order of Finish
1 Chargers 2009: 13-3 (1st AFC West)
Pts. Scored: 454 (4th overall)
Pts. Allowed: 320 (11th overall)
Off. Yds/G: 360.1 (10th overall)
Def. Yds/G: 327.0 (16th overall)
2 Raiders 2009: 5-11 (3rd AFC West)
Pts. Scored: 197 (31st overall)
Pts. Allowed: 379 (23rd overall)
Off. Yds/G: 266.1 (31st overall)
Def. Yds/G: 361.9 (26th overall)
3 Broncos 2009: 8-8 (2nd AFC West)
Pts. Scored: 326 (20th overall)
Pts. Allowed: 324 (12th overall)
Off. Yds/G: 341.4 (15th overall)
Def. Yds/G: 315.0 (7th overall)
4 Chiefs 2009: 4-12 (4th AFC West)
Pts. Scored: 294 (23rd overall)
Pts. Allowed: 424 (29th overall)
Off. Yds/G: 303.2 (25th overall)
Def. Yds/G: 388.2 (30th overall)
Overview: The only thing that can stop this team from being a playoff team is if Rivers goes down. He runs the show and there isn't much behind him. Other than that, expect them to cruise to the postseason. There is still a lot of talent on the roster. They do have to get Mathews going early to help take the pressure off the passing game. That should be doable. The defense has to get more from the pass rush, and they have to do a good job replacing Williams in the middle. They will do that by committee. The holdouts of receiver Jackson and tackle McNeil could impact the season some, but I say they're back in soon enough. The Chargers' season won't be about what they do in the regular season. It's about the playoffs. That's when the real story begins. Can they get to a Super Bowl?

Oakland Raiders

Significant additions: QB Jason Campbell, OLB Kamerion Wimbley, DE Quentin Groves, ILB Rolando McClain, DT Lamarr Houston, T Jared Veldheer and T Bruce Campbell. Significant losses: MLB Kirk Morrison, DE Greg Ellis, DT Gerard Warren and RB Justin Fargas.

Biggest offseason move: Getting Campbell to take over as the starting quarterback. He is clearly an upgrade over JaMarcus Russell. Who isn't?

Will go to the playoffs if ... Campbell shows more than he did in Washington. Don't laugh. It's possible.

Rookie to watch: McClain. They traded away starting linebacker Kirk Morrison because of McClain. He has the size and speed that Al Davis loves.

Overview: I like the addition of Campbell. If he can get protection, he has a chance to be a solid starter in Oakland. The key will be the running game behind him and the line in front of him. The Raiders have to protect better and running back Darren McFadden has to stay on the field. The defense has talent, starting with cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. He can take away the other team's best receiver. But this is a defense that needs a big year from Richard Seymour up front and McClain at linebacker. If Campbell can get it going, the Raiders might push for the second spot in the division. If not, coach Tom Cable will be gone after the season.

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