AFC West Is a One-Horse Race
by Nate Winkler (@natewinkler)
CHFF Post-Tropical Cyclone Tamer
We may look back on Week 8 as the turning point for every team in the AFC West. Two teams, Denver and Oakland, have reason for optimism and hope as the calendar turns to November and the cream begins to rise. The other two, Kansas City and San Diego, still have more questions than answers, which is unsettling with seven games in the books. Either way, the AFC West appears unwilling to part with it's designation as the worst division in the NFL.
The Denver Broncos put on a convincing performance in prime-time as they dominated the New Orleans Saints in all three phases of the game en route to a 34-14 victory. Denver has won three of it's last four games and is now a game up on Oakland and San Diego in the division. The Broncos continue to improve every week and will be hard to catch if they play at the level we saw Sunday night.
The San Diego Chargers, on the other hand, started out 3-1 but have lost three in a row after failing to get into the end zone in Cleveland, falling to the Browns 7-6 in terrible conditions Sunday. It's hard to remember a team that has fallen apart as quickly as these Chargers, and it appears unlikely that Norv Turner and his band of misfits will avoid the gallows this time.
Finally, The Oakland Raiders traveled to thier favorite home away from home, handing the Chiefs a 26-16 loss at the once feared Arrowhead Stadium. The Raiders landed knockout blows to replacement quarterback Brady Quinn and the Chiefs season in one fell swoop. Oakland hasn't lost to the Chiefs at Arrowhead since the 2006 season, going 6-0 there since while going 11-27 on the road against everyone else.
Here are 5 Things we Learned:
1. Peyton Manning has the Denver Broncos rising up the charts faster than the newest Justin Beiber single.
Ok, I'll admit that I've never heard an entire song by the puberty-stricken crooner, but my daughter just asked if she could take down her 'Beebs poster in her room and replace it with Eric Decker.
The Broncos shot up from sixth to second in our numbers-driven CHFF Quality Stats Power Rankings, behind only the Houston Texans. Despite being 0-3 agaisnt Quality Opponents, the Broncos are a surprisingly well-rounded team after seven games, landing at 8th or better in 12 of the 19 quality stats we track at CHFF and no worse than 20th in any category. (Defensive Success on 3rd Down) .
Make no bones about it, Manning is the reason for the turnaround. The Broncos quarterback sits less than a point behind Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers for highest Offensive Passer Rating in the NFL at 108.56 and the Broncos are third in the NFL with a Passer Rating Differential of 24.24, behind only the 6-1 Texans and the 7-0 Atlanta Falcons, who just happen to be two of the team to beat Manning's Broncos earlier this season.
2. September seems like eons ago for the San Diego Chargers.
Ahhh, remember those days? New York City wasn't under water, political ads were only on once per commercial break, and the San Diego Chargers were in first place in the AFC West. Less than a month later the landscape has changed dramatically. The Chargers have lost three games in a row in maddening fashion, falling to the New Orleans Saints, Denver Broncos, and Cleveland Browns, all of whom had losing records at the time. The Chargers now sit at 26th in our Quality Stats Power Rankings after being as high as 3rd (Week 3), but are still ahead of two other teams in the division.
San Diego surrendered 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to the Saints in Week 5, 35 unanswered in the second half to the Broncos in the worst collapse in franchise history in Week 6, then failed to reach the end zone against the Cleveland Browns in a one-point loss in Week 8. Throw in a stick-'em controversy and it's hard to envision anything but far-reaching change throughout the organization in the weeks and months ahead.
3. Just like that, the Brady Quinn era ended with a thud in Kansas City. (Hey Romeo, you're next.)
We almost feel bad for Quinn, who attempted just four passes against Oakland before leaving the game with a head injury. Quinn appeared to be finally getting his shot after never getting a fair one in Cleveland or Denver. His status is doubful for the Thursday night game against San Diego, and it appears that Matt Cassel has his job back by default for the time being.
The Chiefs haven't had a lead in regulation yet this season, a remarkable achievement in ineptitude. That's 28 quarters, or 420:00 minutes of football without being ahead. They rank dead last in our Scoreablility, Bendability, Real Quarterback Rating, Offensive Passer Rating, Passer Rating Differential, and the Relativity Index. They do have one of the league's most potent rushing attacks, coming in at 4th with 4.81 Rushing Yards/Attempt, but it's hard to lean on your running game when you, ahem, never have the lead.
The Scott Pioli era has reached critical mass and the hiring of Romeo Crennel after last season's strong finish was not the long-term move the Chiefs needed. Just like the Chargers, big changes appear to be on the horizon.
4. Peyton Manning is on a once in a generation hot-streak right now.
For the first time in his career, Manning has thrown for 300+ Yards and 3 or more touchdowns in four consecutive games. John Elway never did that. Neither did Dan Marino, Joe Montana, or Tom Brady, even in 2007. Drew Brees has done it once, but not in the same season (Week 15 of 2011 to Week 1 of this season.) In fact, the last quarterback to have such a streak in a single season was Steve Young in 1998, when he topped 300/3 five consecutive games to open that season. Peyton has thrown for 12 touchdowns and1,289 yards with just one interception over that span, giving him a 127.9 Passer Rating and his team a 3-1 record.
Although seven games is a small sample size, Peyton is making his case as the greatest quarterback to ever wear a Broncos uniform. That's blasphemy for those who are member of the Church of Elway, but give the Duke of Denver credit for his willingness to jeopardize his playing legacy in order to establish one in the front office. Manning would have to win a Super Bowl (or two) and play for at least three or four seasons before he'd ever be seen as more than a hired gun in Denver, but after just a half of a season he's already made the Broncos' faithful forget about their unlikely magic of a season ago.
5. The Oakland Raiders lack talent across the board but are playing inspired football instead of making excuses in the first year Post-Al.
Look to the South and East and you'll find division rivals that have more excuses and alibis than answers, but Dennis Allen's Raiders are living proof that attitude is everything. After a couple of early season stinkers the Raiders are starting to come together, taking the Atlanta Falcons to the brink in Week 6 then stringing together two victories in a row to put themselves in a tie for second place in the AFC West and squarely in the thick of the AFC Wild-Card race.
This team is still at least a year away from being a legitimate threat, but have improved their discipline as advertised with the 8th fewest penalties and 6th fewest penalty yards in the NFL. Carson Palmer isn't exactly lighting it up, but he's not costing the Raiders games this year, either. His Negative Pass Play Percentage of 6.05% ranks 6th in the NFL despite his being the 14th ranked QB in traditional Offensive Passer Rating.
The Raiders can't stop anyone, however, ranking 30th in Bendability at just 13.05 Yards per Point and forcing Negative Pass Plays on defense just 5.68% of the time. There will be more valleys than peaks on their road back to respectability but these Raiders are AFC punching bags no more.