Exchanges between Russell Wilson and Khalil Mack highlight AFC West fed up with Chiefs dominance
In 2021, every team at AFC West entered the season with high expectations. The Raiders seemed to be coming together, the Chargers had found their franchise quarterback in Justin Herbert, and the Broncos seemed to be comfortable with the core they had in place. Add to that the Chiefs starting with a 3-4 record, and it looked like it was time for someone else to step into the division.
Of course, with Patrick Mahomes, it’s never that simple.
The Chiefs have won nine of their last 10 games, eventually winning AFC West for the sixth consecutive year and tightening their grip on the division.
This offseason, the rest of the West seems fed up.
The Broncos and Chargers both made major moves this week, with former landing Russell Wilson in a blockbuster megadeal and the latter acquiring veteran passer Khalil Mack to bolster a defensive line that already features Joey Bosa and Jerry Tillery. The message is clear: we will no longer support it.
With these acquisitions, it’s worth taking a look at how AFC West compares, what their strengths and weaknesses are and which team has the advantage after all these moves.
1. Kansas City Chiefs
If you come to the king, you better not miss it. That’s the mantra in Kansas City, and the Chiefs are focused on keeping order in their own home. As teams continue to scramble to catch up, the Chiefs have four straight AFC Championship Game appearances, two Super Bowl appearances and a Super Bowl win. Mahomes is still the guy to catch, and the Chiefs know it — but teams across the division are making concerted efforts to catch up.
Strengths: The Chiefs still have an elite quarterback behind Mahomes, as well as a plethora of throwing weapons. Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman and Travis Kelce are all solid targets, and the Chiefs have already tagged Orlando Brown.
The defense also managed to bounce back last year, with the trade of Melvin Ingram proving beneficial. This defense, however, may have problems moving forward.
Weaknesses: The biggest issue for the Chiefs is that Ingram and Tyrann Mathieu will be free agents, along with Anthony Hitchens. This leaves holes at all three levels of defense that could be difficult to fill. With the Broncos landing Wilson, that could be problematic in an AFC West that should have good quarterback play throughout.
2. Los Angeles Chargers
Disappointment, your name is Chargers. The Chargers entered the last year with incredibly high expectations, but ultimately failed to meet them, finishing third in the division at 9-8 after a Week 17 loss to the Raiders left them. kept out of the playoffs. Justin Herbert is the quarterback of the future, that’s clear, but as he enters the third year of his rookie contract, that means payday is approaching.
The Chargers took a big step forward Thursday by acquiring Khalil Mack, but the reality is that even without the addition of Mack, they have a solid roster. The question now is can they put it all together and make a run not just against the Chiefs, but the AFC as a whole.
Strengths: Not only do the Chargers have their quarterback, they have their quarterback on a rookie contract. That’s a huge advantage in today’s NFL, and it makes sense that Los Angeles is trying to capitalize now before Herbert gets paid. The addition of Mack should help Bosa and Tillery down the line, and the secondary featuring Chris Harris and Derwin James makes the Chargers a force to be reckoned with — on paper.
Weaknesses: And therein lies the problem. The Chargers aren’t cursed, but they’re as close to it as any team in the league. At the end of each season, they always feel a little less than the sum of their parts. The pressure is on Brandon Staley early in his career as head coach to make the Chargers a complete team. As long as they’re on their roster, it still has to translate on the pitch.
3. Denver Broncos
The Broncos’ trade for Russell Wilson immediately improves their overall situation, but there are still major holes to fill in this team. Despite being second in the league in points allowed per game, the Broncos were 20th in defensive DVOA. They have money to spend in free agency, so picking up defensive talent to go along with Patrick Surtain – who already looks like one of the best young corners in the league – has to be a priority.
To the Broncos’ credit, offensively, Wilson can’t ask for much more. He’ll pitch to Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick, and Jerry Jeudy if Jeudy lives up to his potential. The Broncos also have a good running corps, which should serve Wilson well.
Strengths: The Broncos transformed QB from a position of need to what should be a position of strength. The addition of Nathaniel Hackett as head coach should help Denver, as he brings an offensive system that will allow Wilson to do more on the field. The key now is to make sure Wilson always plays smart, but that hasn’t been a problem for him throughout his career.
The wide receiving body is also a big strength for Denver, as Wilson should have throwing options. This will require a certain culture of chemistry, but it does not happen overnight.
Weaknesses: There’s a chance that this Broncos defense will end up being very good – a very good chance, in fact. But that doesn’t change the fact that it wasn’t a strength for the Broncos last year and that Ronald Darby was likely to chase the lead.
Add to that the Broncos ranked 31st in the league in rushing the passer, per PFF, and you have a lot of faith in Bradley Chubb’s return and production. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a player to fix a defense.
The good news for the Broncos, of course, is that they have free agency money to spend. This team still has questions at the moment, but could jump into the division again.
4. Las Vegas Adventurers
The Raiders finished last season 10-7, and it was a wild ride to get there.
Between the Jon Gruden debacle that led to Rich Bisaccia closing out the season as head coach and Henry Ruggs’ DUI that resulted in the death of a woman, the Raiders have faced a lot off the field. Last year. They’re no doubt hoping the dust settles now with Josh McDaniels at the helm, but in some ways it seems to be quieting down a bit. too many.
The Raiders have been content to rest on their laurels so far this offseason, but they have money to spend. It’s entirely possible that they’re waiting for free will to take their big steps to keep up.
Strengths: Say what you want about Derek Carr, but there’s something to be said for continuity. The locker room apparently likes Carr, and McDaniels has given no hint that he wants to leave the QB.
Vegas’ passing rush is also a force to be reckoned with, with Maxx Crosby becoming a household name last season. While the Raiders as a unit had their ups and downs defensively, Crosby was constantly in the backfield making plays. This gives the Raiders a solid foundation to work from next year as they continue to develop.
Weaknesses: The biggest weakness of this Raiders team is that they feel just…average. There aren’t a ton of standout or “wow” factors on either side of the ball, nor is there a player who feels like he should have the ball in his hands every time the crunch presents itself. While this is a difficult thing to gauge, it becomes especially evident when talking about playoff play.
The Raiders can overcome that, sure, but they’ll have to move that free agency around to make themselves a bit more complete. The reason they stand out right now is because the Broncos and Chargers act before free agency even begins. There’s a non-zero chance that we look at things next week in the division and they look completely different.