The NFL regular season is finally upon us. The first game comes Thursday, with a massive slate set for Sunday. That includes every AFC West franchise, four teams inching toward parity.
Some top teams are falling down a notch. The cellar-dwelling Raiders have improved and are inching toward the pack. These teams will beat each other up during the year, which will make for a strong, deep division without a top playoff seed or a No. 1 draft pick among them.
Below you’ll find projected overall records and how they were reached:
1. Denver Broncos 11-5
-- Maybe Peyton Manning has lost some speed in his fastball. Maybe head coach Gary Kubiak’s new offense will create some hiccups. Maybe the offensive line has some holes. They most certainly do, and likely will cause headaches over the course of 16 games. That doesn’t make the Broncos weak, not by any stretch. They have tons of talent on defense, and an aggressive scheme maestroed by coordinator Wade Phillips. C.J Anderson should help the running game and, although Manning may not be the same player he once was, he can put the ball in a playmaker’s hands. The Broncos are still the class of this division.
2. San Diego Chargers 9-7
-- The obvious take is that the Chargers will go as far as quarterback Philip Rivers takes them. The veteran can still sling it when given time, and has a promising rookie in running back Melvin Gordon to take some pressure off. The Chargers defense will be the real determining factor. They have a strong secondary featuring cornerback Brandon Flowers, safety Eric Weddle and a possible breakout star in cornerback Jason Verrett. Melvin Ingram has developed into a quality speed rusher. This team is flawed and a bit thin at certain spots, which will keep it huddled around .500.
3. Kansas City Chiefs 8-8
-- The Chiefs have a defensive superstar in Justin Houston and top quality in Tamba Hali and Eric Berry. News that Dontari Poe could be back soon is a real boon for what could be a strong defense. Jamaal Charles remains a talent running back, but downfield threat Jeremy Maclin can’t be used with conservative Alex Smith at quarterback. Lots of low scores in Chiefs, but an equal split with wins and losses.
4. Oakland Raiders 7-9
-- Khalil Mack is set to be a breakout star in the Raiders defensive front, which has greater depth than many expected at the start of training camp. The run defense should be strong and the pass rush has a chance to make an impact. That group must excel, because a young cornerback corps remains the team’s greatest question mark. The Raiders are vastly improved at receiver, highlighted by Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree. There are several issues that have to go right for these Raiders to improve by leaps and bounds. Running back Latavius Murray must stay healthy and be a featured back, and he needs better interior run blocking than we saw in the preseason. Quarterback Derek Carr needs to make strides in his second year and get the ball downfield. Young corners have to stop top-flight receivers littered throughout this year’s schedule. The Raiders are thin at several spots, most notably the offensive line, cornerback and running back. All these issues can create real record deviation. This team could push for .500 or stay in the NFL cellar depending on how they execute and handle adversity.