Had the Kansas City Chiefs made just one more play Sunday in Houston, they’d have a commanding lead in the AFC West. Even after Kansas City collapsed in the fourth quarter, it still has a comfortable lead and looks like the only team in the division capable of making a playoff run.
The Chiefs (3-2) have a strong running game and an improved, opportunistic defense. After winning a total of 10 games the past three seasons, Kansas City looks like it can be a contender for the rest of the season. Still, this week on "SportsCenter," astute NFL analyst and Super Bowl-winning quarterback Trent Dilfer said while he is impressed with the Chiefs, he doesn’t see them hanging on in the AFC West race.
Well, if the Chiefs don’t win the AFC West, which team will?
No other team in the division has showed it is ready to be a consistent winner. The Chiefs are looking down at Denver, Oakland and San Diego. The three teams are in a dead-heat for second place (and for last place) in the AFC West at 2-4.
After the division made strides last season -- the four teams combined for 30 wins, led by San Diego’s 13 victories -- the AFC West is looking like it is reverting to the pathetic days of 2008. That year, San Diego and Denver tied for the division lead at 8-8 and the four teams combined for just 23 wins.
Through Week 6, the AFC West is a combined 9-14. The division flat-lined in Week 6, going a combined 0-4. The sign of a good team is its ability to win away from home, but the AFC West is a combined 2-11 on the road. San Diego, the four-time division champion, is 0-4 on the road. The division received little love in this week’s ESPN.com NFL Power Rankings. The Chiefs are ranked 13th, while Denver (22), San Diego (24) and Oakland (28) are justifiably penalized for their poor records.
The AFC West has the longest Super Bowl drought in the NFL. The last time the division was represented in the Super Bowl was the 2002 season when Oakland was blown out by Tampa Bay. While it’s early, it seems like the streak may continue. Other than the feel-good story in Kansas City, the division has been a disappointment thus far in 2010.
Much more was expected from this division going into the season. The Chargers were expected to be a Super Bowl contender like last season when they went 13-3. The Broncos, who went 8-8 last season, were expected to hover around .500. There was big expectations by the Raiders, who told anyone who’d listen they were ready to make a playoff run. The fewest expectations were coming from Kansas City, which looked to be too young to make a run at the division crown.
There is plenty of season remaining and the four teams know it. Denver coach Josh McDaniels said he expects strong competition for the division title in the final 11 weeks of the regular season.
“I think there’s opportunity,” McDaniels said. “But I think it still comes down to what we are going to do from now until the end of the year. If we keep getting better and keep making progress in some of the areas we are not proficient in at this point, then I think you are going to have a better football team in November and December, which is our goal.”
Unless something drastically changes, it appears the AFC West -- which is seeing strong individual seasons by the likes of Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles and Tamba Hali, San Diego’s Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, Denver’s Kyle Orton and Brandon Lloyd and Oakland’s Darren McFadden -- will send just one team to the playoffs. There doesn’t appear to be any wild-card threats in this division for the fourth straight season.
While the division is tight, Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. doesn’t foresee a wild four-team race for the title.
“I think it’s a two-team race,” Williamson said. “I think it will come down to Kansas City and San Diego. I don’t think Denver or Oakland has enough to hang with those two teams. It comes down to San Diego and Kansas City, and I right now, I’d say the Chiefs will win it.”
The Chiefs have a lot going for themselves, even though they have lost back-to-back games at Indianapolis and Houston. The Chiefs, who were 3-0 and the final team in the NFL to lose this season, showed in their two losses that they can compete on both sides of the ball and that they aren’t intimidated by playing against high-quality competition on the road.
The Chiefs’ schedule over the final 11 weeks also is favorable, with only two 2009 playoff teams (San Diego and Arizona) left.
“I like what the Chiefs are doing,” Williamson said. “I think they’re in the driver’s seat.”
Williamson said he thinks the Raiders and Broncos have too many issues to make a serious run at the division title.
The Chargers shouldn’t be discounted because they’ve come back from a poor start before. Last year, Denver was 6-0 and the Chargers were 2-3 and the Chargers ended up winning the division title by five games.
Yet, the problem for San Diego is that it is playing very sloppily on offense and special teams, and the easy portion of its schedule is over. San Diego must try to turn around its fortunes with games against New England, Tennessee and Houston in the next three weeks. Those three teams are a combined 12-5.
“We know San Diego’s history, and they are talented, so they could come back,” Williamson said. “But things are not very good in the AFC West right now. Whatever happens, it has a feel of a division that will be one-and-done in the playoffs.”