The AFC West is up for grabs with seven weeks remaining in the season.
Oakland (which currently holds the tiebreaker) and Kansas City are 5-4, San Diego is 4-5 and Denver is 3-6. Every team is in this race, especially considering there are several division games remaining. Oakland and Kansas City each have three games against division foes and San Diego and Denver, who play each other Monday night, have four games within the division remaining.
Who comes out on top could come down to which team runs the ball the best down the stretch. Kansas City and Oakland are atop the NFL in rushing. San Diego's ground game is improving in what has been a transition year. Denver has gone from being a premier running team to being the worst.
Here's a look at each team’s running game and what it has to do the rest of the way:
Where it stands: The Chiefs have the No. 1 running offense in the NFL. They are averaging 165.3 yards a game. Jamaal Charles has 760 yards and Thomas Jones has 573 yards. The Chiefs wear down defenses with Charles, a shifty game-breaker, and Jones, who pounds defenses. This is actually what Kansas City envisioned when it signed the veteran Jones after he was cut by the Jets.
What to expect: The Chiefs' running game was slowed some by Oakland in Week 9 and was held to 51 yards by Denver in a blowout loss. I don’t think this is cause for alarm. The Chiefs ran the ball well at times against the Raiders and because they fell behind 35-0 in the second quarter against Denver, the Chiefs had to abandon the run. The Chiefs are well aware that they are a team that wins on the ground. I expect them to stay committed to the run.
Fun fact: Charles leads the NFL with a 6.0 yards per carry average.
What they’re saying: “There’s no competition [between Jones and Charles],” Jones said. “We help each other get better. I’m here to show him how a veteran does it and he has a real future.”
Where it stands: Oakland is ranked No. 2 in the NFL in rushing, averaging 162.2 yards a game. A big reason why Oakland has won five games is its sophisticated run game. The offensive line gets a lot of credit for improving greatly. Of course, the big reason Oakland is succeeding on the ground is because third-year running back Darren McFadden is having a breakout season. McFadden is tied for seventh in the NFL with 757 rushing yards. McFadden has excelled running inside and outside, proving he is more than just a breakaway threat. According to ESPN Stats and Information, McFadden is leading the NFL with an average of 5.5 yards per carry when running up the middle. Michael Bush complements McFadden well. Bush has 324 yards and four touchdowns on the ground.
What to expect: If McFadden, who has missed two games with a hamstring injury, can stay healthy, I expect this run offense to be strong down the stretch. If McFadden gets hurt, Oakland will have to rely heavily on Bush. If McFadden finishes strong and Oakland wins the division, he could be in the NFL MVP conversation.
Fun fact: McFadden leads the NFL in per-game rushing average with 108.1 yards per game.
What they’re saying: “Oakland really impresses me on the ground,” Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said. “They will be in a lot of games because of that ground attack. The Raiders have some nice schemes and they are very dedicated to the run.”
Where it stands: The Chargers’ run game is a work in progress. It is better than it was last year in LaDainian Tomlinson's final season in San Diego. Last year, San Diego was ranked No. 31 on the ground. This year, the Chargers are averaging 107.8 yards on the ground and are ranked No. 16. San Diego has the No. 1 ranked passing game and the No. 1 overall offense. The run game is not hurting the Chargers, but 2010 No. 1 pick Ryan Mathews has been bothered by an ankle injury that has limited him to 87 carries. However, he is averaging 4.4 yards per carry. The physical Mike Tolbert and the elusive Darren Sproles give this ground game options.
What to expect: If Mathews can get healthly, I think this can be a dangerous running attack. The combination of Mathews, Tolbert and Sproles is a good one. San Diego’s passing game doesn’t need much help, but if this becomes a consistent running team, San Diego’s offense could be nearly unstoppable. Yes, Tomlinson is doing well with the Jets, but the Chargers’ run game appears better off with this new look. It was clear after last season that both the Chargers and Tomlinson needed to move on separately.
Fun fact: Mathews leads all rookie rushers with 382 yards.
What they’re saying: “Well, I wish [Mathews] was healthy, and I wish he didn’t fumble the ball, which everybody talks about but that just comes with the territory when you put the ball on the ground,” San Diego general manager A.J. Smith said in a radio interview. "But yeah, he is extremely talented. I think that was pretty obvious to us when he became a Charger, even in minicamp and in the games that he has played. But we would love for him to be just healthy the whole time. But I knew when he had the ankle early, that that could be a problem through the season and it looks like we are kind of just working our way through that right now. And he is working his way through it.”
Where it stands: The Broncos are ranked No. 32 in the NFL on the ground, averaging 76.8 yards a game. This running game is nothing like the rushing machine the Broncos were during the Mike Shanahan era. It didn’t seem to matter who was running the ball for the Broncos from 1995 to 2008. In Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme, the Broncos were the gold standard of NFL running games. Second-year Denver coach Josh McDaniels moved to a more traditional power-running scheme this season and it hasn’t worked well.
What to expect: There may be hope that Denver can start running the ball and give the NFL’s second-ranked passing offense some much-needed support. The Broncos ran for a season-high 154 yards against the Chiefs in Denver’s 49-29 upset win Sunday. The Broncos had more yards in the first quarter against the Chiefs than they had in five of their first eight games. Second-year running back Knowshon Moreno had 106 rushing yards. It was his first career 100-yard game. Denver’s offensive line was healthy for the first time, which resulted in a successful running attack. Now, there is legitimate hope that Denver's running game could be a positive for the rest of the season.
Fun fact: Denver 2008 draft picks Petyon Hillis of Cleveland (726 yards) and Ryan Torain of Washington (391) have more yards than 2009 No. 1 pick Moreno (358).
What they’re saying: “We only had one negative run all day,” McDaniels told reporters the day after the win over the Chiefs. “That’s really meaning you get the [running] back to the line of scrimmage without having a whole bunch of people to avoid. I think we did that for the most part. [Moreno] ran the ball well downhill, made some people miss at the second level and really, he kind of got into a rhythm, which was good for him and good for the running game. I think the linemen felt like they were in a rhythm too yesterday. We didn’t use that many schemes, we just tried to do a few things a little bit better than what we’ve done and I think yesterday, they did a good job of executing our game plan.”