AFC West predictions this year are all over the map. Correction: are all tightly bunched in a small corner of the map.
We're going with the Raiders.
All that kept Oakland from finishing 9-7 and winning the division last season was an inexplicable late-game meltdown at home in Week 15 against the Detroit Lions.
Yes, their roster is thinner now but Oakland's new, dramatically smarter philosophies effectively remove Raiders players from their schematic straitjackets.
LAST SEASON: 8-8, no playoffs
REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: New, better way of doing things. There was a time when owner/GM Al Davis (RIP) just won, baby, but that was decades ago. New head coach Dennis Allen is a defensive architect and disciplinarian. The talent is thin, but exists mostly at the right spots, including QB (Carson Palmer, with an off-season here under his belt) and RB (Darren McFadden). Days of under-achieving recklessness in the wrong schemes are over.
REASONS FOR PESSIMISM: Beware of injuries -- the Raiders have no depth ... Palmer still throws those occasional what-was-he-thinking? drive-killers ... No more Michael Bush puts the running burden primarily on McFadden. Can he handle the extra load? ... Too many drastic changes too soon, perhaps.
SNARKY QUESTION: When Raiders cornerbacks actually start playing zone coverages (Davis insisted on man), will that trigger the Big One along the San Andreas?
PREDICTION: 9-7. As defensive coordinator in Denver last year, Allen instantly turned around what had been by far the NFL's worst defence in 2010. No reason he can't do something approaching that with the entire Raiders team.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
LAST SEASON: 7-9, no playoffs
REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: A really good running game just got better (presuming starter Jamaal Charles is healthy), with the FA signing of bruiser Peyton Hillis ... QB Matt Cassel can only get better under a new offensive co-ordinator ... Dwayne Bowe and Jon Baldwin provide effective targets ... New head coach Romeo Crennel kept things together on an interim basis down the stretch last year, and has applied the right salve to an inflamed locker room.
REASONS FOR PESSIMISM: The Chiefs' stout defence lost one of its two shutdown corners (Brandon Lloyd, to Dallas), but Brandon Flowers returns ... Still no kind of effective pass rush in Crennel's bend-but-don't-sack defence ... Is Cassel really a $43M QB? Many think he's a bust already.
SNARKY QUESTION: If you think Cassel can't cut it, would you ever want to give the ball to the backups -- journeyman disappointment Brady Quinn, or soph project Ricky Stanzi?
PREDICTION: 9-7. No reason the Chiefs can't take the division. Presuming Charles is healthy again, it's up to Cassel.
LAST SEASON: 8-8, division champ
REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: Is Peyton Manning a huge upgrade at QB? Over Tebow? Ya think?! ... The team has installed Manning's Indy offence down to a T, as expected ... There should be enough talent at TE (Jacob Tamme, Joel Dreesen) and WR (Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas, Andre Caldwell) for Peyton ... OLB Von Miller is back after a great rookie year of terrorizing opposing QBs.
REASONS FOR PESSIMISM: The architect of the D's incredible 2011 turnaround, defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, is now the Raiders' head coach. And key players are gone from that defence, too ... If this offence is pure Peyton Colts, then starting RB Willie McGahee is no Edgerrin James. Rookie Ronnie Hillman might be, but he's raw.
SNARKY QUESTION: Has Elway hired a team orthopaedic surgeon yet?
PREDICTION: 8-8. Most who predict the Broncos will win the division are presuming Manning is the old Manning, fully healed. We're not yet convinced. He's 36 and hasn't played in 20 months.
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
LAST SEASON: 8-8, no playoffs
REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: Philip Rivers is back at QB, in a familiar system, with talent and experience around him ... Maybe a new defensive coordinator (John Pagano) will dial up a few more blitzes and create more havoc in opposing backfields.
REASONS FOR PESSIMISM: Robert Meachem (in) is no Vincent Jackson (out) at WR ... TE Antonio Gates is ancient ... Chargers have gone from two good RBs, to one, to none to start the season. Mike Tolbert bolted the Bolts for the Titans, and Ryan Mathews broke his clavicle in camp and is out at least for Game 1 ... New schemes can improve only so much on a defence bereft of many playmakers at all three levels.
SNARKY QUESTION: When's the month-long swoon this year -- early, mid-season, or late?
PREDICTION: 7-9. No head coach and GM are on the hot seat as much as Norv Turner and A.J. Smith. Critics will be merciless at the first sniff of doom, or lost season momentum. Which usually snowballs. Even in Southern California.