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Inside NFL | How the AFC West will be won

Published: Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Updated: Wednesday, November 16, 2011 02:11

Darren McFadden

MCT

Raiders running back Darren McFadden is 13th in the league with 614 rushing yards, despite leaving early in their Week 7 loss with a foot injury.

If a casual fan were given the opportunity, before this season, to choose a division in which every single team would have a negative point−differential after Week 10, a resounding number of people would have chosen the lowly NFC West.

Alas, no one could have envisioned how extreme an impact first−year head coach Jim Harbaugh would have on the San Francisco 49ers, leading them to an 8−1 record and a point−differential of plus−95, third−best in the NFL. The counterpart to football's worst division in 2010, the AFC West, has done its best impression to turn into the league's laughingstock.

The meek denizens of the AFC West all hold point−differentials in the red; the only team with a winning record is the Oakland Raiders at 5−4. By rule, one team from the group of the Raiders, San Diego Chargers, Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos has to make the playoffs. The question remains, which team will host a first−round playoff game?

This offseason, the Chargers were a popular pick among football experts to not only run away with the AFC West division, but also challenge for a Super Bowl. Coming off a season in which quarterback Philip Rivers had the best statistical year of his career, throwing for 4,710 yards and 30 touchdowns and recording a stellar passer rating of 101.8, the stars were aligned for the Bolts to run away with the AFC West crown.

Rivers, however, has been underwhelming thus far; he's thrown 15 interceptions and lost six fumbles, both career highs, through just nine games. The biggest issues for the Chargers, though, have been the team's overall lack of concentration and proneness to errors in late−game situations that have cost them victories.

They have lost four straight games, and in each of those, a late turnover, a miscommunication between center and quarterback or a wide receiver not making an effort on a pass has been the cause.

Adding insult to injury from Thursday night's loss to the Raiders, the Chargers lost star left tackle Marcus McNeill to a neck injury. If McNeill misses extended time, San Diego's offensive line could be in trouble. McNeill's backup Brandyn Dombrowski allowed four sacks to linebacker Kamerion Wimbley. With only two games left on the schedule against sub−.500 teams, the Chargers have a steep hill to climb to return to the playoffs after missing out last season.

The Chiefs not only lost their first three games of the year but also their best defensive player in safety Eric Berry and top offensive weapon in running back Jamaal Charles. After being written off as playoff contenders and placed in the hunt for likely No. 1 draft pick Andrew Luck, the Chiefs stormed back to win four in a row and put themselves in contention for the AFC West title.

Unfortunately, after two straight disappointing defeats and the potential loss of quarterback Matt Cassel for the season, Kansas City is looking more and more like the team that started 0−3. With a murderer's row of teams on deck — including the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, Chicago Bears, New York Jets and Green Bay Packers — the Chiefs have little hope of repeating as AFC West champs.

This past weekend, Tim Tebow and the Broncos definitively answered the question: Can a team win a football game while completing only two passes? The answer, somehow, is yes, as Tebow has baptized the NFL with his new testament of run, run, run.

The Broncos ran the ball 55 times, versus just eight pass attempts in their 17−10 victory over the Chiefs. After back−to−back divisional victories, Tebow is 3−1 as a starter and has the Broncos at 4−5, just one game out of first. The Broncos rank second in the NFL with 158.2 rushing yards per game and showed that they can still move the ball on the ground, even after both Willis McGahee and Knowshon Moreno left last week's victory with injuries. While rooting for the Tebowmania is exciting week−in and week−out, the Broncos need to throw the ball more efficiently if they are to be taken seriously as playoff contenders.

The Raiders, sitting atop the west, are the division's most balanced team. As the only squad with two victories outside of the division against opponents with winning records, the Raiders are also the most battle−tested so far. While the Chiefs and Broncos have overcome injuries and personnel changes, the Raiders have had to replace both their quarterback and their Pro Bowl running back, not to mention rotating wide receivers every week.

For all the flack that Oakland received for trading away two first−round draft picks for quarterback Carson Palmer, he played admirably Thursday night in San Diego and showed flashes of the All−Pro passer he once was. If Palmer maintains this level of play, he is an upgrade over Jason Campbell.

Additionally, the Raiders haven't missed a beat without Darren McFadden. Michael Bush, the league's best backup running back, is averaging 4.5 yards per carry and carrying the offense. With McFadden's return on the horizon and the easiest schedule remaining of all the AFC West teams, the Raiders are in prime position to take the division title, even if they end up with just eight or nine wins.

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