The Broncos have Peyton Manning. The Chiefs can’t possibly run into the injury woes they encountered last season, and they are a gritty group. The Raiders beat each of their division rivals on the road a season ago — and maybe, just maybe, this will be the year the Raiders cut down on the penalties.
These are all reasonable ways to go in the AFC West, but I think they are all looking up at San Diego when it is all said and done. Yes, the Chargers, those heartbreakers, the epitome of looking better on paper than on the field. A team that lost Vincent Jackson in free agency, and a club that didn’t make a coaching change after missing the postseason for the second consecutive year.
Nevertheless, something about these Chargers makes me want to get my wallet out. After years of being overvalued, the Chargers look like … a sleeper. A sleeper? Yes, a sleeper.
As always, when public perception is the topic of conversation, I turn toward the oddsmakers, for they are in the business of correctly gauging it. At Lucky’s Race and Sports Book in Nevada, the Chargers are the seventh choice to win the AFC, rating a 12-1 chance. As a point of reference, the Chargers were 12-1 at Lucky's to win the Super Bowl in March 2011.
On Lucky’s line, the Patriots (7-2), Broncos (6-1), Texans (6-1), Ravens (8-1), Steelers (9-1) and Jets (11-1) are rated as better chances to win the conference than San Diego. And logically, that’s where the Chargers fit in the AFC pecking order right now — behind a pack of other contenders who have shown more of late.
So why do I believe the Chargers can capture the division and are perhaps even capable of making an end-run toward the top of the conference? My reasons:
• They have a first-rate quarterback. Philip Rivers fits that bill. If a team is set at that position, you can forgive other flaws a little more easily.
• Ryan Mathews is a talented, three-down back with star potential. Durability will be the key for Mathews, who rushed for 1,091 yards and added another 455 yards — this despite missing a pair of games — in a Pro Bowl season in 2011.
• The WR corps can withstand the loss of Jackson. The trio of Malcom Floyd, ex-Saint Robert Meachem and Vincent Brown is a solid one, especially with a top-caliber QB at the controls. Also, TE Antonio Gates remains a playmaking threat.
• I have reservations about each of their West rivals. On his best, Manning makes the Broncos a serious contender, but he did not play in 2011, and he is working his way back from a neck injury. The Chiefs could have S Eric Berry, RB Jamaal Charles and TE Tony Moeaki all back in the lineup after each suffered an ACL tear last season, but that injury, while unfortunately not uncommon, is serious. Even if all of the Chiefs’ injured players return to top form, Kansas City could still be up against it in this division. Note that the Chiefs are just 5-7 against AFC West rivals the last two seasons, including a feeble 2-4 when it captured the division crown in 2010. The Raiders have a new head coach (former Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen), no draft picks until Round Three because of the Carson Palmer trade and a porous defense.
Of course, there are plenty of reasons not to like San Diego in the AFC West. The Chargers’ defense, though it did tighten up late in 2011 as San Diego made one of its belated late-season runs, does not shape up as a strength. The Chargers did change coordinators after the season, replacing Greg Manusky with John Pagano. San Diego's offensive line was shaky last season, and injuries at the skill positions hampered the Chargers at times.
Others will point to the Chargers’ lack of a coaching change as a negative. While a coaching change would not have surprised me after San Diego again disappointed in 2011, head coach Norv Turner has some positive attributes. Most obvious: he is a wonderful offensive coach. And not to be overlooked, his team played hard until the end last season, winning 4-of-5 games down the stretch.
One of those late-season wins was a 34-14 rout of Baltimore, a club that has won at least one playoff game in each of the last four seasons and came very close to winning the AFC title in January.
On that evening, San Diego made Baltimore look ordinary. That takes some doing. The Chargers can be that brilliant. Discount them at your peril. If you’re going to take a flyer on a club, you might as well take one on an outfit with a high-flying offense.