The AFC West is not what we thought it was. Here's how things have gone wrong for the hyped division
There are no guarantees in the NFL. Prime example: The AFC West.
Pegged almost universally as the best division in the NFL, the AFC West is failing to live up to the preseason hype while posting a collective 5-7 record through the season's first three weeks. By contrast, the NFC East (8-4) is off to a markedly better start.
This isn't to suggest that the NFC East is actually better than the AFC West. It's not. The sample size is small, and opponents matter. But the sluggish start by the much-hyped division is impossible to ignore. From the top down, each team has notable shortcomings. Projections placing three division teams in the playoffs are on shaky footing.
Some of the concerns are marginal. Others are glaring and threaten to derail seasons.
Kansas City Chiefs, 2-1: Tyreek Hill is missed, but no need to worry
Sunday's loss to the Indianapolis Colts was a shocker. The Chiefs generated just 17 points against a Colts team that entered the game winless in matchups with the Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars. Discord between Patrick Mahomes and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy spilled over for cameras to see.
Meanwhile, Tyreek Hill, who the Chiefs traded to the Dolphins in the offseason, is a difference-maker in Miami. The Dolphins' offense has blown wide open with Hill and second-year pro Jaylen Waddle catching passes from Tua Tagovailoa in a 3-0 start. Hill's 317 yards, two touchdowns and game-breaking ability sure would look nice in Kansas City.
The Chiefs have retooled their passing game around a lower-octane receiving corps, featuring newcomers JuJu Smith-Schuster, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and rookie Skyy Moore. None are going to take the top off a secondary like Hill. Neither will Mecole Hardman.
But the sky isn't falling in Kansas City. The Chiefs offense ranks seventh in yards per game (374) and fourth in points (29.3) through three weeks. That includes the outlier of the Colts loss. They'll be fine. This is still Patrick Mahomes' offense. Kansas City remains a safe bet to secure the division and lock up a high seed in the postseason. How they fare without Hill when they face, say, the Buffalo Bills is where the real concern lies.
Denver Broncos, 2-1: Is the offense really this bad?
With a strong defense in place, the Broncos were allegedly a quarterback and competent head coach away from contention. Enter Russell Wilson and Nathaniel Hackett. Thanks to the high-profile offseason additions, the Broncos entered 2022 pegged as a playoff team with title-contenting upside.
Three games in, and Denver's offense is arguably the biggest disappointment of this young NFL season. Hackett's been the picture of incompetence thanks to bumbling game management and a stagnant offense that ranks 31st in the league with 14.3 points per game. Wilson doesn't resemble the player that made nine Pro Bowls in Seattle and secured $165 million in guarantees this offseason. His ex-Seahawks backup Geno Smith has thoroughly outplayed him through three games. Are these problems the Broncos can fix?
Little through three weeks suggests a turnaround. Hackett hired help last week to lighten his game-management burden. It didn't translate to the scoreboard on Sunday, where the Broncos offense accounted for nine points in an 11-10 win over the San Francisco 49ers. That marks three-straight games of 16 points or fewer to open the season. Wilson flashed his upside by directing a go-ahead touchdown drive in the fourth quarter. The single drive didn't negate nine 3-and-outs by the Broncos offense, the most in a single game in Wilson's career.
The argument in favor of a turnaround is that it's early, and there's time for a newly formed unit to jell. Broncos fans are still waiting for actual progress. The real saving grace in Denver is a defense that's looked legitimately daunting while allowing 12 points per game. Denver fans can thank the unit for the 2-1 start. If the Broncos can pair it with an offense that's merely competent, they can continue to compete. But 14.3 points per game isn't going to cut it when the schedule brings the Chiefs, Rams, Ravens and Chargers.
Los Angeles Chargers, 1-2: Injuries threaten the season
Speaking of the Chargers. Attrition hits some teams worse than others every season. The Chargers are one of those teams in 2022.
A slew of injuries to key players has been the story so far for the Chargers, who are off to a disappointing 1-2 start. Most notable is to Justin Herbert, whose MVP hype took a shot when he fractured rib cartilage in a Week 2 loss to the Chiefs. But he's far from the only ailing Charger.
Pro Bowl receiver Keenan Allen has been sidelined since Week 1 with a hamstring injury. A lingering ankle injury after offseason surgery sidelined Pro Bowl cornerback J.C. Jackson in Weeks 1 and 3. A knee injury likewise landed center Corey Linsley on the inactive list for Sunday's loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Sunday brought more carnage. Pro Bowl pass rusher Joey Bosa suffered a groin injury that head coach Brandon Staley announced on Wednesday requires surgery. He'll land on injured reserve, though the Chargers hope to have him back during the season. Pro Bowl left tackle Rashawn Slater, however, won't return. He suffered a season-ending ruptured biceps tendon on Sunday. Not great news for a team with an ailing quarterback.
So what does this all mean? In the short run, it makes it difficult to evaluate the Chargers. A close loss on the road to the Chiefs isn't cause for concern. A 38-10 loss at home to the Jaguars while an ailing Herbert struggles is.
If the Chargers can survive the next few weeks as players with short-term injuries return, they can contend for a postseason berth. The schedule is favorable, with winnable games against the Texans, Cleveland Browns, Broncos, Seahawks and Atlanta Falcons upcoming. But losing Staley and Bosa long-term is a big blow. And more efforts like Sunday's 38-10 loss would doom the Chargers season before it really starts.
Las Vegas Raiders, 0-3: Start prepping for the draft
Where hope or better remains for the three teams at the top of this list, it's hard to make a case for the Raiders. An 0-3 start doesn't spell doom for a team's playoff hopes. It just puts it on life support. Since 1979 — the year the playoffs extended to 10 teams — just six teams have started 0-3 and made the postseason.
The odds are slightly better now that the playoffs invite 14 teams. But don't expect the Raiders to climb into contention as the only 0-3 team in a loaded AFC.
Las Vegas reset the wide receiver market by trading for, then signing Davante Adams to an extension worth $28 million per year, reuniting him with his college quarterback Derek Carr. The addition of Adams alongside Pro Bowl tight end Darren Waller was expected to elevate the Raiders offense into a top-tier unit. As was the addition of former Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels as head coach.
On defense, the addition of four-time Pro Bowl pass rusher Chandler Jones was likewise expected to boost a unit that allowed 25.5 points per game last season, good for 25th in the league. The team added depth on both sides of the ball in addition to the headline-grabbing transactions.
So far, neither unit has been very good. The Raiders rank 21st in the league in yards allowed and 17th in yards gained. While Hackett's made headlines with a pair of primetime clunkers, the Raiders' struggles have gone relatively unnoticed under McDaniels. But make no mistake, this is a hugely disappointing development for a team that loaded up during an offseason AFC West arms race.
An 0-3 start with a middling offense under McDaniels certainly isn't how owner Mark Davis envisioned moving on from the Jon Gruden debacle.