The AFC West is the only division in the NFL featuring three teams with at least eight wins this season: the Kansas City Chiefs, the Oakland Raiders, and the Denver Broncos. As of today, it would be very surprising if both wild card teams in the AFC playoff race didn't come out of the West. But before we figure that part out, the more interesting question will be: over the next two or three Sundays, who wins the race for the AFC West division championship?
Kansas City Chiefs (10-3)
With their thrilling victory over the Raiders on Thursday evening, the Chiefs not only completed a season-sweep of their current top rivals in the AFC West, but also leapfrogged them for first place in the division. The increasingly stout Kansas City defense held the Raiders to only 13 points, which was their second-lowest scoring output all season; coincidentally, the lowest scoring output by Oakland was also against
Kansas City Chiefs earlier this season.
It's not the sexiest style of play in the world, but the Chiefs are getting just enough offense from quarterback Alex Smith throwing the football to tight end Travis Kelce and rookie wide receiver Tyreek Hill (the latter of whom has scored five touchdowns in the last three games he's played in). With two of their last three games taking place at home (where Kansas City is 5-1 this year), the Chiefs could very well have a shot at finishing the season with a 13-3 record.
Oakland Raiders (10-3)
On the losing side of the game Friday night, the high-flying Raiders looked far from their best against Kansas City. Oakland quarterback Derek Carr, who many believed might be a dark horse MVP candidate, was limited to only 117 passing yards against the Chiefs defense; that's the second-lowest total in NFL history by any quarterback who threw 40 attempts in such a game. Carr and the Raiders did manage to cut the 21-3 lead that Kansas City held down to 21-13, but their final fourth-quarter rally attempt fell short. Even with the loss, the Raiders are the overwhelming favorite to secure the top wild card spot in the AFC playoffs (assuming they don't win the division), as long as they don't blow one of their next two games against teams that don't have a winning record (at San Diego, then home for Indianapolis).
Denver Broncos (8-5)
The defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos started the 2016 season with a 4-0 record, but have a .500 winning percentage over their last eight games (going 2-2 over their last four games as well). Their modus operandi since before the season even started hasn't really strayed: playing conservative offense that will (hopefully) score just enough points to win the game, and letting their star-studded defense suffocate opponents and force turnovers. Denver's offense produces the sixth-fewest yards per game of any team in the NFL; they're 23rd in rushing yards per game, and 24th in passing.
The fact that Denver's defense is ranked fifth in the NFL right now -- and #1 in passing defense -- isn't the slightest bit surprising to anyone who watched what they defense is capable of, during the 2015-2016 postseason. What's somewhat eyebrow-raising is the fact that Denver's rush defense is the fifth-worst in the NFL. Their next two games are against teams with running backs who are both ranked among the top five in the NFL in rushing yards this year (DeMarco Murray and LeGarette Blount), so it will be very interesting to see how the Broncos defense performs in that time period.
San Diego Chargers (5-8)
There was a brief moment, about a month ago, where it looked like the
San Diego Chargers could sneakily make a run at one of the wild card spots in the AFC. They had a 4-5 record through nine games, and were coming up on a point in their schedule where they had games against teams they had a reasonable chance of beating. Alas, they couldn't really do much from there, going 1-2 over their next three games, giving them a 5-7 record heading into the last quarter of the season.
San Diego's offense, yet again, has been one of the more dynamic units in the game. Quarterback Philip Rivers is still playing as well as ever, currently sitting at sixth place in yards thrown this season (he's on pace to throw for more than 4,400 yards this year), and second-year running back Melvin Gordon currently sits in fourth place among all running backs in rushing yards. The defense isn't necessarily to blame, either, as the Chargers have gotten Pro Bowl-caliber seasons from cornerback Casey Hayward and rookie defensive end Joey Bosa. But whether it's time for a coaching change, or whether the specter of leaving San Diego after this season is over has hung over them, the Chargers won't be playing in the postseason for the third year in a row.