In 2013, the AFC West accounted for half of the teams in the AFC playoff picture. Thus far in 2014, the same three teams are in the hunt to re-appear in post season play, but the order has yet to be determined. Let’s take a look at how one of the NFL’s toughest divisions has looked through the first-half of play.
Denver Broncos (7-2)
Overall Grade: A-
Offense: One year after one of the greatest passing seasons in the history of the NFL, Peyton Manning is back at work getting it done again in 2014. Maybe not quite on pace to break his own record of 55 passing touchdowns in a season, Manning is still leading the NFL in touchdown passes with 29. The 17-year veteran also ranks 3rd in the league in yards (2,912), 2nd in yards per game (324), and 3rd for yards per attempt (8.25).
Over the off-season, the Broncos signed free-agent wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders after Eric Decker packed his bags to play for the New York Jets. Sanders has been everything and more for the Broncos, setting career highs in nearly every statistical category a receiver can have. Yet, Sanders still does not lead the team in any categories, as wide receiver Demaryius Thomas has continued to prove that he is one of the best the NFL has to offer. Thomas is second in the NFL in receiving yards with 1,002 and also second in receptions with 65.
Manning has continued to find success with his tight end Julius Thomas as well. In five fewer games than in 2013, Thomas has already tied his touchdown total from a year ago, with 12 scores on the season (most in the NFL).
The Broncos said goodbye to their 1,000 yard rusher Knowshon Moreno in the off-season, and featured Montee Ball as the new starter. Ball played in only the first four games before injuring his groin against the Arizona Cardinals in week five. Replacing Ball was a barrage of backs, starting with Ronnie Hillman who made his way back onto the field after fumbling problems got his playing time erased last season. Hillman was a spark plug for the Broncos backfield, rushing for 60 or more yards in four consecutive games, including two 100 yard games. Hillman last week injured his foot and could miss a few games. CJ Anderson took over the first team reps against the Oakland Raiders last week and totaled 153 total yards, including a 53 yard touchdown catch.
The Broncos beefed up a secondary that struggled in 2013. They added free agents: Aqib Talib and T.J Ward and used their 31st overall pick in the draft to take corner back Bradley Roby out of Ohio State. So far there defensive ranks are related to their record.
Currently, the Broncos are the number one rush defense in the NFL, giving up an average of 67 yards per game. This could be swayed in the Broncos favor because most of the time they are winning by so much, the offense abandons the run.
They also rank 19th overall against the pass, mostly for the same reason; opposing teams have to abandon the run to catch up.
Also in the defensive backfield, cornerback Chris Harris Jr. is starting to make a name for himself as a lockdown corner. The former Kansas Jayhawk has the team lead with 12 passes defended, and has a pair of interceptions this season.
Looking ahead for the Broncos, as long as they can duplicate their first half, they won’t have any problems winning the AFC West for the third consecutive year. Denver will have two division games on the road against the Chiefs and Chargers, as well as a Monday Night road matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Kansas City Chiefs (6-3)
Overall Grade: B
Offense: Quarterback Alex Smith has been the game manager we’ve all come to expect form him. Smith has only thrown for 1,869 yards, but has kept the ball safe. Smith has only thrown one interception in the last eight games while throwing 10 touchdowns. The ground game of the Chiefs has been the offenses bread and butter, as superstar Jamaal Charles continues to put up good numbers on the ground, scoring a touchdown in five of the last six games.
When Charles went down early in the season and missed a lot of time, backup Knile Davis produced in a big way, averaging 106 yards on the ground in three consecutive starts while adding three touchdowns.
Through the air, Dwayne Bowe has been the Chiefs leading receiver, catching 39 passes for just under 500 yards. In the red zone, tight end Travis Kelce has been reliable, catching four touchdowns.
On defense, Justin Houston has been fantastic at getting after the quarterback. Already, he has racked up 12 sacks on a defense that is ranked seventh in the NFL and first in the league against the pass.
Since starting 0-2, the Chiefs have been one of, if not the hottest team in the NFL, winning six of their last seven games. Looking ahead, five of the last seven games for Kansas City will be against teams with a winning record, and it will start with a matchup this Sunday with the defending super-bowl champion Seattle Seahawks.
San Diego Chargers (5-4)
Overall Grade: B-
Offense: Quarterback Phillip Rivers was an early MVP candidate, as he threw 20 touchdowns to just five interceptions in his first eight games. Now, his name is being thrown to the side after an embarrassing 37-0 loss to the Miami Dolphins where he was held to just 12 completions and was intercepted three times. Despite the loss, Rivers has been able to go to his long-time tight end Antonio Gates, who has nine touchdowns already this season.
2nd year standout receiver Keenan Allen leads the team in receptions (47), but it has been fellow wide out Malcom Floyd who has averaged 18.9 yards per reception and leads the team with 530 receiving yards.
The Chargers backfield hopes to get healthy in the upcoming weeks. Injuries have killed the backfield as Danny Woodhead was put on season ending IR back in week three, Donald Brown missed three games before playing in a limited role against the Dolphins, and starting running back Ryan Mathews is set to return for the first time since week two. With all the injuries, it made space for rookie running back Branden Oliver to come in and have back-to-back 100 yard rushing games and keep this rushing attack alive.
On defense, the Chargers were stout in the first five games, only allowing 13 points per game. The previous five games have been a different story, as the San Diego defense has given up an average of 30 points per game. They currently rank 10th against the pass and 17th against the run but those numbers don’t justify how poorly the defense has been as of late.
If the Chargers want a playoff repeat, they will have to start strong in their second part of the season. They will begin with back-to-back games against teams with sub .500 records (Raiders, St. Louis Rams) and then will face five consecutive opponents with winning records.
Oakland Raiders (0-9)
Overall Grade: D-
Offense: Owning the leagues worst record and following the footsteps of the 2008 Detroit Lions, the Raiders offense has struggled under the direction of a rookie quarterback (like the Jaguars). This rookie is Derek Carr and he hasn’t been that bad this season. Carr has thrown for just under 2,000 yards with 13 touchdowns and nine interceptions to his credit. Carr has had to do a lot by himself with the lack of running game. Darren McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drew are the feature backs in Oakland, and wow this duo could be deadly if this was 2009.
McFadden and Jones-Drew make up an Oakland offense ranked dead last in rushing yards per game. McFadden hasn’t been awful, he has 372 yards on 105 carries (3.5), but Jones Drew has just been stuffed at the line, covering just 64 yards on 29 carries all season (2.2).
The Raiders brought in former Packer receiver James Jones to help out the receiving corps, and to his credit, has led the way with 47 receptions for 463 yards and three scores.
There’s not a lot to say about the 21st ranked Oakland defense, except that 17-year veteran Charles Woodson, who leads the team with two interceptions, straight up came out and said that the team sucks.
For Oakland, you’re 0-9, you fired your coach, you have a rookie quarterback at the helm; just go out and win a game. Oakland has some notable games so far this season. They went to Foxboro and lost to the New England Patriots by just a 16-9 mark, and then went on the road against the Seattle Seahawks and their 12th man and lost by just six points, 30-24.
I don’t think Oakland is the worst team in the NFL, but their chances of getting the no.1 overall draft pick in next years’ draft looks pretty good. The Raiders upcoming schedule doesn’t look favorable as they only play one sub. 500 team (St. Louis Rams), but hey, maybe they can play spoiler in one of their three remaining division games.
Offensive MVP of the First Half: DEN, QB Peyton Manning
Peyton is Peyton, and any fool will tell you he is the MVP of this division and maybe of the entire NFL. Manning has the Broncos in first place in the AFC West and is in position to repeat as division champs for a third straight year.
Defensive MVP of the First Half: KC, OLB Justin Houston
Playing in a contract year, Houston has came out and performed for a defense that is not the same as last year with the amount of injuries. Houston leads the entire NFL in sacks and has been the glue that has held the Chiefs’ defense together.
Comeback Player of the First Half: SD, TE Antonio Gates
The 34-year-old Kent State graduate has solidified himself as a still valuable tight end in the San Diego offense. Going into 2014, many thought young tight end Ladarius Green would outplay the veteran Gates. So far, Green only has 12 catches all season and zero touchdowns, while Gates has 35 snags and is on pace for 15 touchdowns, which would be his career high.
Letdown of the First Half: OAK, RB Maurice Jones- Drew
Even with the lowly Jaguars last season, Jones-Drew was still able to rush for 803 yards in 2013. This season, his numbers have been so low it’s almost impossible. He is averaging just over two yards per carry and has only rushed for 64 yards through nine games. It seems the exciting days of this UCLA grad are long gone.
Cover Photo: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
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