2021 AFC West Preview

September 6, 2021

Getty Images/Christian Petersen

For the overall 2021 NFL Preview click here, and see the links below for the rest of the divisional previews.

AFC East | AFC North | AFC South | AFC West

NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West

Overview | Playoffs | Awards

Chiefs 14-3

Kansas City is on top of the football world. The Chiefs have been to the last two Super Bowls thanks largely to the most talented QB maybe ever, the best tight end in the NFL, fastest receiver in the league and a host of other reasons to not scoff when they talk about going undefeated.

But that doesn’t mean much if you’re losing at the point of attack, and that principle was reinforced in Super Bowl LV when the Bucs defense launched an all-out assault on Patrick Mahomes and his injury-riddled offensive line couldn’t stop it. So the Chiefs rebuilt the line entirely, trading for Orlando Brown Jr., adding Joe Thuney, Austin Blythe, Kyle Long and getting Laurent Duvernay-Tardif back from his 2020 opt out. Mahomes with a ton of time to throw? Fugetaboutit.

The big question is whether the defense will improve with the addition of Jarran Reed in the middle of the D-line. Kansas City is counting on a number of young players to step up; if they do, and this unit can pull into the top 10 to complement the most explosive offense in the league, that 20-0 record doesn’t look as impossible as it sounds. However, Andy Reid is known for resting starters once home-field advantage is locked up so the more dominant KC looks, the more likely they are to have a couple of late-season losses with the star players aligned on the bench.

Chargers 11-6

Los Angeles has made the playoffs only once since 2014 and the Chargers are doing their damnedest to make sure they get back to the postseason.

L.A. spent Hollywood levels of money to upgrade the offensive line, signing All-Pro center Corey Linsley and Matt Feiler in free agency and drafting Rashawn Slater in the first round. Losing Hunter Henry hurts, but Jared Cook is serviceable as long as Keenan Allen is healthy and productive. The offense will run through Offensive Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert, who looks like a legit superstar in the making and could garner MVP attention if all goes well for the Bolts.

The defense gets Derwin James back from another season-ending injury, and if he can stay healthy, he’s a difference-maker for a unit already blessed with Joey Bosa up front. Even with James sidelined, the Chargers defense ranked ninth against the pass in 2020, and rookie Asante Samuel Jr. can only help keep them keep up with the potent Chiefs offense.

But these are the Chargers. Rookie head coach Brandon Staley is alarmingly green (he was a coordinator for one year and coaching in college just five years ago). The talented O-line has to integrate four new starters. Plus, the Bolts’ legendary inability to win close games traveled with them from San Diego to L.A. If they can just break even in those games this year, this is a playoff team — and maybe even a surprise division winner.

Broncos 10-7

Once again, Denver is starting a season with a new quarterback.

Teddy Bridgewater, traded yet again because of Sam Darnold, won a training camp battle with incumbent Drew Lock, who looked good in small doses as a rookie but last year led the league in interceptions as a sophomore. If you read my entry about the Carolina Panthers, you’d see why I think Bridgewater is better than his career to date would imply.

This may again be the “Chiefs effect” in the AFC West, but the Broncos loaded up at corner, adding D.C. area natives Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby in free agency, and drafting Patrick Surtain II with the ninth overall pick. That pick better pan out, otherwise new GM George Paton will be hammered with questions as to why they didn’t take Justin Fields or Mac Jones there.

Von Miller returns from an injury that wiped out his 2020 season, but at age 32, he may now just be a complementary piece opposite Bradley Chubb. If that defense can rebound from a down year and Bridgewater is more than a bridge QB to a 2022 rookie — or, better yet, Aaron Rodgers — this could be a surprise wild card playoff team.

Raiders 6-11

It doesn’t matter whether they’re in Oakland or Las Vegas — the Raiders will fade late in the season.

I knew as soon as they inked Jon Gruden to an incredible 10-year, $100 million contract they would regret it by Year 4. Entering his fourth season in his second stint with the franchise, Gruden’s Raiders are 5-11 after Thanksgiving with exactly zero playoff appearances. This year, they’ll play in Dallas on Thanksgiving Day and their schedule thereafter implies they’ll have another late season swoon.

Gruden’s “corny marriage” with Derek Carr could make him a widower after completely tearing down the offensive line then overdrafting Alex Leatherwood (to be fair, the Raiders basically offset that by taking first-round-talent Trevon Moehrig in the second round). I have a hard time believing getting rid of three-time Pro Bowl center Rodney Hudson is in any way a good thing so I need to see that line play well to believe it.

On defense, the best acquisition is former Terp Yannick Ngakoue, who was disappointing in Baltimore and is now four years removed from his only Pro Bowl and double digit sack season. Former Seahawks star K.J. Wright was a late addition after the preseason but those additions are hardly enough to improve the third-worst scoring defense in 2020.

GM Mike Mayock basically announced a self-imposed mandate to make the playoffs but that’s not happening in this division. The Raiders are the worst thing a team in Las Vegas can be: mediocre. And with the league’s hardest schedule (for whatever that’s worth since it’s based on last season’s records), they might even be bad.

Rob Woodfork

Rob Woodfork is WTOP's Senior Sports Content Producer, which includes duties as producer and host of the DC Sports Huddle, nightside sports anchor and sports columnist on WTOP.com.

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