Lawrence: How The West Is Won

By Amy Lawrence

Week to week, the NFL offers up no shortage of drama. From the soap opera that is the NFC East to the rock fight that is the AFC North to the mystery of the NFC South, the league’s familiar rivalries entice you and suck you in like a new Kiefer Sutherland TV show. The AFC West is no different. It serves as the NFL’s tragicomedy, a division that combines both tragedy and comedy and makes for the perfect spectacle.

The Denver Broncos may be Super Bowl champion, owner of the last five division titles, but the 2016 squad is not waving any banners. The Broncos are too busy trying to navigate a brand new quarterback (and his rookie backup), who is operating behind an inconsistent offensive line. The rushing attack, spearheaded by C.J. Anderson, is powerful in spurts but also prone to random disappearances from center stage. In back-to-back losses, the offense has been held without a touchdown until a few minutes left in the 4th quarter. Similar to last season, the offense is a perpetual work in progress.

If it’s comedy you crave, superstar linebacker Von Miller provides plenty. From his sack dances to his new array of commercials to his funky outfits, he’s non-stop entertainment. And he thrives in the spotlight. The reigning Super Bowl MVP revels in the challenge of pursuing quarterbacks, and he’s already racked up 7.5 sacks, good for second in the NFL. But the Broncos defensive line is soft in the middle and allowing nearly 113 rushing yards per game. With the front line missing key pieces, Denver is susceptible to big yardage from versatile, mobile running backs who can create matchup headaches.

The Oakland Raiders see themselves as the heir apparent in the AFC West, and they’ve spent the last several years building from the ground up. With franchise quarterback Derek Carr throwing to the dynamic duo of Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, points are typically easy to come by. Carr has amassed more than 1,600 yards passing with 12 touchdowns through a half-dozen contests. Even with a lagging run game, the Raiders offense is tough to stop. Their first three victories of the year were all on the road in come-from-behind fashion.

Oakland’s flaws show up on the other side of the ball. They’re allowing more yards per game than any other defense in the league: roughly 445 every weekend! Opponents average 27.2 points against the Raiders, which doesn’t allow Carr and his weapons much margin for error. In their rain-soaked battle last weekend, Oakland failed to corral the Kansas City rushing attack, and the offense couldn’t find a rhythm — a tragic combination against a division rival. Instead of maintaining the West lead, Oakland fell back into a tie with Denver at 4-2. The Broncos promptly sent a fruit basket to the Chiefs to show their gratitude.

Read more commentary from Amy Lawrence.

This time last year, Kansas City was 1-5 and on the verge of the greatest reversal in franchise history. Andy Reid’s team rattled off 10 straight wins and nearly stole the AFC West crown. This fall, they can laugh about the past because they’re above .500 with a pair of wins inside the division. But their lack of consistency is painful. When they win, they win BIG — stifling the Raiders in Oakland and stunning the Chargers after trailing by 18 points in the second half. But they also surrendered 43 points to the Steelers and barely managed to score against the Texans. Kansas City needs more offensive balance to be a weekly threat. Quarterback Alex Smith balks at the term “game manager,” but the Chiefs are tied for last in the NFL with a mere five touchdown passes.

The fourth team in the West is the epitome of tragicomedy. The San Diego Chargers have no trouble scoring. They’re second in the league in total points, and they average almost 29 per outing. But they struggle to slam the door when they’re in front. In all four losses this season, they’ve held second-half leads, only to squander those leads in creative fashion. A botched hold on a late field goal or three turnovers in the final quarter — the Chargers have coughed up sure wins in agonizing ways. Sadly, the narrative has become all too familiar to fans.

All four members of the AFC West will make you laugh and cry in turn. Each franchise features prominent strengths and potentially fatal weaknesses. The division is volatile and combustible, full of compelling head-to-head battles. Don’t be surprised if the AFC West takes all 17 weeks of the season to settle supremacy. The division could very well send multiple teams to the playoffs again, but WHICH teams? To find out how this story ends, you need to watch until the final scene of this tragicomedy.

A well-traveled veteran and pioneer of sports radio and television, Amy Lawrence is the host of CBS Sports Radio’s late-night program ‘After Hours with Amy Lawrence.’ The show can be heard weekdays from 2-6am ET on the nation’s largest 24/7 major-market radio network. Follow her on Twitter @ALawRadio.

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