The Kansas City Chiefs have won the AFC West for five straight seasons, reached the AFC Championship in three straight seasons, and appeared in back-to-back Super Bowls, winning one. To say the Chiefs are the class of the NFL is almost an understatement. But there’s still more intrigue in this division than you might think.
First of all, can the Chiefs keep up their elite regular season ways? Or is a little regression natural? Whether or not Kansas City wins the AFC West isn’t rally the question, but where will the Chiefs finish amongst the AFC’s division champions?
Waiting in the reigns, and able to compete for one of the conference’s three wildcard positions, are Justin Herbert’s Los Angeles Chargers and Derek Carr’s Las Vegas Raiders. Both teams finished a couple games out of playoff reach last season, but showed they have the potential to compete against some of the league’s top opponents.
The Denver Broncos are probably outside of that conversation, but if Teddy Bridgewater and a re-tooled defense play well, anything is possible.
How will the standings shake out in the AFC West’s first 17-game season? Read on for my predictions. and be sure to check out other divisions for the full picture of my 2021-22 NFL landscape.
- AFC East, AFC North, AFC South, AFC West
- NFC East, NFC North, NFC South, NFC West
- Playoff Predictions and Super Bowl Matchup
- Other Seasons: 2020-21, 2019-20
1. Kansas City Chiefs (12-5)
This might take some mental gymnastics to explain. Patrick Mahomes is 25-4 as starting quarterback over the last two regular seasons. In 2018, his first year as a starter, he led to the Kansas City Chiefs to a 12-4 record, the “worst” mark of his young career. So how in the world will the Chiefs finish just 12-5 next season?
A few factors come in to play here. While I don’t see Mahomes and the Chiefs “mailing it in” during the regular season, there may be a little progressive fatigue after back-to-back Super Bowl appearances and three straight trips to the AFC Championship. Obviously higher seeding is always ideal, but as long as the Chiefs win the AFC West, they should be in good shape to make another deep postseason run. Additionally, while Kansas City’s 14-2 record last season was the best in the NFL, the Chiefs weren’t as quite dominant as usual. For seven straight weeks, the Chiefs played one-score games, winning by eight points or less. Some of these close wins came against great teams like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints. But other close calls included matchups with the Carolina Panthers, Denver Broncos, and Atlanta Falcons, weaker opponents.
Above all, I’m betting on the closest thing to a sure thing in the NFL: expect the unexpected. I still think the Chiefs are among the best teams, if not flat-out the best team, in the NFL. But this season, I think a couple games slip away from them, and maybe if the AFC West is clinched early, a few late season losses while starters rest.
I have the Chiefs earning the fourth seed in the AFC, behind the Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans, and Buffalo Bills. Kansas City has been an elite team for the last three seasons, and again, while I’m not saying that fact will change, I think the Chiefs will drop a few regular seasons games before reasserting their dominance in the postseason.
2. Los Angeles Chargers (10-7)
From the second that rookie Justin Herbert took the Los Angeles Chargers to overtime against the Chiefs in Week 2 last season, I knew the Chargers could be a playoff team sooner rather than later. By Week 5, the Chargers fell to 1-4, but with one-score losses against the Chiefs, Buccaneers, and Saints: three of the best teams in the NFL. Unfortunately, the Chargers couldn’t turn it around after their Week 6 bye, falling to 2-7 by Week 10 and 3-9 after an embarrassing 45-0 loss to the New England Patriots.
Los Angeles did finish strong with four straight victories to close out the season, and Herbert had an incredible rookie season culminating in an AP Rookie of the Year Award. Seven of the Chargers nine losses came by one score or less, including two in overtime. With a couple losses coming in unlikely, unlucky, or heart-breaking fashion, the Chargers easily could’ve been an 8-8 or 9-7 team last season. Specifically, the Chargers special teams unit recorded the third worst season in NFL history. Just by improving their fundamentals, and holding on late in the fourth quarter of a couple games, the Chargers could have been a team with a winning record.
Using 7-9 as the baseline, I see the Chargers picking up three more wins this season, finishing 10-7 and earning a wildcard position. Herbert should be even better in his second year in the league, and the Chargers re-tooled their roster in the offseason. Protecting their quarterback of the future is paramount, so Los Angeles signed guard Corey Linsley, and guards Matt Feiler and Oday Aboushi. The Chargers also took an offensive tackle, Rashawn Slater, in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft. On offense, the Chargers picked up tight end Jared Cook, XFL standout wide receiver Austin Proehl, and selected wide receiver Josh Palmer and tight end Tre’ McKitty in the third round of the draft.
I have the Chargers just two wins behind the Chiefs in the AFC West, but I don’t think the race will be that tight down the stretch. The Chiefs might be 12-3, resting starters late in the season to slide to 12-5, while the Chargers may finish hot to get to their 10-7 mark. Regardless, I expect the Chargers to be in the thick of the AFC wildcard race, battling the Patriots, Dolphins, Steelers, Browns, and Colts for one of three wildcard spots. Ultimately, I see Herbert starting a playoff game in his second year in the league.
3. Las Vegas Raiders (8-9)
As the head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders, Jon Gruden has turned in 4-12 and 8-8 finishes in his return to the NFL sideline. Last year, Derek Carr had the Raiders had an up-and-down season, culminating in an 8-8 finish. In Week 2, the Raiders stunned the New Orleans Saints 34-24 to improve to 2-0. Las Vegas then suffered back-to-back losses to the New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills, before upsetting the Chiefs in Kansas City.
These first few games are a testament to Las Vegas’s unpredictable play last season. The Raiders played the Chiefs hard again in Week 11, narrowly losing 35-31, but then followed up that performance with a 43-6 loss to the Atlanta Falcons. A week later, they barely beat the New York Jets, who finished with the second-worst record in the NFL.
Carr is a solid NFL quarterback, but not one that puts his team over the top. The Raiders did re-tool in the offseason, most notably acquiring defensive end Yannick Ngakoue from the Baltimore Ravens. Running back Kenyan Drake, wide reciever John Brown, and defensive linemen Quinton Jefferson, Matt Dickerson, and Solomon Thomas also joined Las Vegas’s roster in the offseason.
Still, when handing out wins for the 2021-22 season, I found the Raiders to be a middle-of-the-pack team. Luckily for Las Vegas, it would only take a couple extra wins to rise from a mediocre 8-9 team to a wildcard-contending 10-7 team. I certainly won’t count the Raiders out of the potential playoff mix. But in a tough AFC West, I have them finishing third and just outside the wildcard race.
4. Denver Broncos (5-12)
The Denver Broncos could be a competitive team over the next couple seasons. But this year could be a transition year, with some growing pains and unfortunately, no increase in the wins column. Denver went 5-11 last season behind uncertainty at the quarterback position (they even played an entire game without a QB due to COVID-19 protocols) and injuries, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
While the Broncos made some proactive roster changes, they’re still a few pieces away from competing in a crowded AFC West. At quarterback, Drew Lock is almost certainly not the Broncos quarterback of the future. Denver did, however, acquire Teddy Bridgewater from the Carolina Panthers for a sixth-round draft selection: a steal in all honesty.
In the offseason, the Broncos lost linebackers Joseph Jones, Jeremiah Attaochu, and Austin Cailtro, running back Philip Lindsay, tight end Jake Butt, cornerbacks A.J. Bouye and De’Vante Bausby, and safety Will Parks. They brought in talent to offset these losses, including cornerbacks Ronald Darby and Kyle Fuller, running back Mike Boone, offensive tackle Cameron Fleming, and center Brett Jones.
With Drew Lock as the bona fide starting quarterback, I may have given Denver even less wins. Assuming Bridgewater gets the starting job, I think the Broncos will be a competitive despite a 5-12 record: a team liable to give any opponent a hard time on any given Sunday. But in terms of competing for a playoff spot, the Broncos are still a couple years away.
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- 2021-22 NFL Predictions: NFC West
- 2021-22 NFL Predictions: NFC South
- 2021-22 NFL Predictions: NFC North
- 2021-22 NFL Predictions: NFC East
- 2021-22 NFL Predictions: AFC South
- 2021-22 NFL Predictions: AFC North
- 2021-22 NFL Predictions: AFC East
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