The AFC West looks to be the most competitive division in the NFL during the 2022-23 season. The good news? With the NFL’s newest playoff format, which includes three wildcard spots per conference, the AFC West could technically send all four teams to the postseason. The bad news? Each AFC West team has to play six tough games against one another, which could keep their respective win totals down, especially if there’s parity within the division.
Every AFC West team ranks in the Top 13 of my Training Camp Power Rankings. From Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs, who have appeared in two Super Bowls in the last three seasons, to the new-look Denver Broncos, who added nine-time Pro Bowl quarterback Russell Wilson, to the Los Angeles Chargers, who have an electric offense led by Justin Herbert and re-tooled on defense in the offseason, to Derek Carr and the Las Vegas Raiders, who went out and acquired wide receiver Davante Adams, the AFC West has no shortage of talent, storylines, and star players.
How will the AFC West play out in the 2022-23 season? How many teams will the division send to the playoffs? Read on for my predictions, and if you’d like to debate or discuss any predictions, join the conversation with @SakSports on Twitter.
1. Kansas City Chiefs (12-5)
Last season, I correctly predicted a slight regression for the Kansas City Chiefs, projecting a 12-5 record and non-#1 seed in the AFC, just as what happened in reality. This year, I don’t see the Chiefs sliding any more in the win total, as I have them winning the division at 12-5 once again, fending off some stiff competition in the AFC West.
The headline in Kansas City has to be the departure of Pro Bowl wide receiver Tyreek Hill. With Hill being Patrick Mahomes‘ go-to target both downfield and in the intermediate passing game, his presence will definitely be missed. The Chiefs did go out and sign former Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster in the offseason, and while he can’t fill the entire void left by Hill’s departure, Smith-Schuster is definitely a quality passing target for Mahomes. Travis Kelce is also always a reliable target and threat to opposing defenses at the tight end position.
The Chiefs had some shaky play at times last season, such as a 27-3 loss to the Titans last October and Mahomes’ disappearing act in the second half of the AFC Championship against the Bengals. I think Andy Reid’s team will be able to overcome this inconsistency in 2022 and get back to being the offensive powerhouse we’ve come to know over the past few seasons.
On paper, even without Hill, I like the Chiefs chances this season. If the AFC West wasn’t so good, I might even project 13 or 14 wins for Kansas City this season. But assuming the Chiefs drop a couple tight divisional games, as well as a few to some other AFC elites, another 12-5 finish sounds about right. Mahomes and the Chiefs are the best-equipped team to lead and control the AFC West race this season.
2. Denver Broncos (11-6)
The Denver Broncos made the biggest, boldest, most important move of the offseason in acquiring nine-time Pro Bowl quarterback Russell Wilson from the Seattle Seahawks. After finishing 7-10 last season, Denver added one of the best quarterbacks in the game in order to propel themselves in to the thick of the race for the AFC West.
I don’t want to downplay it: finishing 7-10 in a division that was already solid last season with a rotating door at quarterback between Teddy Bridgewater and Drew Lock, coupled with injuries across the roster, was honestly a pretty impressive feat. Denver’s offense was nothing to write home about, scoring the ninth-fewest points in the league, but the Broncos defense was elite, allowing the third-least points in the NFL.
Even without longtime captain Von Miller, the Broncos defense should continue to be strong in 2022. Denver acquired pass-rushing outside linebacker Randy Gregory in the offseason, and if he pans out, the Broncos defense could become even harder to beat.
Wilson has the necessary tools on offense to drastically improve Denver’s scoring output. Losing wide receiver Tim Patrick for the year with an ACL injury is definitely a blow, but Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy are more than capable of picking up the slack. Tight end Albert Okwuegbunam was more productive in his sophomore season last year, and if Wilson finds any consistent connection with his tight end, Okwuegbunam’s productivity could skyrocket. Running back Javonte Williams rushed for 903 yards and four touchdowns (catching for another 316 yards and three scores) last season, and will be another valuable piece in Wilson’s new offense.
My expectations are high for the new-look Broncos, and the only things I could see stopping them are a slow start to the season, poor divisional play, or more injuries on offense. On paper, Wilson elevates the offense to a level where if the defense remains Top 10 in points allowed, the Broncos should win the majority of their games. I have Denver going 11-6 and earning the sixth seed in the AFC this season.
3. Los Angeles Chargers (10-7)
The Los Angeles Chargers had an absolutely electric offense led by Justin Herbert last season, scoring 27.9 points per game, fifth in the NFL. But with a poor defense, the Chargers only outscored their opponents by 15 points on the season, finished with a 9-8 record, and were the only team in the Top Eight scoring-wise to fail to qualify for the playoffs.
But Los Angeles addressed their defensive shortcomings in the offseason, adding former All-Pro linebacker Khalil Mack and acquiring Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson. After focusing on defense in the draft as well, the Chargers are better equipped to become a playoff team this season.
Herbert has been incredible for the Chargers since being drafted sixth overall out of Oregon in 2020, and is already a Top 10 if not Top 5 quarterback in the NFL. He’s joined by Austin Ekeler, a Top 10 running back, and Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, two of the best wide receivers in the game. Herbert’s offense is sure to be incredible again in 2022, and if the defense even improves marginally, the Chargers should be a playoff team.
Los Angeles nearly made the postseason last year, but fell short against the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 18. Looking ahead to the 2022-23 season, I think the Chargers will definitely leapfrog Las Vegas this year. The Chargers could realistically compete for second or even first place in the AFC West, especially if the defense takes a leap from bad to not just mediocre, but good. I have the Chargers finishing 10-7 and earning a wildcard spot in the AFC playoffs.
4. Las Vegas Raiders (8-9)
Don’t get me wrong: the Las Vegas Raiders look like a talented team heading in to 2022. Quarterback Derek Carr is one of the most consistent passers in the game, Las Vegas already made the playoffs last year at 10-7, and the Raiders went out and acquired quite possibly the best wide receiver in the game, former Packers Pro Bowler Davante Adams.
On paper, the Raiders should be a better football team this upcoming season. But in an absolutely stacked AFC West, Las Vegas might be the odd man out come playoff time.
It’s certainly possible the AFC West sends all four teams to the postseason, but that’s difficult because the four teams will cannibalize each other’s win totals in their head-to-head matchups. In almost any other division in the NFL, I could see the Raiders finishing with nine or ten wins. But if the Raiders lose four or five AFC West matchups, their playoff hopes would be pretty bleak even if they win 75% of their non-divisional games.
On the opposite side, strong results against the Chargers, Chiefs, and Broncos could easily flip the script and allow the Raiders to earn a playoff spot once again.
Carr’s offense is good: not Chargers-level good, but still good. Having Adams at the top will only elevate Hunter Renfrow and Darren Waller’s productivity, and Josh Jacobs is one of the most dependable backs in the league.
But the Raiders defense wasn’t so great last season: allowing 24.4 PPG (7th-most in the NFL.) Despite a 10-7 record, Las Vegas was outscored by 65 points on the season. I think the Raiders will drastically nudge that -65 point differential closer to or above zero, but ultimately, I just don’t see enough seats at the table in the AFC.
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Header Photo Credits (L-R): 1. Ethan Miller, Getty Images 2. Chiefs.com 3. Yahoo Sports 4. Chris Unger/Getty Images