Who will win the west? Looking at the rest of the year, it's hard to see anybody get to ten wins. KC has the hardest schedule but we all face hard roads with more winning teams than losing ones to play. The Chiefs do have an advantage in that the tougher half of our division run is over and we're well positioned for tiebreakers if it comes to that. Let's take a quick look at each team and their schedule and see what we can see.
We'll start with the longest shot, the Denver Broncos. Last place, but only a game out, they aren't dead just yet, although a loss to the Chiefs on Sunday would probably be the final straw. Sitting at 3-5 with a 1-2 division record, the Broncos face road games in KC, SD, Minnesota, and Buffalo, and home games against the Jets, Chicago, NE, and KC. Other than the Vikings (who only have two wins, but still have AP and Ponder is looking pretty good, too) they play seven games against opponents who outrank them in the standings. They could beat the Vikings, split with the Chiefs, and hope for another Rivers meltdown, but none of those are even sure things and the rest of the schedule looks like five losses to me. I'm gonna predict about 5 wins in Denver. I don't think Tebow will satisfy Elway and they'll spend a first rounder on a new QB.
Which brings us to the surprisingly pathetic Chargers. It's often said that as long as they have Rivers, they won't totally suck. That must make it particularly disheartening that he has pretty much single-handedly engineered their four game losing streak. Now sitting at 4-5 with a 2-2 division record, it's official. The Chargers need outside help (in the form of Raiders' losses) to make the playoffs. Their remaining schedule includes road games at Chicago, Jacksonville, Detroit, and Oakland, and home games against Denver, the Bills, and the Ravens. They should beat the Broncos and Jags, but after that all bets are off. The last month is rough, with Buffalo and the Ravens in SD and then two on the road to Detroit and the Raiders in a game that could decide the division. Even giving them two more wins based on a Rivers revival, I'm calling them a 7-8 win football team and predicting a shiny new coaching staff in 2012.
Unfortunately I can't see the Chiefs pulling it out either. Four wins and four losses (three of them blowouts) and the hardest remaining schedule in the division are too much to overcome. We do have a 2-1 division record and both Charger games out of the way, so there is room to win the division on a tiebreaker if we can get to eight or nine wins. The big question is can we... With road games at NE, Chicago, the Jets, and Denver, along a home slate of the Broncos, Pittsburgh, GB, and Oakland, it looks bleak. After hosting the Broncos Sunday, a six game gauntlet of possible playoff teams awaits, starting in NE on a Monday night and ending with an Oakland rematch after Palmer has gotten his bearings and learned the offense. Then even if we somehow come out of it at 7-8 or 8-7, the Broncos get a last chance to play spoiler in their home finale. Hell, Quinn will probably be playing by then and somehow look good... Both Denver games and the Raiders are winnable, but also losable. The rest are just tough. Even as a homer, I can't pick us to win more than 7-8 games and probably miss the show.
That means I'm actually picking the Raiders to go to the playoffs. (Yeah it hurts...) At 5-4 with a 2-2 division record, they boast the easiest remaining schedule in the west. With road games in Minnesota, Miami, GB, and KC, and home against Chicago, Detroit, and SD, the Raiders just have to beat the Vikings, Dolphins, and either the Chiefs or Chargers to get to 8-8, and if Carson Palmer is any better than Campbell (he is) they could even get both us and SD and enter the playoffs with a 9-7 record. It is possible for them to win 8 and lose a tiebreaker to us or the Chargers, but aside from losing to us and the Broncos the last couple weeks while they were without a QB, they have been playing too strong in the division to bank on it. I figure 8 or 9 wins and a #4 seed.
The good news is, next year I think this division is ours. The Chargers will either still be crippled by Norv, or breaking in a new coach and system, and Rivers is finally starting to age and unravel. The Raiders will be crippled by a crap draft class thanks to the trading they've done and are now fully vested in Carson Palmer, who hasn't really played well enough in several years to be worth a 1 and a 2, especially when you are already out of the next few rounds the year of the one. Hue Jackson will see nearly 100 picks gone before he uses a third round compensatory to get his first player this draft. The Broncos will be cursing McDaniels for at least a couple more years, and probably still need to find both a QB and a RB to build around. The Chiefs will get back our three probowlers from injured reserve, and have the best young core in the west. This division isn't quite as bad as last years' NFC West, but it's close. It may be several more seasons before we face a ten win challenger. Hopefully we can take advantage.