Kansas City Chiefs
Odds to win the AFC West: N/A (Thanks, Matt Cassel's ribs.)
If you're reading all these pieces and doubting that a team's performance in close games and/or strength of schedule really matter, consider the 2009-10 Kansas City Chiefs. In 2009, the Chiefs were 2-6 in games decided by one score or less. They played the AFC North and NFC East and went 2-6 against them, too. If you ignored those two very important pieces of information, you wouldn't have had any idea what was coming for Todd Haley's team in 2010.
Without adding a significant free agent, the Chiefs somehow improved by six games last season, winning the AFC West with a 10-6 record. How did they do that? They started the season with wins in two straight close games, and finished the year 4-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less. The schedule brought them the NFC West, against whom the Chiefs promptly went 4-0. They split four games with the AFC South and beat the two last-place teams they got because of their finish in 2009, the Browns and Bills, by a total of five points. Even though the Chiefs went only 2-4 in their division, a little bit of luck in close games and the mere presence of the NFC West on their calendar was enough to bring them a division title. This stuff matters.
Although the Chiefs perennially rank as one of the healthiest teams in football, 2010 was a particularly spotless year for them. Their 22 starters missed a total of only 11 games all season, with the offensive starters combining for just three lost games all season. That's remarkable, and we already know it's not going to happen again in 2011 since starting tight end Tony Moeaki is out for the season after tearing his ACL in the Chiefs' final preseason game. Matt Cassel also reportedly suffered a broken rib in that game, which would push Tyler Palko into the starting lineup for Week 1.
Despite Jamaal Charles' grossly outplaying Thomas Jones in every situation imaginable, Jones still got 15 more carries than Charles did during the regular season. It makes sense to give Charles regular rest, but there's no possible explanation for giving Jones more carries than Charles. A 70/30 split between Charles and Jones would make sense. An 80/20 split would be even better. Fifty-fifty is absurd.
Even if the Chiefs can avoid the injury bug once the season starts, their schedule is going to be too difficult for them to compete. They get the AFC East and NFC North in town this year, and then face fellow division champions in Pittsburgh and Indianapolis to finish off their out-of-division slate. With the only true weak sister among those 10 opponents — the Bills — set to visit a Cassel-less team in Week 1, how many of those games can you really expect the Chiefs to win? Could they go 0-10 in those games? The huge home-field advantage afforded them by Arrowhead Stadium will help, and they're a young team that should be getting better every season, but the Chiefs aren't going to be competitive in 2011.
Best-case scenario: Charles is the second coming of Eric Dickerson, and Cassel's rib injury opens up an opportunity for Tyler Palko to emerge in the same way that Drew Bledsoe's sheared chest gave Tom Brady a chance. Palkomania sweeps the AFC West.
Worst-case scenario: Cassel's never healthy, and his interception rate spikes back up after last year's ridiculous 1.6 percent rate. The team starts 0-5 before its bye and then quits on Haley, who gets canned by the end of the year.