- Los Angeles Chargers (Projected Record: 7-9)
In a perfect world, the Chargers would have one of the most unique home-field advantages in all of professional sports. NFL games at a soccer stadium that has only 27,000 seats? (That's fewer seats than Larry Blakeney Field, home of the Troy Trojans.) Sure, the route the Chargers took to get there would be an odd one -- it remains astounding how the NFL had 20 years to get back to Los Angeles but still stumbled two teams into town, face first, in the most awkward, self-destructive way possible -- but that many NFL fans packed into a small place? What a new way to watch a game. What a unique gameday experience!
Except: Well, it sort of looks like the Chargers might not even sell out their 27,000-seat stadium, which, for the first year in a new city, is maybe not the ideal way to begin. The Chargers are heading into a new city that doesn't care about them, with a city they just left that actively despises them, and the rest of the country mostly thinking everyone involved is an idiot. Welcome to LA, Chargers!
Of the two ignored teams in Los Angeles this year, the Chargers look like the better one. The offense has more skill-position players around Philip Rivers, with a run-game that features Melvin Gordon, post-breakout, and ready to do more damage. The defense should be better under Gus Bradley, and you'd have to think that they'd have a little more luck with injuries this season, too. This has been a down on its luck team for a while now. Check out this terrific Rivers Tough Loss Bingo graphic from the aforementioned Football Outsiders book.
The Chargers are a popular sleeper to win this division this year, which has collapse potential all around. Maybe they'll end up hosting a playoff game. That, for sure, should sell out.
- Denver Broncos (Projected Record: 9-7)
There is a lot of turnover in Denver this year, especially for a team that's used to more stability. New coach. No DeMarcus Ware. New defensive coordinator. But, perhaps most amazing, the worrisome thing is what hasn't changed.
Seriously: Can anyone else believe Trevor Siemian is the quarterback of this team? Obviously, the main reason Siemian -- who wasn't good in college, for a Northwestern team that was begging him to be good -- is the quarterback is that the Broncos appear to have missed dramatically on Paxton Lynch, who is starting to make Jared Goff look like a solid, timely investment. All of a sudden, the Broncos look a bit adrift. They've had good teams with lousy quarterbacks before -- remember, the last five quarterbacks of this team have been Siemian, Lynch, Brock Osweiler, a dead-armed Peyton Manning and Tim Tebow -- but that requires the defense to be overwhelming. And it's tough to keep a defense overwhelming for as long as the Broncos have.
Here's guessing a step backward for the Broncos. The defense might not be a top-five unit again, and that would reduce any of Siemian's margin for error. The Broncos thought they had their quarterback situation solved moving forward. To get back to where they once were, they may need to solve it again.
- Kansas City Chiefs (Projected Record: 11-5)
Last year was the year. Man, was it ever primed for the Chiefs in the playoffs last year. I even wrote that very thing before their divisional round game against the Steelers: "This is what all this has been building toward. A frozen afternoon at Arrowhead. A terrifying defense. A smart offense with better ability to strike quickly than they've had in a decade. A fan base that is desperate for a playoff win and the full-throated fury to will them to do so. This is the time for the Chiefs to break through."
Well: The Chiefs did not break through. They had every opportunity -- Chiefs fans will see that Eric Fisher holding penalty when they close their eyes for the rest of their lives -- but fell short. As I mentioned last year, if the NFL were like the Premier League, the Chiefs, regular-season heroes, would be perpetually honored. Instead, January brings them nothing but pain. If it wasn't going to happen last year, when circumstances lined up perfectly for them, why would anyone think they'd do any better this year?
The Chiefs should have the same solid team they had last year: versatile running game, bruising defense, though this year we have the addition of a quarterback controversy, a nice touch. Rookie Patrick Mahomes looks fantastic, and Alex Smith has even stepped up his game accordingly. The Chiefs should be efficient and smart and a winning team. You'll underrate them all year. But they still won't be better than the third or fourth best team in this conference, again. And in January, you'll be reminded why. Maybe Mahomes' big arm raises their game to another level. But we thought Tyreek Hill did that, and then, in the biggest game at Arrowhead Stadium in a decade, they lost by giving up six field goals. What if they never break through? What if that was it?
- Oakland Raiders (Projected Record: 11-5)
Oh, man, could this ever have been a celebratory year for Oakland fans. This team has been one of the most ineptly run, totally baffling, completely screwy organizations in the NFL for nearly two decades. They have done just about everything possible to make life difficult for their fans, to the point that the best reason to go out to the Coliseum on Sundays this century has been to put a skull mask on your face and threaten to eat a live goat. It's been rough.
But now, now, the Raiders are good! They have a franchise quarterback. They have a terrifying defense. They play a likable, watchable style. They've even (surely briefly) turned Jack Del Rio into a sympathetic character. This is the team Oakland fans have been waiting for! This is the team that made all the waiting and suffering worth it!
Except .. right when all this is happening, the team is moving to Las Vegas. Well, not yet -- in a few years. After they've played these peak seasons in front of a fan base they have just extended a middle finger to. Imagine investing that much time in a football team, and the second all that time is about to pay off, they say they're leaving town. But not yet.
The Raiders look like one of the best teams in the AFC, and maybe even the NFL. I'm not sure who that fact will make happy anymore. I'm not sure there's going to be anybody left. If a team wins its division and no one is around the cheer it, did it really happen?
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