10 Burning Questions: AFC West
Denver Broncos' Peyton Manning (18) celebrates with teammates after he threw a touchdown pass against the Houston Texans during the third quarter of an NFL football game on Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013, in Houston. The touchdown pass was his 51st of the season. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Denver Broncos' Peyton Manning, center, celebrates with teammates after he threw a touchdown pass against the Houston Texans during the third quarter of an NFL football game on Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013, in Houston. The touchdown pass was his 51st of the season. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Denver Broncos' Peyton Manning (18) waves to fans following an NFL football game against the Houston Texans, Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013, in Houston. Manning threw his 51st touchdown pass of the season to set a new NFL record. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning throws against the Tennessee Titans during the first half of an NFL football game on Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013, in Denver. (AP Photo/Chris Schneider)
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) calls an audible at the line of scrimmage against the Kansas City Chiefs in the first quarter of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013, in Denver. (AP Photo/Joe Mahoney)
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning interacts with fans after beating the San Diego Chargers in an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013, in San Diego. The Broncos won, 28-20. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
FILE - In this Sept. 29, 2013 file photo, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning watches play from the sidelines against the Philadelphia Eagles in the fourth quarter an NFL football game, in Denver. Manning returns to Indianapolis on Sunday, Oct. 20, 2013, a better quarterback than the one who left. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey, File)
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) watches play from the sidelines late in the fourth quarter against the Philadelphia Eagles in an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 29, 2013, in Denver. Denver won 52-20. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) greets Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick (7) after the Broncos defeated the Eagles 52-20 in an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 29, 2013, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) calls an audible against the St. Louis Rams in the second quarter of a preseason NFL football game, Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) walks off the field after an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens, Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013, in Denver. The Broncos won 49-27. Manning threw a record-tying seven touchdown passes ? something no one had done in 44 years. (AP Photo/Joe Mahoney)
Denver Broncos starting quarterback Peyton Manning jokes with reporters after taking part in the morning session at the team's NFL training camp in Englewood, Colo., on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, left, confers with center Ryan Lilja during NFL football training camp in Englewood, Colo., on Friday, Aug. 2, 2013. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning looks on during football training camp, Saturday, July 27, 2013, in Englewood, Colo. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning talks to the media following the opening session of NFL football training camp, Thursday, July 25, 2013, in Englewood, Colo. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
In this image released by the U.S. Army and taken on Friday, March 1, 2013, Denver Broncos' Peyton Manning addresses the troops at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, with a USO tour. Manning was accompanied by MLB pitcher Curt Schilling and NFL players Austin Collie and Steven Jackson. (AP Photo/ Staff Sgt. David J. Overson, U.S. Army)
By SAM SPIEGELMAN
The AFC West produced three playoff teams a year ago.
The Denver Broncos were crowned champions of the division in 2013, and the San Diego Chargers snuck into the playoffs under first-year head coach Mike McCoy, who helped to revive Philip Rivers' career.
The Broncos enjoyed one of the best offseasons of any NFL club, and are prepping for another Super Bowl run. The Chargers, too, addressed their needs, while the Oakland Raiders added a host of veterans to the fold to try and reverse their fortune. The Kansas City Chiefs' second-half collapse did not result in the team missing the playoffs but it kept them from making any major offseason moves, and Alex Smith's contract remains the biggest obstacle.
Here are the 10 burning questions for the AFC West in 2014:
1. How many playoff teams will the AFC West produce?
The Broncos are seemingly a lock. The Chiefs were a shoe-in in 2013, and the Bolts managed to sneak in. No way can three teams from the AFC West make it again, but the Chargers definitely have a shot at returning to the playoffs. However, the AFC North has a number of teams that will be vying with San Diego for the wildcard spots.
2. Are the Broncos the clear-cut favorites in the AFC?
Without question. The second-best team in the conference is probably the New England Patriots, but the Broncos are light years ahead of them. Not only does Peyton Manning have more weapons at his disposal, but the addition of DeMarcus Ware to a star-laden defense gives Denver arguably the most talented roster from top to bottom.
3. Will the Bolts be a playoff team again in 2014?
I can see it happening. If Rivers continues to play at the level he did last year, he's one of the top quarterbacks in the league, and that always gives you a chance. The defense was the major issue a season ago, and if the front office found a way to address those problems the team should be even more competitive this year.
4. Will Alex Smith earn a new deal?
Yes, but maybe not from the Chiefs. Smith wants to get paid like he's Jay Cutler, and that simply is not the case. Smith has to either settle for less money or he's going to find himself in a different uniform come 2015. Andy Reid can find another starter in his system.
5. Can Matt Schaub revive his career in the Black Hole?
There have been conflicting reports out of Oakland as to how Schaub is doing. Some indicate Derek Carr could supplant him as the starter at some point, and others suggest Schaub is capable of having a bounce-back year. I'm not high on on Carr, but I'm also not very confident in Schaub's abilities, especially with fewer weapons around him.
6. Can Peyton Manning be as a good as he was a year ago?
Will age ever catch up with Peyton? I don't know, but his offense could potentially be better than a year ago. Emmanuel Sanders is an upgrade over Eric Decker, and I have high hopes for Cody Latimer. Manning doesn't have to be an MVP candidate for the Broncos to return to the Super Bowl, but it seems inevitable that he will be.
7. How well did the Chargers address their secondary?
One of the worst units in the NFL a season ago, the team drafted Jason Verrett in the first round and recently signed Brandon Flowers in free agency. Flowers is going to be a hit-or-miss signing, depending on how he fits in the Chargers' system. And rookie corners tend to have a bit of a learning curve. But if Verrett can mature quickly and Flowers returns to form, this secondary has a chance to be better than it was in 2013.
8. Which Chiefs D should we expect this year?
Great question, because nobody knows. The Chiefs defense dropped off the map in the second half of 2013, and as a result the team fell out of Super Bowl contention. Now players named Allen Bailey and Chris Owens are penciled in as starters, and I'm not sure that bodes well for their chances.
9. If Oakland doesn't improve, will Dennis Allen get fired?
Well, reports suggest he was close to earning the axe after the 2013 season. In the offseason, the team added a bunch of veterans - Schaub, Justin Tuck, Lamarr Woodley - meaning ownership believes the team can be competitive. The Raiders are in the wrong division to think Tuck and Schaub are going to be difference-makers. If Allen's job depends on how the team finishes in 2014, prepare for a new coach next year.
10. Which rookie will be a difference-maker right away?
I want to say Latimer, but he's too far down on the depth chart to have an instant impact. Dee Ford has earned rave reviews during OTAs, but I think Verrett can be the difference-maker in San Diego largely because of how terrible the secondary was last season. If Verrett can find a role faster than anticipated, he has a chance to single-handedly make the Bolts a playoff team.
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