The fourth of eight divisional looks ahead at the upcoming NFL season.-----
DENVER BRONCOS (8-8, t-1st in AFC West, in 2011)
The good: There are quarterback upgrades, and then there's going from an incompetent passer like Tim Tebow to maybe the greatest QB of all time, which Peyton Manning may have been pre-injury. I know Manning comes with risks, and likely with decline, but the potential payoff there is just so huge. ... The best part of the offense, apart from Manning, is the line. LT Ryan Clady is the biggest name from a unit that doesn't have any single obvious weak spot. ... OLB D.J. Williams will begin the season suspended, but when he returns, he, fellow OLB Von Miller and DE Elvis Dumervil should give the Broncos three studs in their front seven.
The bad: There's not much in the way of skill position talent around Manning. Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker have potential at receiver, but there's not much behind them, and I've never been huge on RB Willis McGahee, who will turn 31 in October. ... The Broncos have an intriguing set of cornerbacks (Champ Bailey, Tracy Porter, Chris Harris and Drayton Florence), but it may not be enough to overcome their weak safety tandem of Mike Adams and Rahim Moore. ... Should Manning go down, Caleb Hanie is his likely replacement, for reasons I still don't understand. Season, meet toilet.
The verdict: I know the Broncos, who were outscored by 81 points in 2011, were possibly the worst division champion in football history. They had Tebow then. They have Manning now. And I see plenty to like around him. The finish: 11-5, 1st in AFC West
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (7-9, 3rd in AFC West, in 2011)
The good: The Chiefs lost CB Brandon Carr, but they added CB Stanford Routt, and more important, S Eric Berry is healthy. Add CBs Brandon Flowers and Javier Arenas and S Kendrick Lewis to the mix, and the secondary is my favorite part of this team. ... Speaking of key guys that are back from injury, I haven't heard a ton of buzz about RB Jamaal Charles, either in real football or in fantasy. I find that odd, because I think he'll likely resume his status as one of the most exciting players at the position. ... If Dwayne Bowe shows up each week, he could combine with Jon Baldwin and Steve Breaston on a very good receiving corps.
The bad: OLB Tamba Hali showed he's the real deal in 2011, following a 15-sack campaign with a 12-sack season, but I don't know how this defense can be an elite one if he's the only guy who can generate a pass rush. ... A lot of resources have been used on the front three of this defense, and particularly on DEs Tyson Jackson and Glenn Dorsey. It seems likely they'll make the Chiefs continue to regret it. ... I just don't know about Matt Cassel. He's tough to figure out. But while it seems clear he'll probably never be an elite quarterback, it wouldn't shock me if he's a below-average one.
The verdict: I expect the Chiefs to be markedly better offensively than they were for much of 2011. Tyler Palko isn't quarterbacking them, after all. But this looks more like a solid defense, to me, than an elite, carry-you-to-the-playoffs kind of unit. The finish: 9-7, t-2nd in AFC West
OAKLAND RAIDERS (8-8, t-1st in AFC West, in 2011)
The good: You can't talk about Darren McFadden without mentioning his always-questionable health, but if he somehow stays on the field for 16, or close to it, games, he's got lead-the-league-in-total-yards-even-on-a-putrid-team type of ability. ... They're getting up there in age, but Tommy Kelly and Richard Seymour remain one of the better defensive tackle tandems in the NFL, and my favorite part of this defense. As an aside, Morris native Jamie Cumbie is looking more and more likely to back them up. ... Hey, P Shane Lechler and K Sebastian Janikowski are probably the best pairing in the league, though Janikowski's battling a groin injury.
The bad: I'll start this section with QB Carson Palmer. It's not just that the Raiders overpaid, ridiculously, to acquire him last season. It's that they're stuck with him, at least for a while, and he's really regressed. The rebuild can't hit high gear with a 32-year-old Palmer quarterbacking. ... Who from this front seven, aside from possibly the defensive tackles, is ever going to get to the quarterback? The Raiders have a few names (Rolando McClain, Aaron Curry) but few guys that have ever actually produced. ... It's not as if the cornerbacks (Ron Bartell, Shawntae Spencer) would be locks to hold their own with a great pass rush in front of them. Here, they're very likely to struggle, and badly.
The verdict: I liked the way the Raiders were playing prior to the Jason Campbell injury. After that, and the subsequent Palmer trade, acting like going forward and not restocking the shelves was a viable option would probably have been foolish. They're a long way away. The finish: 3-13, 4th in AFC West
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (8-8, t-1st in AFC West, in 2011)
The good: Phillip Rivers' 2011 season was seen as a huge disappointment, a disaster even — and he got to 4,624 yards, with an 88.7 rating. I think he'll bounce back, and he's the biggest reason to think the Chargers can get back to where they were. ... Shaun Phillips and Jarret Johnson might be the best combination of 3-4 outside linebackers in league history that are coming off of a season in which they totaled six sacks. Johnson, the former Raven, has a great run-stuffing reputation. ... There is no Vincent Jackson anymore, but it's a deep receiving corps (Malcolm Floyd, Robert Meachem, Eddie Royal, Vincent Brown), and the Chargers still have TE Antonio Gates.
The bad: The retirements of LT Marcus McNeil and G Kris Dielman could leave the offensive line a disaster. Unless you believe Jared Gaither can become another McNeil, it's a unit that has far more likely holes than it does potential stars. ... I did like the Johnson pick-up, but this defense is too heavily reliant on aging name players (Takeo Spikes, Quentin Jammer) that just don't play to the level their reputations suggest anymore. I think it's very overrated. ... The Ryan Matthews injury means Ronnie Brown could be the Chargers' primary ballcarrier. That would have been a much better thing five years ago than it is now.
The verdict: Rivers gives the Chargers a chance, but I really think people underestimate how much the talent around him has declined in the past few seasons. In the AFC of three years ago, or in this year's NFC, I think this could easily be a sub-.500 team. The finish: 9-7, 2nd in AFC West