NFL Pick: 2023 AFC West Winner – Kansas City Chiefs (-182) at BetRivers
In 2022, the AFC West was being hailed by some of us as one of the best division races ever with all the teams loading up to topple the Kansas City Chiefs. By Week 2, we were already looking so foolish.
The Chiefs were 2-0, Justin Herbert’s ribs were injured, the Denver Broncos could not score, and the Las Vegas Raiders blew a 16-point lead in Arizona and fumbled the game away in overtime.
The Chargers would rebound to make the playoffs, but the division was basically locked up by Thanksgiving after the Chiefs swept them. The Raiders and Broncos were embarrassments and combined to blow 11 leads in the fourth quarter, the most by any two teams in the league last year.
- Kansas City Chiefs (-182)
- Los Angeles Chargers (+330)
- Denver Broncos (+600)
- Las Vegas Raiders (+1400)
Are we ready to make the same mistake again and declare a tighter race after the Broncos hired Sean Payton, the Raiders ditched Derek Carr for Jimmy Garoppolo, and the Chargers may one day stop Chargering and hold onto a lead? Or will the Chiefs win the AFC West for an 8th year in a row, the 2nd-longest streak in NFL history?
We have our best bet to win the AFC West below.
Kansas City Chiefs: The Owners of the West
The Chiefs have been the envy of their division rivals for some time now, but it was especially bittersweet in 2022 when the Chiefs finished 6-0 against the AFC West despite 5-of-6 games being decided by one possession. The Broncos, Raiders, and Chargers played some of their best games against the Chiefs, but they all came up short in the end.
The Chiefs continue ripping out the Chargers’ hearts in the fourth quarter, they stopped the Raiders in a 30-29 win after Las Vegas blew another 3-score lead, and not even some of Russell Wilson’s best games as a Bronco could stop Denver’s 15-game losing streak against the Chiefs dating back to 2015.
Sum Of All Things
But if the rest of the division has any hope in Kansas City taking a step back after winning another Super Bowl, it would have to be a combination of things:
- The Chiefs end up missing offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy more than expected – not likely
- At age 34, Travis Kelce starts to fall off at tight end – only Pete Retzlaff has ever had 1,000 yards at tight end at age 34 or older, so this one is possible
- Wide receiver Kadarius Toney is always injured, leaving the team without a reliable No. 1 wide receiver after losing JuJu Smith-Schuster to the Patriots – very likely
- The young defense does not improve as much as hoped – possible without a lot of big-name talent in place
But Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes are great equalizers, and no situation seems to be out of their control to not give this team a shot to win. Mahomes suffered a high-ankle sprain in the first quarter of the first playoff game and he still limped around to win Super Bowl MVP with game-winning drives against the Bengals and Eagles where the key play on both drives was him running. Crazy stuff.
The Chiefs may have some deficiencies at receiver and defense that could cause them trouble in a matchup with the Bengals (Week 17) or Bills (Week 14) when those opposing quarterbacks are on fire. But when it comes to just winning the AFC West, they have more than enough. They have Mahomes. The other teams only have potential and hopes.
Look what good that did them last year.
Los Angeles Chargers: Will the Defense Ever Step Up?
Going back to the days of Dan Fouts, it seems like we are always asking if the Chargers will ever step up on defense and help their prolific quarterback out. Justin Herbert is the latest highly-paid quarterback with a whopping new deal, but people still do not acknowledge how he is right there with Joe Burrow, Josh Allen, and Jalen Hurts as a player, if not better, because he has yet to win a playoff game.
In fact, Herbert is now the guy known for blowing a 27-0 playoff lead, which happened to the Chargers in the wild-card round in Jacksonville last year. The number 27 is a fitting one for Herbert, because the Chargers have allowed 27-plus points in 54% of his starts. That rate is only 20.2% for Allen, 22.4% for Burrow, 34.2% for Hurts, and 38.3% for Mahomes in their careers.
The Chargers were supposed to be better on defense last year, but corner J.C. Jackson was injured after 5 games where he failed to make an interception. Joey Bosa only played in 5 games too as the team failed to get a pass rush going without him.
Mean KC Ribs
Herbert was not the healthiest either, but he still started every game despite injuring his ribs against the Chiefs in Week 2. He dealt with injuries to his top wideouts (Keenan Allen and Mike Williams). That is likely why the Chargers drafted Quentin Johnston in the 1st round this year out of TCU.
But Herbert needs a defense that can close as well as these other quarterbacks have enjoyed. Arguably, no quarterback has played better against the Chiefs than Herbert, but he does not have the record to back it up because his defense keeps failing to stop Mahomes late in games.
Last season is a great example of how close these races really are. The Chargers led in the fourth quarter of both games against the Chiefs, yet Kansas City came back to win both times. If the Chargers (10-7) could just close the Chiefs (14-3) out, both teams would finish 12-5 with the Chargers having the head-to-head advantage.
Maybe Herbert takes his game to the next level this season, but if the defense is not going to come along for the ride, then the Chargers are unlikely to do better than No. 2 again.
Denver Broncos: Will Sean Payton Fix Russ?
New Denver coach Sean Payton made headlines this week by putting down the coaching job Nathaniel Hackett did for the Broncos last year. Hackett was fired before the end of his debut season in Denver. This type of public criticism from a coach almost never comes in a profession known for being a Good Ol’ Boys fraternity.
But it is hard to argue with Payton here, because Hackett really was that terrible. The offense had some tough injuries in running back Javonte Williams and wideout Tim Patrick, but this unit has no excuse to finish dead last in scoring with Russell Wilson looking like one of the worst quarterbacks in the league instead of the future Hall of Famer he is.
That is why Payton joining the team to fix Wilson and the offense, his specialty in New Orleans, is such an intriguing move for the 2023 season. Denver had the best defense in the division last year by far, but it wasted it with an offense that could not move or score the football.
Oddly enough, Wilson played some of his best games against the Chiefs, but he still came up short and was injured with a concussion in the rematch. You know Payton will want to end that 15-game losing streak to the Chiefs, and Denver has played Mahomes better than most teams in the league over the years. Unfortunately, the offense has been a problem in Denver for many years now.
This is why Payton is in a great spot for Coach of the Year if the Broncos can make the playoffs after blowing 5 fourth-quarter leads last year. But jumping ahead of the Chargers and Chiefs to win the division title might be asking for too much right away.
Las Vegas Raiders: Positive Regression?
While it would be silly to say quarterback Derek Carr was the main problem for Las Vegas finishing 6-11 last year, it was time for both parties to move on after 9 seasons that failed to produce a playoff win.
But in 2022, the Raiders under Josh McDaniels found some of the most incredible ways to blow leads, including a record-tying 3 blown leads of 17-plus points early in the season. In all, the Raiders would blow a league-worst 6 leads in the fourth quarter, including an unbelievable final drive to Baker Mayfield, who had only joined the Rams less than 48 hours before kickoff.
This is how the Raiders finished 6-11 despite Josh Jacobs winning the rushing title with 1,653 yards and Davante Adams leading the league in touchdown catches (14). But Chandler Jones was a bust on defense with only 4.5 sacks, not providing Maxx Crosby the help he needed.
New QB In Town
With Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback, the Raiders have someone familiar with McDaniels’ work in New England and what he wants to accomplish on offense. You could even argue that Garoppolo may be a lot easier for McDaniels to control and do what he wants over the more experienced Carr who was pretty set in his ways with the team.
But Garoppolo’s durability is lacking, and he is unlikely to have the YAC machines at receivers or quality defense that he had in San Francisco. The Raiders are in a solid position to improve on last year’s record, but that is about where the expectations stop.
Conclusion: And the Division Winner Is…
Look, the Chiefs are 42-6 (.875) in division games since 2015. That is an absurd plus-9 wins over any other team’s division record in that time. Even when the Patriots won 11 straight divisions, they were 52-14 (.788) in division games.
If the rest of the AFC West found a way to steal a game from the Chiefs and make them go 3-3 in the division, that would still leave Kansas City as the team most likely to win 12 or more games here.
The Chiefs could even lose to Buffalo and Cincinnati in the regular season again to go with their 3-3 division record and still finish 12-5. Russell Wilson has won 12 games one time since 2015. Herbert is 25-25 as a starter for the Chargers. McDaniels is 17-28 (.378) as a head coach in his career. This may not be the rogues’ gallery needed to bring down the Chiefs this year.
Maybe this is the year when Denver ends the 15-game losing streak to Kansas City, Herbert gets the last score instead of Mahomes in a game, and the Raiders win more than 6 games. But when it comes to finishing on top of the AFC West, the best NFL pick is still the Kansas City Chiefs.
NFL Pick: 2023 AFC West Winner – Kansas City Chiefs (-182) at BetRivers