Five Things We Learned About The AFC West - WK 01, 2010

While San Diego Chargers fans eagerly await the kickoff to the 2010 NFL season tonight in Kansas City (ESPN – 7:15 pm), the first full slate of NFL games on Sunday certainly provided valuable insight for what is to come for the Chargers this year.

With both the Oakland Raiders, who fell 38-13 to the Tennessee Titans, and Denver Broncos, who lost 24-17 to the Jacksonville Jaguars, playing on Sunday, a few assumptions can be made regarding the makeup of the AFC West this year.

That being said, if anyone knows not to over-analyze early-season performances and make rash assumptions regarding the remaining regular season games, it’s Chargers fans. After suffering three consecutive sluggish starts under head coach Norv Turner, San Diegans know that September games don’t necessarily foreshadow whether or not a team will still be alive in December.

Regardless, breaking down the current film of two division rivals is more valuable to San Diego than making predictions based on last year’s performances. So here are five things we learned about the AFC West on Sunday:

1. The Raiders had more wrong with them than JaMarcus Russell.

The Raiders seemed to be a continuation of their 2009 form in Tennessee Sunday. The Titans dismantled Oakland completely, racking up 205 yards on the ground (142 of which were Chris Johnson’s) while allowing Vince Young to be effective in the air (13/17, 154 yards, 2 TDs).

Despite cutting the 2007 first overall pick in Russell and adding former Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell (22/37, 180 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT), Oakland was inept offensively and will need some serious changes in order to compete for a division crown.

The lone bright spot for the Raiders was running back Darren McFadden (18 carries for 95 yards), but it will take much more for the Raiders to improve beyond last year’s 5-11 finish.

2. The Broncos aren’t there – yet.

After winning the first six games in 2009 and seeming poised to run away with the AFC West, the 2010 version of the Broncos kicked off the season in opposite fashion.

Denver fell to Jacksonville 24-17 and made quarterback David Garrard, who lead the Jaguars to a 7-9 record last year, look better than he is. While Garrard completed 16/21 passes for 170 yards and 3 touchdowns, Philip Rivers must have been licking his chops.

Bottom line: a playoff-caliber team has to beat the Jaguars in September. Winnable games aren’t easy to come by in the NFL, and one just got by the Broncos.

3. Ryan Mathews is in the right place to have the breakout year many have been predicting.

The Raiders and Broncos combined to allow 304 yards on 73 carries (4.1 yard average) Sunday. While Chris Johnson, who rushed for 2,006 yards in 2009, churned out nearly half of those yards, the fact remains that neither team looked like a run stopping force.

Jacksonville running back nearly broke the century mark against the Broncos (98 yards on 23 carries). Even Tennessee’s back up running back, Javon Ringer, averaged 6.6 yards per carry against the Raiders.

So what does that mean for the Chargers?

If Turner is true to his word about getting Mathews the ball regularly this year, the rookie running back has a chance to seriously contend for the AFC Offensive Rookie of the Year. With four combined games against Denver and Oakland, Mathews should have some big games for the Chargers.

Production is reliant on opportunity, both in terms of getting carries and playing susceptible defenses. After Sunday, at least the latter seems assured.

4. This is the Chargers’ division to lose.

With the expected improvement of the other three members of the AFC West along with looming questions about the San Diego roster, some have questioned the likelihood of the Chargers capturing the division crown for the fifth consecutive year.

With Sunday’s results, it seems as if neither the Broncos nor the Raiders seem ready to compete for a division title. While I expect Denver is better than they looked today, next week’s clash with the Seahawks became more daunting after Seattle beat trendy NFC West favorite San Francisco handily, 31-6.

That game, followed by meetings with Indianapolis (0-1 after a tough loss to Houston), Tennessee (1-0), Baltimore and the New York Jets (who play the early game tonight), make it so it might be awhile before the Broncos get a win.

The Raiders, meanwhile, look no better than their usual 5 win selves and we’re yet to see the Chiefs, which brings me to my final point…

5. The Chargers need a victory tonight.

A win tonight would put San Diego in the driver’s seat of the division immediately. The three other teams would be 0-1 to start the year. Combine that with the team’s need to prove it can finally start quickly, and suddenly a game against a team that was 4-12 last year seems more important than expected.

Sure, early season games shouldn’t be weighed too heavily. And yes, the Chargers could certainly recover from a loss. But that doesn’t change the fact that win tonight would place San Diego in immediate control of the division.

September 13, 2010

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