Assessing The Tight AFC West

Now that every team in the AFC West is on a level playing field having endured nine games to this point in the NFL schedule, the Bolts aren’t looking nearly as bad as they had just two weeks ago. With the Kansas City Chiefs currently on a two game slide, the Chargers find themselves just one game back of both KC and the Oakland Raiders.

The negative side to this is that San Diego has already dropped a game to both the Chiefs and Raiders this season. Of course the Bolts have a huge positive on their side in terms of scheduling with both Oakland and KC at home on their remaining slate of upcoming games. The Chargers will also play the Denver Broncos both home and away which leaves them four decisive divisional clashes out of their seven games left on the schedule. Three of those four contests will take place at home as well giving the Bolts a decided advantage with a raucous home crowd.

After seeing the other teams in the division beat up on one another over the past few weeks, what once looked like an insurmountable deficit from the basement of the AFC West is now well within reach for the Bolts.

The late season surge will begin coming out of the bye week with the aforementioned Broncos visiting Qualcomm Stadium on Monday Night Football in the Bolts first primetime appearance since the season opener. This team has been much more impressive at home all year long and the ability to come out of the bye week without any travel headaches cannot be overstated in terms of simplifying the weekly process.

Denver has been quite a schizophrenic team themselves thus far this year having lost four games in a row prior to their shellacking of the Chiefs in week 10. It remains to be seen which Broncos team will show up when they play in San Diego, but the Bolts have to be prepared for the juggernaut offense led by Kyle Orton and Knowshon Moreno that showed up against Kansas City.

Although the Broncos offense was balanced with a steady diet of Moreno on the ground and some well timed throws by Orton, their defense still left a lot to be desired. Kansas City’s Matt Cassel threw for a career-best 469 yards and four touchdowns to keep the Chiefs in the game. The recipient on most of Cassel’s throws was Dwayne Bowe who had a monstrous day with 13 catches for 186 yards and two scores.

For San Diego, Malcom Floyd could be that Bowe type of target for Philip Rivers with his lanky build, skills to high point the ball, and terrific top end speed to stretch the field. Both Legedu Naanee and Antonio Gates can provide the underneath routes that will potentially open up with Floyd stretching the defense vertically.

These scenarios are all hypothetical at this point unfortunately with the playing status for all three of these guys still somewhat unknown. The other portion of the injury plot that continues to be a mystery is the health of rookie running back Ryan Mathews. His availability (or lack thereof) thus far in the season has been a disturbing trend just coming into the league leading many to question whether or not he has the durability to endure a full season’s worth of NFL punishment.

Having Mathews one hundred percent healthy down the stretch and into the postseason is going to play a huge role in determining just how successful the Bolts can be on offense. At least having that threat of run on third and short or on first down to keep defenses honest is a big deal. Mike Tolbert has stepped up to take carries and do a fine job with them in Mathews’ absence, but the Bolts would prefer to have their full complement of backs in the stable for this playoff push.

As we look ahead to this coming week’s meeting with Denver, containing Orton and the Broncos’ passing attack has to be bulletin point number one with wrap-up tackling at the second level to keep gains at a minimum. The Bolts have shown a vulnerability to be beaten on the long ball this year on a number of occasions so they have to guard against that possibility in this primetime tilt.

It’s going to be interesting to see how the injury front changes as this week progresses and those developments will weigh heavily on the outcome of Monday night’s game.

Now for some fan input. With the AFC West a jumbled mess at the top, is it now safe to call the Bolts the prohibitive favorites to win the division? After watching the Chiefs and Broncos high-flying offenses last weekend, what do you expect to see when Denver visits San Diego in week 11? Should Ryan Mathews’ injuries be considered a big concern for the Bolts or is this just part of the growing process for a rookie in the NFL? Over or under 70 points combined when the Broncos and Bolts hookup this week? Please leave your thoughts below!

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November 16, 2010

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