NFL division races: AFC West

A look at the strengths, weaknesses, rehab issues and what to expect in the AFC West, as provided by SN's NFL correspondents:
San Diego Chargers
The strength: QB Philip Rivers'(notes) stable of receivers is missing one important piece (Vincent Jackson(notes)), but Rivers still has TE Antonio Gates(notes), who has been the team's leading receiver six seasons running, and dependable Malcom Floyd(notes). The screen game is also a huge part of nfl throwback jerseys
a high-scoring offense.
The weakness: The Chargers have allowed teams to establish the run much of the past three seasons and, as a result, have been kept on their heels. With a new rotation at nose tackle and healthy players at inside linebacker, the defense needs to be consistently better at stopping the run.
The rehab: OLB Shawne Merriman(notes) (Achilles') is pretty much the only injured player heading into the season opener. He appears to be progressing, though he still wears a protective boot after workouts. His status for the opener is unknown, and the Chargers will keep him out until they believe he is healthy enough to stay on the field. They need him to return to at least a semblance of his old dominant self.
The key addition: It appears rookie RB Ryan Mathews(notes) will give the team an explosive running game again. He has shown remarkable quickness outside, power inside and a somewhat surprising ability to catch and run off screens. His presence will help every facet of the offense.
The bottom line: As long as disaster doesn't strike, the regular season is almost irrelevant for the Chargers. Most of the roster is back, and the rest of a weak division doesn't appear ready to halt San Diego's streak of division titles at four. The Chargers should be able to put themselves in position for another postseason run—and it is in the playoffs that this franchise will find its measure.—Kevin Acee
Denver Broncos
The strength: Denver ranked third in pass defense last season (186.3 yards per game), and the secondary appears to be improved with the additions of CB/S Nate Jones and rookie CB Perrish Cox(notes). Opponents may have to attack with the pass more, if the run defense is improved as hoped.
The weakness: The offensive line will be using a new power blocking philosophy and has question marks all around, both personnel- and health-wise. Two players who have never taken NFL snaps will start: rookie J.D. Walton(notes) at center and either Stanley Daniels(notes) or Zane Beadles(notes) at left guard.
The rehab: LT Ryan Clady(notes) returned for the preseason finale after missing the entire offseason and training camp with a torn patellar tendon. He's still trying to getting his conditioning up to par while adjusting to the speed of the game in live action. But he will start.
The key addition: The Broncos claimed Jason Hunter(notes) off waivers late in camp and the converted end is trying to learn the nuances of outside linebacker on the run. Denver is hesitant to play Jarvis Moss(notes) on base downs and instead would like the 271-pound Hunter to hold the edge, which could be a potential problem for him against speedier backs.
The bottom line: QB Kyle Orton's(notes) emergence and some positive signs from his receivers bode well for the offense, though the run game is a concern. Defensively, NT Jamal Williams(notes) and DE Justin Bannan(notes) are huge additions to the line, though the pass rush without Elvis Dumervil(notes) could be problematic. If the Broncos can go 8-8 again, it would be a successful season.—Lee Rasizer
Oakland Raiders
The strength: The Raiders replaced DEs Greg Ellis(notes) and Jay Richardson(notes) with second-year player Matt Shaughnessy(notes) and rookie Lamarr Houston(notes). So far, it appears as if Pittsburgh Steelers jersey
the Raiders found two players who know how to pressure the quarterback on a consistent basis. Having Richard Seymour(notes) and Tommy Kelly(notes) inside helps draw double-teams and frees up the ends, making them all the more effective.
The weakness: The Raiders haven't had a wide receiver catch more than 34 passes in either of the past two seasons. The top four receivers from last year are the primary receivers again this season, which doesn't bode well. No. 1 WR Chaz Schilens(notes) is hurt again, which places a huge burden on second-year players Louis Murphy(notes) and Darrius Heyward-Bey(notes) to be the starters.
The rehab: LG Robert Gallery(notes) is back from a season in which he had surgeries for an appendectomy, a broken leg and a back problem. He appears to be fully recovered and looks every bit as effective as he was before his injuries. He will be counted on to anchor the line.
The key addition: MLB Rolando McClain(notes) has stepped in and replaced defensive anchor Kirk Morrison(notes) without much difficulty. McClain's pedigree as a leader of his college defense has helped him make a seamless transition to the NFL. The Raiders hope McClain will exceed Morrison's production and make more impact plays.
The bottom line: Coach Tom Cable feels the Raiders are primed for a breakthrough after seven straight seasons of at least 11 losses. There are plenty of reasons for optimism, starting with the fact JaMarcus Russell(notes) is gone. However, the Raiders still have several question marks, from receiver to running back to safety. It's realistic to expect them to surpass five wins for the first time since 2002 and perhaps make a push for eight victories.—Steve Corkran
Kansas City Chiefs
The strength: The Chiefs can run the ball with a variety of styles and strengths. With Thomas Jones(notes), Jamaal Charles(notes), Dexter McCluster(notes) and Jackie Battle(notes), the Chiefs should be able to run the ball whether they're trying to convert in short yardage, looking for a big play or trying to kill the clock.
The weakness: Even though they had just 22 sacks last year, the Chiefs added no significant piece to their pass rush. Only OLB Tamba Hali(notes) can be considered a premier pass rusher. The Chiefs will have to rely on their scheme and hope for improvement from their secondary pass rushers like DE Wallace Gilberry(notes).
The rehab: CB Brandon Flowers(notes) played all of last season with an ailing shoulder that limited his play and required offseason surgery. Flowers is healthy and may be primed for a breakout season. To become an elite player, Flowers needs to make the big plays he failed to make last year, when he dropped several potential interceptions.
The key addition: McCluster will get the ball in a variety of ways. The Chiefs have lined him up in the backfield, as a slot receiver, as a wide receiver, as a Wildcat quarterback and as a kickoff and punt returner. He is dangerous in the open field because of his speed and quickness, so he'll be a threat in any of Dallas Cowboys jersey
those roles.
The bottom line: The worst appears over for the Chiefs, who won four, two and four games over the past three seasons. But they have too many holes to be considered a serious contender to win the AFC West or a wild-card berth. The Chiefs could win eight games because of a weak schedule and loom as realistic contenders in 2011.

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