The race is really heating up now that the Chargers have shown that they are human late in the season. The Broncos are officially eliminated from playoff contention, but the other three teams are sprinting towards the finish line that is decorated in AFC West Championship tape. Here’s a look at what happened and what’s to come.
Denver Broncos (3-9):
Looking Back: Looking back on the past two years brings on ill feelings – think the stomach flu, pneumonia, and a migraine headache rolled up into one lovely gift-wrapped package. The 5-17 finish to Josh McDaniels’ career in Denver has the Broncos looking forward and nowhere else. They lost a bizarre game in Kansas City last week 10-6 in which Kyle Orton was the one not playing up to snuff. The defense did a fine job holding the Chiefs ground game and their up-and-coming passing game, but there was an offensive lull for the 4th ranked passing team. Champ played like a champ as usual and shutdown Dwayne Bowe completely. Forget Revis Island. Think Champ Mesa.
Looking Forward: Around Denver, it feels a little like spring. With McDaniels out, people can suddenly hear the birds chirping and see life returning after the dead period. The Broncos travel to sunny Arizona to play the 3-9 Cardinals. This is the perfect time for interim head coach Eric Studesville to pick up his first win. The Cardinals are in last place in a division that is often described as the armpit of the league. This Cardinals team can’t score and they can’t keep anyone from scoring. They’re ranked 31st on offense and 32nd on defense. Roll over and get out of bed, Denver. The sun is shining and it’s a brand new day.
Kansas City Chiefs (8-4):
Looking Back: Moving full speed ahead, this team has caught the league by surprise. Even the Eli Young Band couldn’t remember the words to the National Anthem in Kansas City – the city if full force red. It wasn’t an easy ride to a ‘W’ but the Chiefs proved that they could win a close game even when all was not going right for them. Matt Cassel went 17-for-31 for 196 yards and 1 touchdown. Jamaal Charles put a heavy load on his shoulders and carried the team by carrying the ball for 116 yards on 21 touches. Todd Haley was the one to get the last laugh. That handshake and hug turned out to be a farewell gesture for McDaniels.
Looking Forward: This next game is huge. A win in San Diego would essentially be like two wins for the Chiefs with three weeks left in the regular season. They do it this week, and they can basically write their own ticket to the playoffs. The last time these two teams met was essentially last season. They met in week one with the Chiefs coming out on top 21-14. Since then, the Chargers have established their defensive game and corrected their problems on special teams (temporarily?). The Chiefs have proven to be destructible, but they’ve got three consecutive wins under the belt and a playoff berth on the mind and in the heart.
Oakland Raiders (6-6):
Looking Back: Still in the thick of things, the Raiders stunned the Chargers 28-13 in San Diego. That put their previous two losses in the record books and put their minds on the prize. The offense was balanced with Jason Campbell going 10-for-16 for 117 yards, 1 throwing TD, and 1 rushing TD. Darren McFadden had 97 yards and a score while Michael Bush tacked on 95 yards and another score. Defensively, they forced two turnovers and sacked Philip Rivers 4 times. They held the Chargers to their lowest point total of the season in a time when the Bolts are supposed to be on fire and primed for the playoffs. The Raiders put a dark cloud over San Diego for once and are gaining confidence along the way.
Looking Forward: The Raiders travel to Jacksonville to take on the 7-5 Jaguars. Both of these teams are in the playoff hunt so expect a physical and competitive game. The Jags are unexpectedly in first place in the AFC South, so they’re looking to build on their lead. The Jags are ranked 18th on offense and 24th on defense so their 7-5 record is a bit surprising, but they do come through when the game is on the line. The Raiders will continue to put their faith in the arm of Campbell and the legs of McFadden.
San Diego Chargers (6-6):
Looking Back: They’re used to bolting for the post season and they were well on their way with four consecutive wins before they lost to the Raiders in week 13. The team had not had a loss in December since 2005, a truly remarkable streak. The Chargers’ special teams problems came back with a force. Darren Sproles fumbled a punt in the first quarter and coverage was spotty. Philip Rivers went 23-for-39 for 280 yards, 1 TD, and 1 INT and could not convert on third down (3-for-10). The Chargers only ran the ball 8 times for 21 yards. The defense was sucking wind being forced to be on the field for nearly 39 minutes of the game. It was all Raiders from the outset. They had a 21-3 halftime lead and it was a deficit that even Rivers couldn’t come back from.
Looking Forward: The Chargers may take a page out of the Broncos’ retired playbook for how to stop the Chiefs’ offense, or hope that the Chiefs trip themselves up again. The Chargers are ranked 3rd on offense and 15th on defense. Will this team get back on track or will their late season run officially be over? The Chiefs are pushing for the later and hoping to strike early and often so Rivers’ offense can’t catch up.
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