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NFL 2014 Preview: Expect Peyton Manning and the Broncos to lead the AFC West

AFC West: Will Peyton Manning and the Broncos have the same magic in 2014?
AFC West: Philip Rivers looked sharp last season but will the Chargers be able to defend the pass this year?

The Denver Broncos' offense was off the charts last season but they came just short of the organization's third Super Bowl title in a disappointing loss to the defensive-minded Seattle Seahawks. This season, the Broncos look to repeat as division champions and give Peyton Manning at least one more chance to lift the Lombardi Trophy.

In order to get there, they'll have to top a focused Philip Rivers in San Diego, Andy Reid and the Kansas City Chiefs and, of course, the Oakland Raiders. 

In predicted order of finish:

AFC West

1. DENVER
2013 | 13-3, 1st in West
Last year in playoffs | 2013

Going all the way: Offense-minded Denver beefed up on the other side of the ball, adding endDeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib, and safety T.J. Ward. Peyton Manning looks as sharp as ever. Deep threat Emmanuel Sanders more than makes up for the loss of receiver Eric Decker.

They’re doomed: Manning has had two great seasons in Denver, but does he have another at age 38? The defensive additions might look better on paper than in reality. Several key players are coming off injuries, among them linebacker Von Miller, cornerback Chris Harris, defensive end Derek Wolfe and tackle Ryan Clady. No obvious choice to return punts or kicks. And the schedule is tough, with games against the NFC West and at New England.

Now hear this: “I think [Manning] has got more weapons around him than he’s ever had. There’s more depth behind him. The offensive line is probably the best he’s ever played behind.” — John Elway, executive vice president of football operations

2. SAN DIEGO
2013 | 9-7, 3rd in West
Last year in playoffs | 2013

Going all the way: Philip Rivers was back to form last season, leading the league in completion percentage. Pass defense was a major area of concern last season, although that improved late in the year. That should be better still with the addition of two good cornerbacks — first-round pick Jason Verrett and free agent Brandon Flowers. 

They’re doomed: The Chargers need to generate a pass rush, and their two biggest threats are coming off serious injuries, linebackers Melvin Ingram (torn ACL) and Dwight Freeney missed (torn quadriceps). Depth on the defensive line is a problem, as is tackling. 

Now hear this: “I’ve watched that playoff game in Denver so many times. Some of it is watching it for fun, not that all of that game was fun, and some of it’s for, man, how close were we? We were right there. Let’s get back right there.” — Rivers, on the 24-17 loss to the Broncos in a divisional playoff game.

3. KANSAS CITY
2013 | 11-5, 2nd in West
Last year in playoffs | 2013

Going all the way: Not only did Andy Reid execute a brilliant makeover of the Chiefs in his first season — the franchise went from 2-14 to 11-5 — but also he guided an NFL franchise to the playoffs for the 10th time in 15 seasons. The defensive front seven is loaded with talent, and Eric Berry is among the NFL’s best safeties. On offense, there’s the steady hand of quarterbackAlex Smith, and the speed of running back Jamaal Charles.

They’re doomed: Yes, the Chiefs got off to a great start in 2013, but they won only two games in the second half of the season. They lost a lot to free agency, especially on the offensive line and in the secondary. 

Now hear this: “I’m still not over it. Of all the games I’ve played, two AFC championship games, losing in those AFC championship games, I don’t know if I’ve ever hurt more than after that game. Then to have to sit on that for 3 1/2 months....” — Defensive end Mike DeVito on blowing a 28-point lead in the third quarter to lose to Indianapolis, 45-44, in the playoffs.

4. OAKLAND
2013 | 4-12, 4th in West
Last year in playoffs | 2002

Going all the way:  The Raiders don’t lack for experience. They loaded up this off-season with onetime stars who have lost their luster: quarterback Matt Schaub, running back Maurice Jones-Drew, and defenders Justin Tuck, LaMarr Woodley, Antonio Smith and Carlos Rogers. If they can make the impact the Raiders are expecting, the club can avoid a third consecutive four-win season.

They’re doomed: Seldom does an influx of expensive, thirtysomething free agents produce the desired results. Schaub was in a downward spiral last season, and the Raiders could have to turn to rookie quarterback Derek Carr sooner than they hoped. 

Now hear this: “Schaubby’s getting his mojo back. He’s getting his confidence back. He’s starting to believe in himself again. He is starting to throw with confidence.” — Smith on Schaub, his former teammate in Houston.

Times staff writer Matt Wilhalme contributed to this post

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