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For Chargers to rise in AFC West, Kansas City is their chief concern

Chargers head coach Brandon Staley claps next to quarterback Justin Herbert before a preseason game.
Chargers head coach Brandon Staley has applauded the progress of second-year quarterback Justin Herbert.
(Ringo Chiu / Associated Press)

Kansas City has won the last five AFC West titles and appeared in consecutive Super Bowls and three conference championship games in a row.

So, yes, the Chiefs are again the team to beat in a division they have dominated going back to the Chargers’ final season in San Diego.

Before Kansas City assumed control, Denver won the AFC West five consecutive seasons, making the division one of the most predictable in the NFL over the last decade.

The Chargers — thanks in large part to Justin Herbert — have become one of the league’s most popular dark-horse picks this summer.

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The second-year quarterback has quickly restored hope for a franchise that has won just 12 of its last 33 games.

“To watch him up close has been amazing,” said Shane Day, the Chargers’ first-year quarterbacks coach. “He has all five tools you’re looking for, which is very rare to find in one person.”

New Chargers coach Brandon Staley isn’t afraid to talk about the franchise’s lack of success. And he’s prepared to change their fortunes.

Along with Herbert’s continued development, the Chargers will be counting on a defense that welcomes the return of safety Derwin James Jr., a 2018 All-Pro who missed most of 2019 and all of 2020 because of injuries.

The Chargers haven’t won the AFC West since 2009 and have missed the playoff six times in seven years. Leapfrogging the Chiefs would seem to be unlikely, but no one last September forecast Herbert doing what he did.

The division also includes Las Vegas, home of the Raiders, who’ve had exactly one winning season since losing Super Bowl XXXVII in January 2003.

How the Chargers’ division rivals shape up entering 2021:

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes walks on the field before a game.
Kansas City is hoping Patrick Mahomes has recovered from the toe injury that hindered the quarterback last season.
(Reed Hoffmann / Associated Press)
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Chiefs

How they can win the division: Patrick Mahomes continuing to be Patrick Mahomes would be a great start. The league’s most dynamic quarterback is bouncing back from a toe injury that required offseason surgery. The Chiefs have completely rebuilt their offensive line, an upgrade that could further help playmakers Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce.

Here’s how every team in the AFC is set to finish over the course of the 2021 NFL season.

Why they wouldn’t: Tampa Bay stunned all of football in Super Bowl LV by holding Mahomes and the Chiefs to three field goals, although Mahomes’ hurting toe contributed. If nothing else, the Buccaneers proved Kansas City’s offense can be stymied. The Chiefs also face some defensive questions, particularly at cornerback.

Denver Broncos quarterback Teddy Bridgewater throws against the Rams in the preseason.
Teddy Bridgewater beat out Drew Lock for the Broncos’ starting quarterback job.
(Associated Press)
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Broncos

How they can win the division: Veteran Teddy Bridgewater emerged in training camp and the preseason to win the quarterback job over Drew Lock. Now Denver needs Bridgewater to play well enough to avoid a quarterback controversy. He does have some weapons, including wide receiver Courtland Sutton, who returns from injury. The Broncos’ defense looks to be potentially stout, particularly in a beefed-up secondary. But injuries riddled their defense a year ago.

When the Chargers line up, the defense led by head coach Brandon Staley appears the same every down. That’s the beauty of this multifaceted approach.

Why they wouldn’t: Until seeing Denver’s offense under Bridgewater, it’s difficult to tell how serious to take this team. Bridgewater’s teams are 26-23 in his 49 NFL starts. He was a Pro Bowl selection in Minnesota, but that was way back in 2015. Coach Vic Fangio is clearly under pressure to win in a city that isn’t content to watch its NFL team miss the playoffs annually.

Raiders quarterback Derek Carr speaks with head coach Jon Gruden.
Can quarterback Derek Carr and coach Jon Gruden finally get the Raiders into the playoffs?
(Steve Marcus / Associated Press)
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Raiders

How they can win the division: The Raiders winning the West would be one of great upsets in league history. They’ve played only one postseason game in 18 years. But, hey, this is the NFL, where the oddest of things can happen. Maybe Derek Carr and the offense blossoms like crazy and Gus Bradley rediscovers his groove as their new defensive coordinator. Jon Gruden’s due some good fortune, right?

Why they wouldn’t: The Raiders appear to be particularly suspect on defense, where they continue to search for a pass rush that has been absent since the departure of Khalil Mack. They have some experience on defense but, of course, that means they also have some age on defense.


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