After seven weeks, the NFL season has us left guessing about plenty. One thing we do know? The AFC West is going to be a beautiful brawl.
Of the eight divisions in the National Football League, so much feels determined. The Houston Texans are going to win the AFC South. In the East, the New England Patriots have a stranglehold. If you go to the NFC, the Atlanta Falcons, Seattle Seahawks and Dallas Cowboys feel like fairly certain bets to hang a banner.
The one division giving us more drama than any of the others? The AFC West. For years, the West has been owned by the Denver Broncos. Since the start of 2011, nobody has been able to wrestle away the title from Denver. The Oakland Raiders haven’t had a winning season since 2002 and the San Diego Chargers have been inconsistent at best. The Kansas City Chiefs have challenged recently, but the Broncos have kept them at bay.
In 2016, the West is wide open. Kansas City and Denver are both 4-2 (the Broncos host the Houston Texans on Monday night) while Oakland has gotten off to a first-place start at 5-2. However, the Raiders have already lost to the Chiefs, who went into Oakland Coliseum and left with a convincing 26-10 win.
Kansas City and Denver won’t play each other until Week 12, perhaps setting up high drama. The final contest between them comes on Christmas night, a nationally televised game in Arrowhead Stadium. It could be for all the marbles.
The Chargers are also going to factor in, despite losing a host of games early in the season with devastating collapses. San Diego is hurt by a 1-2 mark in the division, but wins against the Broncos and Atlanta Falcons over the past two weeks have kept it in contention at 3-4.
In Week 9, the Raiders play the Broncos in Oakland on Sunday Night Football. It marks the point where Jack Del Rio’s group begins a much harder portion of the schedule. If the Raiders can win, they could have an inside track to the division title should the Chiefs sputter.
As for the Chiefs, they are playing a weak part of their docket. At 4-2, Kansas City is looking at four games against the Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers over the next month. While much work remains, the Chiefs could be 8-2. Kansas City is also the only undefeated Western team within the division at 2-0, and will have outside linebacker Justin Houston back in the next few weeks.
At this point, the race is far too close to call. Denver has to be called the favorite due to pedigree and history, but the Chiefs and Raiders especially seem to have the right stuff. If Oakland can start winning at home (1-2 at home, 4-0 on road) it could make the playoffs for the first time since losing Super Bowl XXXVII.
Keep your eyes on the West. It’s going to be a circus.
Top 10 MVP candidates in 2016
1. Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons
2. Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys
3. Von Miller, OLB, Denver Broncos
4. Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons
5. Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots
6. Marcus Peters, CB, Kansas City Chiefs
7. Amari Cooper, WR, Oakland Raiders
8. Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit Lions
9. Odell Beckham Jr., WR, New York Giants
10. Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers
"“These quarterbacks only have so many these hits in their body, you know? Pretty soon, guys don’t get up all the time, and that’s what’s been happening. It’s unfortunate. It’s just been happening way too much.”"
– Cleveland Browns head coach Hue Jackson, on his latest quarterback injury
The Browns are now on their sixth quarterback of the season after watching Cody Kessler get repeatedly hammered into the turf in Cincinnati. The Bengals creamed Kessler into oblivion, bringing in Kevin Hogan. Hogan was claimed off waivers from the Kansas City Chiefs, who released their fifth-round pick in September.
At some point, there needs to be a questioning of general manager Sashi Brown. It’s one thing to rebuild. It’s quite another to get these quarterbacks crushed because you let Alex Mack and Mitch Schwartz walk out the door for compensatory picks.
The Baltimore Ravens are the first team in NFL history to lose consecutive road games at the same stadium, per Andrew Siciliano of NFL Network. Baltimore fell to the New York Giants, 27-23, last weekend before losing 24-16 to the New York Jets on Sunday. Both games were at MetLife Stadium.
Info learned this week
1. Buffalo still doesn’t have killer instinct
The Bills had every opportunity on Sunday to beat the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium, but ultimately fell 28-25. Buffalo allowed 256 rushing yards in the contest, including a 200-yard game by Jay Ajayi. Buffalo simply could not handle the fronts on either side of the ball and now finds itself 4-3.
The Bills need to win these types of games. Buffalo has already lost to the Jets and Dolphins this year, and hopes of reaching the playoffs for the first time since 1999 are dimming. Why? Because the Bills still have games against the Steelers, Raiders, Patriots, Bengals and Seahawks. Considering 10-6 might be the record needed to reach the postseason, Buffalo is in trouble.
2. 49ers must move on from Trent Baalke
The San Francisco 49ers lost again on Sunday, falling to 1-6 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. If not for the Browns, everyone would be talked about the 49ers as the worst team in the game, with the worst roster going. Instead, San Francisco is getting a national free pass, because nobody cares about the second-worst.
At some point, owner Jed York needs o fire general manager Trent Baalke. His reign started well enough with a loaded roster and Jim Harbaugh at the helm, but things have fallen apart. Baalke has also had multiple shots at hiring the right coach, but Jim Tomsula wasn’t it and Chip Kelly doesn’t appear to be either. York can’t allow Baalke to make another draft pick … or hiring.
3. AFC South continues to disappoint
On Sunday, the Colts defeated the Titans, but the game was nothing to be proud of. Each team bumble and stumbled through much of the afternoon, with a combined 18 penalties. Both sit at 3-4, and neither appear to be any sort of a playoff contender.
However, the biggest mess is down in Jacksonville. Multiple players were thrown out in an ugly 33-16 defeat to the Raiders at home. The Jaguars are now 2-4 and on the brink of a total meltdown. Gus Bradley has the hottest seat in football.
4. Packers have plenty to prove
The Green Bay Packers won on Thursday night, but it was anything but convincing. The Packers won 26-10 but were trailing in the third quarter, at Lambeau Field, facing the Bears and Matt Barkley at quarterback. It’s fair to wonder if Green Bay is a real contender, or if this team would simply be a one-and-done in the postseason.
Green Bay did get some help this weekend with the loss of the Vikings. Sam Bradford was roughed up in a loss at Philadelphia, putting Minnesota only one game ahead of the Packers in the NFC North.
5. Case Keenum sets football back at least 250 years
At what point does Los Angeles Rams head coach Jeff Fisher bench quarterback Case Keenum? In London, Keenum threw four interceptions including perhaps the ugliest duck in NFL history. At 3-4, the Rams still have a flicker of hope for a wild card spot, but that hope is quickly fading.
To bench Keenum, the Rams would have to feel comfortable in first-overall pick Jared Goff. Apparently they don’t, which really says something about the former University of California star. If Goff isn’t better than Keenum, maybe Los Angeles has bigger problems than we know.
The 1969 Chiefs had one of the greatest defensive units of all-time. They led in almost every statistical category and engineered a monumental upset in Super Bowl IV, beating the Vikings by a 23-7 score.
Yet the most incredible stat lies in the details. Dickie Post of the Chargers led the American Football League in rushing that season with 869 yards. In two games against the Chiefs, Post rushed for a total of four yards.
If the NFL wants ratings to start going back up, it starts with the primetime matchups. The Sunday night game this weekend was a great get with the Cardinals and Seahawks going at it. On Monday, you get the return of Brock Osweiler when the Texans take on the Broncos.
Unfortunately, that is the end of good primetime football. On Thursday night, the Jaguars and Titans play a punchless contest that nobody wants to watch. Next Sunday does gives us the Cowboys and Eagles, but then Monday night has the Bears hosting the Vikings. Minnesota is excellent, but Chicago? Ugh.
The NFL needs to start flexing games on Monday night as well as Sunday. Some of these matchups are unbearable, and killing ratings for a league that has an eagle eye on them.
Another issue is the notion that every team must play on Thursday night. The idea is forcing contests like the Week 10 game between the Browns and Ravens and Week 11 tilt featuring the Saints and Panthers.