Analysis

Is the AFC West The Toughest Division Of All Time?

Is the AFC West The Toughest Division Of All Time?
Tom Rudawky is a former NFL scout who has worked for the Miami Dolphins and New York Giants. He now writes for The 33rd Team among other publications. Find him on Twitter @TRudy831

On December 26th, 2021, one day after families around the world opened Christmas presents and celebrated the holidays together, the Kansas City Chiefs did something that’s basically become as much of a tradition as Christmas lately: they clinched the AFC West. With a convincing 36-10 win over the Steelers, they marched to their sixth straight division title. A lot has happened since 2015 – after all, the last time somebody other than the Chiefs won the division, Barack Obama was president.

Kansas City has been the standard in the division for a while, but once the Chiefs unleashed Patrick Mahomes as their starting QB in 2018, the message was especially loud and clear for the Broncos, Raiders, and Chargers: The stranglehold that the Chiefs had on the division wasn’t going away easily. In 2019, Kansas City won the division by five whole games. In 2020, they were a whopping six games clear of the 2nd-place Raiders.

To start the 2021 season, things were different. After seven weeks, Kansas City found themselves in last place, while also looking like a pedestrian football team with a wide array of flaws. Flash forward to December 26th, and the cream had once again risen to the top. After their 3-4 start to begin the year, they rattled off eight wins in a row, while the other teams in the division weakened. For Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes, order was restored as they once again found themselves at the pinnacle of the AFC West. 

Despite the Chiefs being division champions yet again in 2021, the other three teams all showed reason to believe they weren’t far away from being a Super Bowl contender. The Raiders found themselves in the playoffs, while Derek Carr played excellent football and Maxx Crosby rose to prominence as an elite defender. The Chargers have a star in the making in Justin Herbert at Quarterback and a rising young coach in Brandon Staley. The Broncos sport a top tier defense and an impressive core of young playmakers.

We are roughly one week into the new NFL league year, and the already formidable AFC West now looks much more than just formidable — on paper it looks like one of the best divisions the NFL has ever seen.

The other three teams have all taken drastic measures to improve their clubs, revealing that they’re all going after a Lombardi trophy in 2022. But first, they’ll have to start with dethroning the six-time division champions, who took a massive hit on Wednesday when they traded away All-Star receiver Tyreek Hill. Kansas City netted five total draft picks, including a first, second, and fourth rounder in this year’s draft. Losing Hill means losing one of the most impactful skill players in the entire league – and you better believe general managers and coaches across the AFC West were thrilled by the news.

It’s been a wild offseason across the entire NFL, but especially this division. Below is a timeline of the last few weeks, including the major additions by all clubs in the division. While the moves prior to March 16th weren’t officially processed until then (due to the start of the league year), they were agreed upon in the days prior.

March 8th: Broncos trade for Russell Wilson, giving them a franchise-altering quarterback.

March 14th: Chargers sign CB J.C. Jackson to 5-year, $82.5 million deal, inking one of the game’s best corners to pair with an already strong secondary that includes Derwin James.

March 14th: Chiefs sign safety Justin Reid to 3-year, $31.5 million contract. Reid replaces Tyrann Mathieu on the back end and gives the Chiefs a younger safety to head into the future with.

March 14th: Chargers also sign DT Sebastian Joseph-Day to 3-year deal. Joseph-Day played under Staley in 2020 with the Rams, and provides the Chargers a reliable run-stopper.

March 15th: Broncos sign Edge Randy Gregory to 5-year deal, adding another impact defender to their front four.

March 16th: Raiders sign Edge Chandler Jones to 3-year deal worth $52.5 million. Having extended Maxx Crosby just five days before, adding Jones means the Raiders have one of the games best pass rushing tandems.

March 16th: Chargers trade for star pass rusher Khalil Mack, giving them an elite pass rushing tandem of their own. 

March 17th: In a trade that almost broke Twitter, the Raiders landed the game’s best Wide Receiver in Davante Adams, trading 1st and 2nd round picks for him. They subsequently signed him to a 5-year contract extension.

While these weren’t the only moves made by these clubs, they all consist of game-changing players entering the AFC West. As if there weren’t enough dynamic talents already. 

To recap, the Raiders now have Maxx Crosby and Chandler Jones rushing the passer, and possess a ridiculous pass catching trio of Davante Adams, Hunter Renfrow, and Darren Waller.

The Chargers added three defenders who are among the best in the league at what they do in Jackson, Mack, and Joseph-Day. It’s awfully hard to find fault with any aspect of this defense on paper. Offensively, they charge into the future with an enormously talented young signal caller in Justin Herbert.

The Broncos added this guy named Russell Wilson, rounding out an already stout roster and leaving no excuses to do anything but win games.

That leaves us with the Chiefs, who, despite losing Hill, still have Patrick Mahomes and a coaching staff that has full expectations of making it seven AFC West crowns in a row. They now have a lot of draft capital, where they will presumably look to add at least one skill player to try and fill the void of Hill leaving.

So, what is there to make of all of this? Well, for one, it leaves four teams who would all be disappointed to miss the playoffs next year. Seriously. Any one of these teams missing the playoffs in 2022 would leave their fan base scratching their heads as to what went wrong based on the collection of talent that all four clubs have assembled. 

Since the NFL changed their playoff rules in 2020 to allow seven teams entry into the postseason, a division has gotten three teams into the field twice. In 2020, three AFC North clubs qualified. This past season, the NFC West saw three teams make the field. In both instances, the fourth place team in that division won seven games or fewer, and was at least two full games out of a playoff spot. While it is possible that all four could make the playoffs, it seems highly unlikely, given that each team will play each other twice. Running a fully random simulation (using nflseedR), the chance of the AFC West sending all four teams to the playoffs is roughly 0.5%. 

So, on paper, who is the weakest team in the division? That’s the tough part. One could reasonably make the case for every team being the weakest, while simultaneously making a case for that team to be the strongest. Therein lies the intrigue — something’s got to give, and we all know it. It’s worth noting that three of the four head coaches in the division are entering year one or two with their respective team. However, it’s very hard to look at any of these teams and not see a playoff-caliber club. Of course, injuries can take its toll in this sport, but unless there is a big injury to a team’s starting quarterback, there’s still reason to believe that team can make the dance.

That begets more intrigue regarding the ridiculously small margin for error that all four teams will face this year. In a division with four great teams, greater pressure exists to win every single week, not just when playing intra-division games. When they do play each other, it is sure to be must-see television. Every team has a top-tier quarterback and game-wrecking playmakers on both sides of the ball. The 1-on-1 matchups are going to be plentiful. The coaching matchups are going to be riveting. The end of game scenarios are going to have football fans everywhere enthralled.

What makes the postseason race even more fascinating is the strength of the entire AFC, not just the West. Besides the Texans, Jaguars, and Jets, it’s completely reasonable to envision a scenario for every other team that ends with playing mid-January football (or beyond).

The entire AFC is going to be a battle in 2022, and that starts with an absolutely loaded AFC West. Four teams with complete rosters. Four teams with quarterbacks capable of elite play. Four teams with realistic goals of hoisting the Lombardi trophy at the end.

This seems like an entertaining collision course sent straight from the heavens to football fans everywhere. Is the AFC West the toughest division of all time? That remains to be seen. But if each of these teams is nearly as good as they look on paper, the AFC West is going to be a wild ride.

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