AFC West Over/Unders: Can Justin Herbert Break L.A.'s Curse?

Los Angeles Chargers QB Justin Herbert
Los Angeles Chargers QB Justin Herbert
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Preseason Week 2 - Bryan: Welcome back to our preseason over/under series! As you read this, the league is winding up for the second week of preseason games, which is the week most likely to see actual players you'll be watching in 2022 play football for something approaching a reasonable amount of time. In a slate of meaningless games, this week's set are arguably the least meaningless. Hurray!

To celebrate, we'll look at the least-meaningless division in football, the one everyone and their brother expects to be the best in the league this season: the AFC West.

Cale: The AFC West is football on full tilt. It operates on the same logic you operate a Madden franchise with when you turn the computer's team-building AI all the way down. All the quarterbacks! All the offense! Defenses built on nothing but Pro Bowl edge rushers and cornerbacks! Feel it! Smell it! Football!

Bryan: I'm definitely on the same page as you here. The arms race in this division has been one of the more fascinating things to watch, and I'm very optimistic about all four teams in the short term. If you were to create all-division teams, the AFC West would, on paper, blow out any other division in the league. I think they have the highest combined ceiling. I think they have the highest combined floor. I'm optimistic out the wazoo in terms of team quality.

I'm less optimistic about wins, because they're all going to smash into each other for 18 weeks, and they can't all reach their potential. But watching them try is going to be something else.

Denver Broncos (10)

Cale: What an offseason for the Broncos. Landing a new franchise quarterback, prying a star edge rusher away from his team after already agreeing to a deal, and a team sale, all over the course of a few months. In any other offseason, Denver would be dominating the summer conversation in the AFC West. Too bad this wasn't any ordinary offseason for this division.

Bryan: I suppose the big question for the Broncos is how much Russell Wilson has left in the tank. He hasn't put up double-digit DVOA or a top-10 finish in DYAR since 2019, and he is 33 years old. For a quarterback who relied so much on athleticism, that's an age where you might expect to see some natural decline. That being said, Denver's quarterback by the end of last season was Drew Lock, and what kind of crazy, half-baked franchise would prefer Lock over Wilson?

Cale: There's certainly blame to go around, but I don't put all that blame on Wilson. He was an MVP candidate in the first half of 2020 before Pete Carroll and Brian Schottenheimer's play-calling feud put a fire extinguisher to the "Let Russ Cook" movement. He then missed his first NFL start of his career, his return expedited because he spent 19 hours a day doing finger rehab. I might be over-crediting Russ' abilities at 33, but anecdotally I think Wilson's dropoff in play is a result of him having one foot out the door for a year and a half. I would have full faith in a bounceback year for Wilson, if only because of the power of a fresh start.

Bryan: I agree. Adding Wilson makes the Broncos Super Bowl contenders. Giving Wilson actual blocking and offensive coaching that has reached the 2020s should be a huge boon, as should a receiver corps that goes beyond just two guys. I'm excited to see what Wilson can do in Denver, if for no other reason than it will help us understand what was going on with the Seahawks the last five years in retrospect.

And Denver didn't have to give up much on the field to get Wilson—draft picks, sure, but that's a problem for future Denver. They lost Shelby Harris, but D.J. Jones is a solid replacement, at least in the run game. They lost Noah Fant, but there's a lot of optimism surrounding Albert Okwuegbunam, if only from the people who sell the letters who get sewn onto the back of jerseys. The Broncos would be favorites in any average division, so it's too bad they have to play in the AFC West.

Cale: Yeah, that's the crazy thing about the Wild, Wild, AFC West. Someone has to be the worst here. As high as our models are on Denver's offensive potential, they couldn't be much lower on this defense. We predicted the Broncos to have the fourth-best offense and the fourth-worst defense in the league this year, the latter of which could pose a huge problem when you factor in the level of competition they'll be going up against in their own division.

Bryan: If you want to be optimistic about the defense, they added Randy Gregory, and Bradley Chubb should theoretically be healthier, and that's a solid one-two punch at edge rusher. Patrick Surtain was stellar as a rookie, too. It's definitely the weaker unit on the team, especially at the point of attack; I could see the Broncos getting pushed around a bit. But I'm not convinced it's a disaster. (The Denver chapter in FO Almanac goes deeper into why the Denver defense is not as good as conventional wisdom believes.)

Cale: Like you said earlier, it wouldn't be a disaster if they weren't playing in this division. Even the rest of their schedule is cake outside of their obligatory six-game slate with the rest of the AFC West. Drawing the AFC South and NFC West while playing a fourth-place schedule would normally lock in the over for me. For a team that finished 7-10 last year, with Lock and Teddy Bridgewater trading starts at quarterback, I feel like I should be way higher on this team than I currently am. But right now, I feel like awkwardly standing in front of a green screen and repeating "Unders Country, let's ride," until the point where the words lose all meaning. That's the psychosis thrust upon you by being in the AFC West.

Bryan: As Mike Tanier wrote in the Almanac, the Broncos have legitimate Super Bowl upside. That's more than they could say since Peyton Manning retired, and I feel that the optimism in Denver is mostly justified. But this is a murderer's row of a division, and when I have questions about a team, I can't go over 10 wins when they're playing opponents as good as the Chargers or Chiefs. I'll join you with the under, though I'm leaning towards a playoff-caliber under.

Kansas City Chiefs (10.5)

Bryan: Does it matter when a good team loses a great wide receiver? That's my big question with the Chiefs; if Tyreek Hill leaving will impact Kansas City's offense enough to knock them out of the tippy-tippy-top tier of contenders. At the very least, I'm looking at the roster and I don't see who's going to replace that deep verticality that Hill brings to the table. Marquez Valdes-Scantling certainly received plenty of deep targets, but it's one thing to have the ball thrown your way and another thing to do great stuff with it. This season's going to be a real test on just how much high-quality receivers matter, and how much can be glossed over because Patrick Mahomes is, in case you haven't noticed, very very good at football.

Cale: I have way fewer concerns about the loss of Tyreek Hill than I thought I would. Most of it, admittedly, comes from a rationale that's fueled by on-paper projections and cherry-picked training camp content. First off, I think there's something to the logic we have seen this offseason of teams such as Kansas City and Green Bay ditching their top wide receiver to re-allocate the money their $30 million contract would take up elsewhere. In Kansas City's case, I think the decision to move on from Hill forces Mahomes to get away from the "F*ck it, Tyreek's down there somewhere" mindset.

He still has Travis Kelce as a human cheat code, still has some kind of deep option in Valdes-Scantling, and now has Skyy Moore and JuJu Smith-Schuster to boot. Moore has gotten glowing reviews out of camp. Smith-Schuster didn't get a single target in their first preseason game, but I do think Andy Reid and the Chiefs can hopefully buck the downward trend of Smith-Schuster's yards per target numbers since his rookie year. I'll put most of that blame on Ben Roethlisberger refusing to retire for three years.

Bryan: I'm not sure there's a better combination for weathering potential offensive question marks than Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid, two of the very best at what they do. It's just intriguing to see the Chiefs going with the more sensible, long-term contending strategy by not breaking the bank for Hill. That's very much not in vogue right now as the other top contenders are doing everything they can to collect superstars, damn the future. It worked for the Rams, so it can work for Team X, right? The Chiefs are in a better long-term position than most of the other contenders in the league, which means that it feels like those other contenders are catching up and zipping past while Kansas City is still ticking along, being generally excellent as normal.

Without Hill, I think it's fair to guess the Chiefs won't be as explosive, but that is a far cry from calling them bad, or even average. It's just in a division where everyone else seems dedicated to going 100 miles an hour all the time, standing pat and being sensible makes it look like you're falling behind.

Cale: There are no phone-it-in years for this Chiefs team, not when Andy Reid is 64 years old, but I think it would be safe to at least call this a retooling year for Kansas City. That's especially true on the defensive side of the ball. The Chiefs are losing eight different players who played 13 or more games for them in 2021. Granted, six of those players are on the wrong side of 30, but that's still massive turnover. Players such as Tyrann Mathieu and Anthony Hitchens have been big factors on this defense, and it's never easy replacing perennial veteran starters.

There's a lot of long-term upside in the Chiefs making this move, getting rookies like Trent McDuffie, George Karlaftis, Bryan Cook, and Leo Chenal exposure early in their careers. The draft investment in this defense is a great play for the future, but that's a lot of pressure to put on a young core, especially in this division. The high turnover and reliance on youth is probably a big driving factor in our models projecting Kansas City to finish 30th in defensive DVOA.

Bryan: It's a regathering year, for sure. The Chiefs have potential answers to all of our questions on both sides of the ball, but they're young and unproven. It's possible everything comes together this year and the Chiefs are once again the best team in the conference, but it's also possible that there will be a learning curve that will cause some unusual struggles. With the top-end talent the Chiefs still have, there's only so far they could slip, and they should be better off for the long term by getting those young players playing time now, but it does put a little bit of a damper on their 2022 hopes. This is a murderer's row of a division, and I when I have questions about a team, I can't go over 10 wins when they're playing opponents as good as the Chargers or Broncos. That puts me on an under here as the Chiefs transition from one era to another.

Cale: The defense is definitely a concern for me, but I've gotta go over. The Chiefs have ascended to Brady-esque heights where I won't bet against them until they give me evidence I should. I still put Reid and Mahomes alone over most opponents, and I think front-loading their schedule with some tough games–two prime time games at home against the Chargers and Raiders, on the road against Tampa Bay, and hosting Buffalo in Week 6—is going to help this team in the long run. Their back end is a much easier workload, so throwing these replacements into the fire early is going to help when it comes to fighting for a playoff spot down the stretch. I can picture the "Is Kansas City back?" headlines as the Chiefs string together wins after their Week 8 bye.

Las Vegas Raiders (8.5)

Bryan: Does it matter when a good team gains a great wide receiver? That's my big question with the Raiders; if Davante Adams arriving will impact Las Vegas' offense enough to knock them into the … well, maybe not the tippy-tippy-top tier of contenders, but the next rung down.

Cale: Adams and Derek Carr were college teammates, Bryan! Does that mean nothing to you?

Adams is a massive addition for any team, but I think it's a really meaningful add for the Raiders here. The pursuit of a No. 1 wide receiver is something every team has to go through, but nobody needed one more than the Raiders, in my opinion. Last year, Carr was able to put up an 11th-ranked passing DVOA working with Zay Jones and Bryan Edwards as his premier non-slot receiving targets. The trio of Adams, Darren Waller, and Hunter Renfrow now looks like a legitimate, formidable receiver corps. They're at the very least competitive with the rest of their division now, and all it took was landing the best receiver in football.

Bryan: I also think we're on the same page on Carr—that he is a good, if flawed, quarterback. Not the Hall of Famer that Adams hyped him up to be when he joined the roster—and man, I want to see the tell-all book about what the hell was going on behind the scenes in Green Bay the past couple of years—but one who can produce at a quality level with quality talent around him. And giving that offense Adams and letting everyone else shift to an easier role has to raise all boats.

I … think I'm alright with the Josh McDaniels hire, too, which surprises me. After his reputation in Denver, and his abandonment of Indianapolis at the last minute, I was kind of off the McDaniels-as-head coach bandwagon, but I actually kind of like the fit? Assuming McDaniels has matured as a coach and leader since his days in Denver, I like his flexibility as a playcaller and offensive scheme guy; I think he'll be quite beneficial for the talent that Las Vegas has in place.

Cale: I'm less fine with McDaniels, but not enough to really dock points from the Raiders. I think McDaniels was too tepid a playcaller in New England, especially in the later years. There's a reason the Patriots have been going through the painstaking effort to move on from McDaniels and learn a new offense. Then again, he's a six-time Super Bowl champion, and reports out of camp almost universally say "This is way different from his days in Denver." If we can't rely on training camp optimism and vibes, what can we hang our hats on?

My bigger concern is on the defensive side of the ball. Pairing Chandler Jones and Maxx Crosby is going to be a show and is definitely in-line with the rest of the division's emphasis on building defense through the edge. There's just nothing in this secondary that gets me excited. Landing Rock Ya-Sin in exchange for Yannick Ngakoue is almost a necessity in hindsight. Ya-Sin and Anthony Averett are fine adds, but I don't think it's enough to keep up with the offenses this Raiders defense will be squaring off against. At least with Gus Bradley leaving, they'll finally stop relying on the Cover-3 and have a fighting chance of slowing down Kansas City.

Bryan: The other problem we have here is that the Raiders were last in the division in DVOA last season, and you can argue they didn't do as much to improve as Denver or Los Angeles did. Adding Adams is great, but he's not a shiny new quarterback. And bringing in Chandler Jones isn't as good as bringing in Khalil Mack and J.C. Jackson. If you start further back and do less to improve, doesn't that affect your topline potential? Quite possibly.

However, the line is in a different category altogether. Vegas is very down on the Raiders compared to the rest of the division, with just an 8.5-win line. The betting public sees this as a three-horse race, and while I agree that the Raiders are bringing up the rear, I don't think there's quite as big of a gap as the odds would imply. I know the division is tough, but I actually like the Raiders for the over here, as I think the offense has some top-10 potential.

Cale: I'm stumped picking this line. I see all the top-line improvement, but I can't help but fixate on all the holes. I'm very tempted to go under here, but I think I'll hold off. This was a playoff team last year, and the Raiders almost beat the eventual AFC champions in the wild-card round too. This is a better roster with more top-end potential, I just think it's being held together by Scotch tape and twine. If one thing falls apart, the whole house of cards goes. I think the Vegas number is a spot-on line, but I'm going to opt for the over, if only because of the good karma generated by the sage-cleansing this team went through to get the stink of last year's off-field woes off of them. The talent is just enough to justify the gamble.

Los Angeles Chargers (10)

Bryan: The Chargers are incredibly highly placed in the betting odds. Sixth-most likely to win the Super Bowl at +1400. Third-most likely to win the conference at +750. Neck-and-neck with the Chiefs to win the division at +220. It almost makes you forget that, uh, the Chargers didn't actually make the playoffs last season. That's a lot of expectations on a team that was sitting on the couch for most of January.

Cale: The Chargers' expectations are definitely driven more by on-paper projection than they are by on-field production. There's no denying Justin Herbert's ability or the upside this team had in 2021; I just think everyone showed up early to the party. All the coverage was there, detailing the ascension of Herbert into the top tier of young quarterbacks, painting Brandon Staley to be an analytics savant all because of some early calls to go for it on fourth down. I think there was merit in the things that were said, just the over-editorializing of it all made the Chargers out to be a way bigger deal than they actually were.

This year, though, feels different. Now the right people are showing up to the party, whether it's a premier corner like J.C. Jackson to anchor the secondary or trading for Khalil Mack to play alongside Joey Bosa. Last year's defense had pieces, but now it feels like a legitimately intimidating unit. Name power alone isn't enough, but the players they have added to the likes of Bosa and Derwin James were enough for our projections to bump the Chargers from a 26th defensive DVOA finish to a top-five defense in 2022.

Bryan: It is interesting to note that the Chargers, who were run over at the end of last season and had significant questions regarding their 30th-ranked run defense, responded by adding a top-flight pass-rusher and shutdown cornerback. Pass defense is certainly more important than rush defense, especially in this division, but it feels like if Los Angeles had been able to hold their own at the point of attack more last season, they would have been playoff-bound. You opened up this column by talking about defenses built on nothing but Pro Bowl edge rushers and cornerbacks, and it feels like you were talking more about the Chargers there than anyone else.

Cale: They were definitely who I had in mind. But in the Wild, Wild AFC West, how much does the run game really matter, anyway? I think there's some concern about how L.A. stacks up against the run, but I don't envision any Bills-Patriots gale-force Monday Night Football games in the Chargers' future.

My only concern regarding whether the Chargers can ascend to the top of a loaded AFC is whether their offensive weapons are enough. Every team we have mentioned has a full stable of potential pass targets. Los Angeles has the benefit of one of the league's best pass-catching backs in Austin Ekeler, but this is a two-receiver system with Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. They don't have the benefit of Denver and Kansas City's receiver depth, nor do they have Kansas City or Las Vegas' luxury of an elite tight end. Are these two (plus maybe Josh Palmer) enough to push the Chargers over the top?

Bryan: Justin Herbert probably covers over a lot of those deficiencies. I saw some talk this offseason that he had the best first two years in league history, which comes solely from people who forgot that Dan Marino existed. Herbert's upside is undeniable; you can probably count the players with more MVP potential on one hand with fingers left over. But at the moment, it's still more potential than reality. We have seen Herbert do amazing things, but we have also seen him chuck some really painful interceptions. He's not yet at that Mahomes tier where you can just write off any sort of skill position question marks with a "well, our quarterback will figure it out." Getting there, maybe, and this could be the year where he takes that final step. But he hasn't been quite there yet. There is a lot of projection in all the hype surrounding the Chargers this year on pretty much every level. Reasonable projection, and logical projection, but projection notwithstanding.

Cale: I feel like it's almost a bandwagon take hopping on the Herbert-for-MVP train, but I'm on it. I think he's that level of quarterback who takes the step to be that top-10, top-five quarterback who's a force multiplier on offense. It's why I'm hammering over on the Chargers and Los Angeles winning the division. The floor has been elevated drastically on this team with the players brought in on the defensive side of the ball, but the sky's the limit ceiling-wise. The only thing giving me pause is, well, this is the Chargers. The injury luck, the historic collapses, the track record here is rough. I think this is the team to get over the hump, but it'll be bucking some historically bad mojo.

Bryan: It just feels to me like people have sensed an inevitability about the Chargers ability to hit their full potential. I'm not 100% sure they're there yet, and this is a division that doesn't give them much margin for error. This is a murderer's row of a division, and I when I have questions about a team, I can't go over 10 wins when they're playing opponents as good as the Chiefs or Broncos, so I'm going to have to go with the under.

… OK, yes. One of the Chiefs, Chargers, or Broncos are going to hit the over. Possibly two of them. The odds of all three doing perfectly symmetrical violence to one another over the course of a full season have to be low. But I'm not sold on any one of the three teams being the one that shoots out in front and picks up that 11- or 12-win season. I don't know what's going to happen in the AFC West this year, which is what makes it such a fascinating division to watch. We have multiple heavyweights taking huge swings at one another; it can't work out for all four teams. Watching and seeing which team ends up on top when all things are said and done is going to be a great deal of fun. Unless you happen to be a fan of the team that ends up on the bottom.

Comments

20 comments, Last at 22 Aug 2022, 1:49pm

1 I just can’t trust the…

I just can’t trust the Chargers. They’ve had nothing but Brees, Rivers, and Herbert for 18 years, and have 5 division wins to show for it, including none in 10 years.

11 This has been the story of…

This has been the story of the Chargers since Day 1. They’ve been blessed by ridiculous QB talent and have almost nothing to show for it.

\they’ve won most with their lesser QBs, strangely.

14 I'd be more comfortable…

I'd be more comfortable about the Chargers if they'd made a splash move or two... on special teams. You just know how that's going to play out. When you're starting to feel safe... wham!

2 Injuries

I have no idea who will win this division and who will come in last.  I suspect that at the end of the year you can just take the reverse AGL for each team and find that correlates better than anything else.

As a Broncos fan, at least this year will be fun to *watch*, unlike recent seasons.

3 There's still that; isn't there??

The Chargers still don't really have a home field advantage, do they? Or did that change some last year? Does the opposing offense ever have trouble hearing its signals?

4 In a 16 game season, at…

In a 16 game season, at least one of the Broncos, Chargers, or Chiefs would win fewer than 10 games, and only 1 gets 11 or more. But with that 17th game, I think it's probable that 2 of them get to 11 wins, and it's at least conceivable that the 3rd place team in the division gets to 10 wins. That puts me over on all 4 teams in the division. They're not all going over, but at least 2 will, and there's hope that either the Broncos or Chargers also achieve a push.

5 Mine

Broncos over

Chefs under

Raiders over

Chargers under

6 The Broncos went 1-5 in one…

The Broncos went 1-5 in one score games. They’re finally out of qb Hell for the first time in like 7 years, and have a coach not stuck in the Stone Age. I think they’re closer to 11 wins than 9, so I’d go over. 

9 Chiefs overChargers over…

Chiefs over

Chargers over

Broncos under

Raiders over

afc east- bills over, dolphins over, pats under, jets over

15 I feel like they all beat…

I feel like they all beat each other up and you get a bunch of unders. 

Chiefs: Under losing Hill + the rest of the division getting better might be worth 2 games. 

Raiders: Under -  I don't buy a BB coordinator till one works. I'll give McDaniels some credit, he's one of the few Belichick coordinators to go to a team with a halfway decent roster. 

Broncos - Under? Not sure I trust an aging Wilson, probably a push honestly.

Chargers: Probably under. Again, probably a push. 

I'll probably be wrong on one of those, probably chiefs or chargers. 

 

19 Regarding the reference to…

Regarding the reference to the Rams "collecting superstars" to win a Super Bowl, I would note that the one thing they did not do was spend gigadollars on a free agent WR. Sure, they took Beckham on a one year deal, but he wasn't as important an acqusition as Von Miller or Stafford. Kupp may change all that, but still.

Denver: under

KC: over

Raiders: under

Chargers: over

20 The lines imply

that KC is expected to be 0.5 games better than Denver. Can I put a few simoleans on the over on that?

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