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AFC West burning questions for 2024 NFL season: Chiefs three-peat? Can Jim Harbaugh lead Chargers to playoffs?


On paper, the AFC West is as predicable as a weekday morning. You get up, check your smartphone, shower, and possibly grab a quick bite before firing off a workday. For the AFC West, the standard procedure is the Chiefs finishing first and everyone else fighting for second.ย 

Really, I wouldn’t expect much to be different in 2024, but that doesn’t mean that the AFC West won’t be an interesting division to follow. In fact, I’d argue that it might be one of the NFL’s intriguing divisions.ย 

Let’s start with the Chiefs, who will embark on a historic pursuit to become the only team to win three straight Super Bowls. The Jim Harbaugh era begins in Los Angeles, while Antonio Pierce begins his first full season as Raidersย coach. In Denver, the pressure is mounting on Sean Payton, who is trying to determine who will be his next starting quarterback after bailing on the Russell Wilson experiment.ย 

So, while the Chiefs capturing a ninth straight division crown seems like a sure thing, there’s still plenty of unknowns that should make for a fun and interesting year in the AFC West. With that in mind, let’s take a look at each team’s burning question.ย 

Kansas City Chiefs: Will Mahomes and Co. capture a third straight Super Bowl?ย 

The short answer is that the Chiefs will probably join the ’68 Packers, ’74 Dolphins, ’76 and ’80 Steelers, ’90 49ers, ’94 Cowboys, ’99 Broncos and ’05 Patriots as two-time winners who were unable to complete the three-peat. The real question is: what will keep the Chiefs from making history?ย 

Each of the teams mentioned above were specifically held back by one thing. Age caught up to the ’68 Packers and ’80 Steelers. Injuries slammed the door shut on the ’90 49ers and ’76 Steelers, who both managed to get to within a game of the Super Bowl. John Elway’s offseason retirement ended any shot the Broncos had of a three-peat. A horrid rash of turnovers to open the 1994 NFC Championship game doomed the ’94 Cowboys. The ’74 Dolphins and ’05 Patriots simply lost to better teams in the playoffs.ย 

What will be the Chiefs’ undoing? It won’t be age, as Kansas City is still a relatively young team sans Travis Kelce. It’ll likely be either injuries (which largely contributed to the Chiefs losing Super Bowl LV), a bad day at the office (see the second half of the 2021 AFC Championship) or not being able to overcome some of the holes on their roster.ย 

Last year, they proved that they can go through the AFC without having the top seed. Butย L’Jarius Sneed, who played a significant role in the Chiefs’ successful playoff run, was shipped to Tennessee this offseason, thus creating a hole in Kansas City’s secondary that been “filled” byย Jaylen Watson, a 2022 seventh-round pick who made eight starts during his first two seasons.ย 

Along with the secondary, the Chiefs’ receiving corps continues to be a question mark.

Newcomerย Marquise Brown’sย production thus far in his career has been neutered by injuries.ย Rashee Riceย is likely facing a suspension for his involvement in an automobile accident earlier this offseason. Rookieย Xavier Worthyย is promising, but his lack of size is concerning. Fortunately, the Chiefs have a quarterback who seems to almost always get the most out of his skill players.ย 

Speaking of quarterbacks, that position is the supreme difference-maker in today’s NFL. If you have an elite quarterback, you have a realistic shot at winning it all. If you don’t, well, have fun trying to make the playoffs. Fortunately for the Chiefs, they have the best quarterback in the business in Patrick Mahomes. The bad news for the Chiefs is that they share a conference with seven of the NFL’s other top quarterbacks in Justin Herbert, Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson, Aaron Rodgers,ย Josh Allen, Tua Tagovailoa and C.J. Stroud.ย 

Sans Herbert, the other six quarterbacks mentioned above are on teams that are strong enough to challenge the Chiefs in 2024. But, if history is any indication of what will happen this year, the Bills and Ravens haven’t been able to crack the Chiefs’ code in previous playoff showdowns. That leaves Houston and Cincinnati as the top candidates to unseat Kansas City.ย 

Can either team upset the Chiefs? Houston has the team to do it, led by Stroud, wideouts Stefon Diggs, Tank Dell and a defense that only got better this offseason. But that’s a big ask of a team that is still on the up and up. The Bengals, on the other hand, have already proven that they can defeat the Chiefs in the playoffs having done so in 2021. Cincinnati represents the best chance of an AFC team knocking the Chiefs off their pedestal.ย 

Miami may also be a worthy challenger, but Mike McDaniel’s team has to avoid the late-season slumps that plagued them each of the last two years. The Dolphins also have to figure out how to play better in cold weather, asย they are winless in their last 11 games where the temperature was under 40 degrees at kickoff.ย 

As I alluded to earlier, the Chiefs proved last year they can overcome their flaws and formidable competition en route to winning the Lombardi Trophy. You can’t ever count Mahomes out, and I won’t dare to do so now. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Mahomes and Co. make history and win a third straight Super Bowl. I’m just not counting on it.ย 

Los Angelesย Chargers: Can Harbaugh lead L.A. to the playoffs in Year 1?ย 

I definitely see a scenario where the Chargers are able to snag one of the AFC’s three wild-card spots. If that happens, Harbaugh will likely be on his way to winning Coach of the Year a year after leading Michigan to its first national title in 26 years.ย 

Los Angeles underwent a lot of turnover this offseason, most notably the departures of wideouts Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and running back Austin Ekeler. The Chargers, though, did a good job of replacing those players.ย 

At wideout, they drafted Ladd McConkey, who will complement Josh Palmer and 2023 first-round pick Quentin Johnston in the starting lineup. To replace Ekeler, Harbaugh signed two of his older brother’s former players in Baltimore in J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards. Dobbins, a 2020 second-round pick, enjoyed a blazing start to his career before injuries wiped out most of the past three seasons.ย 

Two of the Chargers’ most underrated signings were at tight end with the signings of Will Dissly and Hayden Hurst. Dissly was a reliable target throughout his career at Seattle. Hurst, a former first-round pick, is two years removed from having a big year catching passes from Joe Burrow in Cincinnati.ย 

On defense, Los Angeles still has one of the best outside linebacker duos in the NFL in Khalil Mack and Joey Bosa. The Chargers, despite having Pro Bowl safety Derwin James, were 30th in the league in passing yards allowed in 2023. Los Angeles is surely hoping that former Titans second-round pick Kristian Fulton will realize his potential while helping fix the Chargers’ sagging pass defense.ย 

Really, the biggest reason for optimism here is Herbert, who has enjoyed a considerable amount of success in the NFL so far despite all of the turnover that’s transpired around him. To improve Herbert’s odds at having success, the team spent this year’s first-round pick on Joe Alt, this year’s top-ranked offensive tackle prospect.ย 

Several things will have to go the Chargers’ way if they are going to make the playoffs. Their wideouts will have to come of age, Dobbins will need to stay healthy, and the secondary will have to make a noted leap. But there’s enough positive things going on in Los Angeles to convince me that the next chapter in Harbaugh’s truly unique coaching journey will include a playoff berth for his new team in 2024.ย 

Denver Broncos: Who will be QB1?ย 

What makes this a hard question to answer is the fact that Sean Payton has never been in this situation before. The Broncos coach had Drew Brees throughout his tenure with the Saints and started his Broncos tenure with Russell Wilson. Will Payton give rookie Bo Nix a change right out of the gate, or will he instead go with one of his veterans?ย 

Each quarterback has their own unique advantage. Along with being the most athletically gifted player of the three, Zach Wilson also has 33 regular-season starts under his belt. Jarrett Stidham has the benefit of playing in Denver’s system last year. For Nix, it’s the advantage of being a first-round pick and the opportunity that presents.ย 

Nix has also made his own good fortune. The Broncos have been impressed with Nix’s pre-snap work that includes processing play calls, making checks and getting the snap off on time.ย 

“He’s farther along than most rookies,” Payton said of Nix, via The Athletic. “We’re talking about a player who has played 61 games. He’s extremely smart. He’s picked it up very quickly.”

At this stage, Payton is giving each of his quarterbacks work with the first-team offense. That will have to change, however, when the team kicks off training camp next month.

In my mind, the job if Nix’s to lose. Payton didn’t spend a first-round pick on Nix to watch him ride the bench. And after jettisoning Wilson out of town (and paying him $39 million not to play for them this year), Payton needs one of three quarterbacks to pan out. Given the situation, it makes sense for Payton to go with his guy.ย 

Whoever wins the job won’t have a bad situation. The Broncos have a solid receiving corps (that includes rookie wideoutย Troy Franklin, who was Nix’s teammate at Oregon), offensive line and running game. Defensively, Denver has two of the NFL’s top defensive backs (cornerback Patrick Surtain II and safety Justin Simmons) and a pass rush that should be bolstered by the arrival of rookie Jonah Elliss, who tallied 12 sacks during his final season at Utah.ย 

Las Vegas Raiders: Will Davante Adams be traded?ย 

Davante Adams’ future isn’t a hot-button topic right now, but rest assured it will be if the Raiders’ season goes off the rails.ย 

It won’t be any fun if the Raiders are either 8-9 or 9-8, but their roster suggests that may be what’s in store for Las Vegas in 2024. While the roster features several studs like Adams and Maxx Crosby, the Raiders are largely comprised of solid yet unspectacular veterans. It should be noted that the Raiders’ starting lineup will likely include rookies Jackson Powers-Johnson and Brock Bowers. Their growth this season will be something to keep an eye on.ย 

All things considered, the Raiders’ success this season will largely fall on how well the team’s starting quarterback plays, which will be either Gardner Minshew or Aidan O’Connell.ย 

A true gunslinger, Minshew’s fearlessness can lead to some dazzling plays, but it can lead to utter disaster for his team. O’Connell has similar traits; he threw 12 touchdowns but also tossed seven picks while going 5-5 as the Raiders’ starter last year (his rookie season).ย 

My guess is that Adams won’t be a Raider when this year’s trade deadline comes to pass. Adams, after all, is still a high-level player who could be the difference for a team that is heading to the playoffs. In fact, if Adams is indeed traded, two possible destinations could be the Packers (his former team) or the Jets (who employ Aaron Rodgers, his former quarterback in Green Bay). Rest assured that the Raiders will be handsomely compensated if they trade Adams.ย 

A six-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro, Adams is on the back-nine of his career. While he’s done just about everything a football player can do, Adams has yet to win or even play in a Super Bowl. He should get one last opportunity to do so before he calls it a career, even if that means parting ways with the franchise he grew up cheering for.ย 

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Author: Bryan DeArdo
June 6, 2024 | 9:10 am

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