AFRO Looks Ahead at NFL’s Western Divisions

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It wasn’t that long ago when the NFL’s Western divisions were supercharged with power. The Seattle Seahawks and St. Louis Rams were Super Bowl caliber and the Kansas City Chiefs were annual playoffs contenders. But a lot has changed in recent years, and many league analysts now view both the AFC West and NFC West as the weakest divisions in the NFL. Regardless of the overwhelming disdain of its Western brethren, the San Diego Chargers remain as consensus Super Bowl favorites year in and year out. And this season will be no different as top quarterback Phillip Rivers returns for his seventh season. There isn’t much to sift through in the West, but the AFRO does it anyway:

AFC West

It seems no matter what the Chargers do, they’re going to win the AFC West. San Diego has started the last three seasons with a 4-5, 4-8, and 1-3 record and still went on to win the division outright. The team is so confident in its approach that it’s not expected to skip a beat even with the release of longtime standouts LaDainian Tomlinson and Jamal Williams. They also traded glitzy cover man Antonio Cromartie and promising backup quarterback Charlie Whitehurst and could be without the services of left tackle Marcus McNeill and wideout Vincent Jackson due to contract disputes. Despite the defections, the team is still plenty talented enough to possibly hold off a charge from this year’s sleeper pick on most analysts’ radars: the Oakland Raiders.

The Raiders haven’t flirted with high expectations for years, but after a player release here and a player addition there Oakland is back as a respectable team. The talent on the offensive side of the ball is still desirable but a furious defense and a competent coaching staff could propel the Raiders to a strong finish.

As for the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos, both teams are in transition. Gone are some of the star names that have defined both teams for the past few years in Larry Johnson and Brandon Marshall. And there are some names that haven’t quite cracked into the mainstream member association of the league in Jamal Charles and Jabar Gaffney. The Chiefs and Broncos are going to take their fair share of lumps, and the Chargers and Raiders are going to dish some. But in a league that depends on well quarterback play, it doesn’t get any better at the position out West than Rivers who should help San Diego collect its fifth division title.

NFC West

The Arizona Cardinals had it all: an explosive aerial attack, an attacking defense and the non-threat of any serious contenders challenging them in the division. Then in one summer, it all changed. Potential Hall of Fame signal caller Kurt Warner retired, some key pieces to their defensive puzzle left via free agency and the San Francisco 49ers emerged. The 49ers finished 8-8 last season but some maturity and the emergence of young stars have them pegged for first place.

San Francisco will infuse an average offensive line with two first round rookies, while sophomore receiver Michael Crabtree is expected to make serious strides after his first full training camp. Crabtree missed the whole summer last season in a lengthy contract dispute. Crabtree and running back Frank Gore and tight end Vernon Davis make up one of the most talented offensive trios in the league and could be the best in the division. The 49ers defense finished fourth in points allowed and sacks, and those numbers could improve as the team settles into another season of its newly installed 3-4 defense.

The St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks round out the division as bottom feeders. The Rams are likely to struggle as they introduce their rookie quarterback Sam Bradford to the waiting defenses of the league. The Seahawks will introduce a new head coach in former USC coach Pete Carroll and try to keep injury-prone quarterback Matt Hasselbeck in one piece to finish the year. San Francisco is the team to beat this season out West and an improvement on last year’s record— coupled with some heavy turnover by the Cardinals —should give the team its first division title since 2002.