Chiefs Will Be favored to win AFC West in 2005

It took me about 24 hours to come to this conclusion. But after watching the San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos each lose their playoff games, it dawned on me that they have farther to travel than the Chiefs to regain the top spot in the AFC West next season.

On Saturday, I have to admit I was pulling for our old head coach Marty Schottenheimer. But I knew the outcome would be more of the same as once again, like he did in Kansas City, Smash Mouth Marty-Ball, laid in egg in the post season.

Instead of going for the kill in overtime, he relied on a kicker, a rookie albeit, to do something that nobody else in NFL history has done. It didn't happen as Nate Kaeding pushed a field goal past the right upright and the season for all practical purposes ended for the Chargers as it did with a loss against the visiting New York Jets.

The Chargers now enter an off-season where they'll have to solve some serious confidence issues. Its clear that Schottenheimer has learned nothing from his past failures in the post season and its quite likely he'll never win another playoff game before he hangs up his whistle.

San Diego was the darling of the AFC this season. They took advantage of a weak schedule and what ended up being a not so competitive AFC West. The Raiders and Chiefs both laid eggs and the Broncos played their usual inconsistent football.

Though the Chargers have lots of cash to spend this off-season ($21 million and counting), they'll need to make a decision with their two quarterbacks. Drew Brees addressed the media after the playoff loss and he sounded like he'd be back and starting for San Diego in 2005. But he'll be a free agent and the team overpaid for rookie Phillip Rivers. The word was two weeks ago that Brees would be tagged but that's not likely now because he could hold out and would if I were his agent. That means this team could start 2005 with more turmoil than they would like.

Despite their progress in 2004, the Chargers will have a brutal schedule next season as they'll play all the other division winners and they don't do well against teams with winning records. It's a fact this was their best chance to make a run and its not likely to happen as long as Schottenheimer is around. The players were so dejected after the loss as they knew their head coach cost them a chance to advance. That sentiment will linger for a long time.

The Denver Broncos laid a similar egg. Though they won their final two regular season games after getting embarrassed and exposed against the Chiefs in Week 15, they once again faced the Indianapolis Colts in the playoffs and were wiped off the astro-turf by Peyton Manning and company.

Now Manning is not the league MVP for nothing but Broncos Head Coach put all his eggs into the basket of his defense in the off-season. He made the brutal trade that sent running back Clinton Portis to the Washington Redskins for cornerback Champ Bailey. The trade worked well early in the season but after a Monday Night game against the Cincinnati Bengals, he was exposed by Carson Palmer as someone who could not stay with fast receivers.

Thus time and time again he was torched on go routes the rest of the way. Bailey tried to compensate by being more physical at the line of scrimmage but the new contact rule limited his success. Shanahan has to be feeling the heat in Denver and this team faces a critical decision on offense that could shape his future as head coach.

After finally exorcising the cap hit for releasing Brian Griese two years ago, the Broncos face a $11 million roster bonus do quarterback Jake Plummer on March 1st. Its clear that the snake only came out to play in certain games and after he flipped the bird to the Broncos fans in a home game this past December, his stock has fallen and Shanahan might have to release his boy.

The Broncos spent a lot of money on their defense and they were exposed by the Chiefs and the Colts. They don't have the secondary to be a great defense and Bailey could get even more exposed in 2005. The Broncos have to solve their running back problems as Reuben Droughns, Tatum Bell and Quentin Griffin all played to various degrees of effectiveness. But all have hitches in their games and Plummer was exposed as more erratic without the presence of Portis in the backfield.

Denver probably can go into next season with all four of them but wide receiver Rod Smith will be a year older and Ashley Lelie showed tremendous strides in 2004. The Broncos will likely add a veteran wide receiver in the off-season but they should also look for a quarterback in the event Plummer is released in March.

For the Chiefs, it they can learn from their AFC West counterparts and learn from their own failures in 2004, could indeed be ready to challenge for the division with just a couple of free agent acquisitions and smart draft picks.

With as many as 11 draft picks in April, they could turn over quite a bit of their roster. If they can add three quality, but not superstar defensive players, the defense under Gunther Cunningham could be average next season. The Chiefs have to build a defense that can beat out their AFC West competition but also the likes of the Colts, Steelers and Patriots.

As the off-season breaks down, all eyes will be on Kansas City and what players they can add to improve their secondary, linebacking and defensive line. This team needs two cornerbacks that can cover on the outside and inside, a middle linebacker who makes plays and a pass rushing defensive end.

On offense they need a big play wide receiver and that will be more than enough to challenge for the division and they must use both Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson in the offense.

The Chiefs will also have a favorable schedule as most of their difficult opponents are at home in 2005 while their road games are against weaker opponents. That was a recipe for success in 2003 and should be again next season.

The early playoff departures of the Chargers and Broncos made the Chiefs off-season decisions even more clear and attainable. If a free agent is hinging his decision on any or all of the AFC West teams, they'd have to choose Kansas City because despite their 7-9 finish, their closer to the post season than the other two teams.


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