AFC West Report: Division Tightens

A San Diego loss last week was just what the Broncos and Chiefs were hoping for. There now appears to be three legitimate contenders for the AFC West title. This weekend will be tough for the division as a whole with two marquee AFC matchups and two games at NFC West sites.

Marty Schottenheimer and the San Diego Chargers had a tough pill to swallow last Sunday in Baltimore, losing 16-13 to the Ravens. The Chargers seemingly had everything going for them before a late special teams miscue and a resurgent Steve McNair gave Baltimore the game.

San Diego (2-1) has a huge game coming up this Sunday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers (1-2). The Steelers won 24-22 last year in dramatic fashion with a last minute field goal. Both Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger are products of the 2004 draft and this will be the first meeting between the two as starters.

For the Chargers, it seems like there is a bit of a restriction on Rivers' maturation process. At times in the Baltimore game the Chargers were content to pound LaDainian Tomlinson and Michael Turner, not giving Rivers enough chances to throw the ball downfield. When given opportunities, Rivers has completed 67.6 percent of his passes for 636 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. All of that adds up to a 96.9 quarterback rating.

To the Chargers credit, they are finding ways to get the ball into the hands of both Tomlinson and Turner, who has 221 yards on the ground and a monstrous 7.4 yards per carry. Tomlinson is still getting the bulk of the load, but San Diego has implemented various sets that keep both players on the field in order to make opposing defenses account for both players.

The Chargers have the top-ranked defense for the second consecutive week. San Diego's secondary is first overall in the NFL against the pass, a huge improvement over last year when the starting defensive backs combined for five interceptions all year. Bill Cowher and the Steelers certainly won't take the Chargers defense likely, especially with the way Pittsburgh's offense has underperformed this year.

The Steelers have struggled in both the run and pass game. They may not admit it, but it is clear that Jerome Bettis and Antwaan Randle El are both missed significantly. Roethlisberger is still trying to get back into midseason form after his various health problems over the last few months. He's posted just a 34.3 quarterback rating thus far and the Steelers running game has been mediocre.

The bye weekend could not have come at a better time for Pittsburgh. It gives them a chance to regroup after two losses in a row and prepare for the Chargers in what should be a hard-hitting game. Kick-off is slated for 5:00 PM PST with the forecast calling for clear skies with temperatures around 65 degrees.

The Kansas City Chiefs (1-2) will look to get back to .500 when they go to Arizona (1-3) this Sunday. Quarterbacks headline this matchup as Trent Green is out again due to his concussion. Damon Huard steps in and is now 6-2 as a starter in his career after beating San Francisco this past weekend.

Matt Leinart will get the start for Arizona after head coach Dennis Green benched Kurt Warner for his reckless ball-handling. The Cardinals haven't done much to help their quarterbacks with poor pass protection and absolutely no running game to speak of. Edgerrin James has been very quiet so far with just 272 yards in four games and 3.1 yards per carry.

Herman Edwards is happy with the way Huard has played in Green's absence, but KC's defense has been the real star. Edwards promised that the Chiefs would finally get a defense after years of frustration and so far the Chiefs rank third overall, allowing just 239.7 yards a game. The rebuilt secondary with newcomer Ty Law is second in the NFL against the pass.

Larry Johnson's numbers are respectable so far but one gets the feeling that he is due to breakout and have a huge game. Arizona is at the bottom of the NFL in total defense and run defense.

Kick-off will be at 1:05 PM PST with temperatures around 92 degrees, but the Cardinals will likely close the roof.

The Oakland Raiders (0-3) are the underdog this weekend against the San Francisco 49ers (1-3). Aaron Brooks will once again be sidelined in favor of Andrew Walter. Walter completed just nine passes last week in a terrible 24-21 loss to Cleveland. Cleveland scored 21 unanswered to win the game.

Jerry Porter has been held out of every game and the Raiders locker room may be a little bit on edge for lack of a better term. Randy Moss, to nobody's surprise, is becoming the most vocal. Moss hasn't had a problem disclosing his dissatisfaction and has been open and honest about the fact that he wouldn't mind a trade.

Kick-off will be at 1:05 PM PST with temperatures in the mid-70's and breezy conditions in San Francisco on Sunday.

The Denver Broncos will host the Baltimore Ravens on Monday night in one of Week 5's marquee matchups. The Broncos were very impressive in a 17-7 win over the Patriots in their last game. Mike Shanahan's faith in Jake Plummer has paid off so far and it doesn't look like rookie Jay Cutler will see any meaningful playing time soon.

Plummer seems to have found good chemistry with Javon Walker. The two connected for a pair of touchdowns in the win over New England. Throw in veteran Rod Smith and a couple of Bells (Mike and Tatum), and Denver's offense has enough to keep them in games.

The real story for the Broncos lies in their defense. Statistically, they are in the middle of the pack but they have forced teams to settle for field goals. The Patriots are the only team to score a touchdown against the Broncos, and they didn't accomplish that until late in the game.

Denver and Baltimore mirror each other in a lot of ways. Both have a castoff quarterback and both pride themselves in being able to run the ball and emphasize defense. Each team has a solid special teams unit that wins games more often than it loses them.

There is no reason to think that this won't be a classic slugfest Monday night at Invesco Field. This looks to be the first really cold game of the year. Temperatures should be around 35 degrees with breezy conditions.

Update: The Quest for 7,000

AFC West running backs are starting to gear up and actually give this goal a legitimate shot. Last week I was considering adding Michael Turner's yardage to the formula of LaDainian Tomlinson, Larry Johnson, LaMont Jordan, and Mike and Tatum Bell. This week we will look at the yardage combined with and without Turner's totals.

After three games the AFC West running backs have racked up 1,177 yards rushing without Turner. That puts them on pace for nearly 6,300 yards. Including Turner, the backs are on pace for 7,192 yards.

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