AFC West Report: Three Legitimate Contenders

It's beginning to look like Kansas City, Denver and San Diego will race for the division title the entire season. Each has fielded an impressive defense and the wins are starting to add up. Oakland can only hope to mature and salvage what remains of a bleak-looking season.

Although the Kansas City Chiefs (2-2) faced a 14-0 deficit just minutes into the game at Arizona last Sunday, the team never appeared to lose their cool. Matt Leinart may have initially shell-shocked KC's defense, but they rebounded well, shutting down the Cardinals until the last drive in the fourth quarter. Neil Rackers missed a field goal that would have sent the game into overtime.

The Chiefs nipped away at the deficit and took the game 23-20, rallying with 13 fourth-quarter points in a game that could eventually be the turning point of 2006 if the Chiefs keep winning. Damon Huard continues to fill in well for Trent Green. His record as a starter is now 7-2 overall. He was named the AFC offensive player of the week for his 288-yard performance. Although the Arizona game evened Kansas City's record, beating the Steelers this week will serve notice to the rest of the National Football League that the Chiefs are a serious AFC contender.

Kickoff at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh is set for 4:15 EST on Sunday. As many problems as the Chiefs have had with Green's injury, the sore neck of Larry Johnson and Dante Hall's hip pointer, it is the Pittsburgh Steelers (1-3) that are having the most problems of any NFL team, and that list does include the Oakland Raiders.

Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers will not admit to it, but the young quarterback's confidence is shaky. His quarterback rating is a miserable 41.7, snuggled between the ratings of part-time starting quarterbacks Kerry Collins and Andrew Walter. Even Chris Simms has a higher quarterback rating.

Pittsburgh's lack of success does not fall entirely on Roethlisberger's shoulders, however. It is evident that the Steelers miss the presence of Jerome Bettis and Antwaan Randle El.

The offense is relying heavily on Roethlisberger, Willie Parker and Hines Ward. Defenses aren't finding it hard to account for those players, as well as tight end Heath Miller, who served as Roethlisberger's security blanket last season. The Chiefs have undoubtedly noticed what other teams have done to Pittsburgh defensively, so look for Kansas City to bring the pressure more so than they have all year.

Larry Johnson is expected to play after he was subject to a brutal facemask tackle from Antrel Rolle late in the game at Arizona. Johnson is still struggling to achieve the yards per carry average he had last year, when he rushed for close to 2,000 yards. The loss of Willie Roaf and other moves on the offensive line looks to be the reason for the relative slow start, not to mention the fact that defenses have been able to key on Johnson due to Green's absence. With Huard passing well and Steelers linebacker Joey Porter out for Sunday, Johnson should get a load of carries again. This could be the game that puts him back at the top of the elite running back list. Game time temperatures should be around 50 degrees with partly cloudy skies.

The San Diego Chargers (3-1) beat Pittsburgh 23-13 last Sunday night and now head to San Francisco (2-3) where they look to take the will of a 49ers team that has shown to be very feisty at home. The defense is easily ranked the best in the NFL, allowing just 204.5 yards per game. That alone is enough to get a lot of victories.

The Chargers already have six interceptions on the season, one more than their entire starting secondary had last year. Compound that stat with the fact that they field the top-ranked run defense, and the Chargers are a serious threat to any offense they encounter.

As impressive as San Diego's defense has been, the offense is also starting to heat up. Marty Schottenheimer only gave the critics a week to call for the reigns to be let loose on Philip Rivers before he did so Sunday night. Rivers completed 24 of 37 passes for 242 yards and two touchdowns last week, and his quarterback rating is a rock-solid 94.5 for the season. The Chargers now have the sixth-best offense in the NFL.

When one thinks of the Chargers, LaDainian Tomlinson is the first name that comes to mind. But backup running back Michael "The Burner" Turner has gained yards in big chunks for San Diego. Tomlinson and Turner have combined for 613 yards so far on the season in just four games. At that rate, they will combine for nearly 2,500 yards.

The 49ers will look to counter San Diego's defense with second-year running back Frank Gore, who is currently tied at 465 yards with Steven Jackson for the NFL rushing lead. Gore is averaging 4.6 yards per carry in his first season as a starter, but that will likely plummet this week.

Former first-round quarterback Alex Smith is much improved after a horrible season last year. Smith has 1,071 yards passing after five games, surpassing his eight-game total from a year ago. He has six touchdowns against three interceptions.

Kickoff is set for 1:15 PST at Monster Park where temperatures are expected to be around 66 degrees with partly sunny skies.

The Denver Broncos (3-1) and the Oakland Raiders (0-4) renew their old rivalry Sunday night at Invesco Field when they kickoff at 6:30 MST in Denver. The Broncos are contenders once again, anchored by a "bend but don't break" defense that has allowed just one touchdown all year. Last Monday against the Ravens, Denver's defense intercepted Steve McNair three times in a 13-3 slugfest.

The big question for the Broncos is how long the defense can carry the offense. Jake Plummer is completing only 51.8 percent of his passes this year, well below the NFL average. His 60.9 quarterback rating is his worst since the 1999 season when he played for Arizona. Plummer has only three touchdown passes this year with five interceptions.

Tatum Bell has given the Broncos just enough offense to continue to be successful. Bell is averaging 5.0 yards per carry and has 388 yards on the season. He's emerged as the top running back in Denver, and Mike Bell is seeing less and less playing time.

The Raiders are off to as bad a start as you can have in the NFL. It can't be put in simpler terms. They are just pathetic. There was a lot of hope in the preseason with a lot of speed at receiver, but Jerry Porter found his way into Art Shell's doghouse and a trade sent Doug Gabriel to New England.

Defenses have been able to shut down Randy Moss, stack the box against LaMont Jordan and pressure young Andrew Walter into an abundance of mistakes. Walter should start against the Broncos despite back-to-back interceptions last week that sidelined him in favor of Marques Tuiasosopo. Tuiasosopo promptly came into the game and tossed a pair of interceptions himself.

Randy Moss has only 12 receptions with two touchdowns so far this season. He has made no secret about his lack of compassion for the Raiders organization. Moss may be the only one that can help the Raiders get back on track. Even though he is drawing a lot of coverage, it will be his locker-room skills that motivate the Raiders to their first victory. That may be asking too much since there are no known locker-room skills in Moss' repertoire.

Game time temperatures should be around 42 degrees at kickoff with partly cloudy skies.

Update: The Quest for 7,000
AFC West running backs have combined for 1,699 yards. That puts the division on pace for 6,796 yards by season's end.


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