NFL Midseason Grades: AFC West
Updated: Dec 4, 2020
By Ed Wilkins.
Kansas City Chiefs (9-1) 1st in AFC West
Offensive Points Per Game: 32.1 (1st in NFL)
Defensive Points Per Game: 21.4 (7th in NFL)
Sometimes I go for whole days without thinking about the Chiefs. That’s not a cruel thing or an attempt to be disingenuous to the Juggernaut that Reid and Veach have assembled in KC. It’s more like the way you can go for days without thinking about breathing, and your lungs just keep chuffing away like the good little lungs that they are.
I don’t have to think about the Chiefs to know that they are good. I don’t have to watch their games to know that their offense can at times look like when you were a kid and you turned the second controller on and just left it there on the sofa whilst you scored touchdown after touchdown. I don’t have to look at the box score to know that Mahomes played like a man possessed last week, and for all the talk of letting Russ cook, the one true chef is going to light up the grill and serve us up some barbecue postseason heroics with a side of Halloumi fries.
My fellow Stiff Upper Lip and GX contributor would tell you that, at 9-0 the Pittsburgh Steelers are the best team in the AFC. But don’t be fooled, friends, by the cunning whispers of the con-artist. The Chiefs are the best team in football, and have been for years.
It’s not just that they have transcendent talent at Quarterback, Tight End, Offensive Tackle and Defensive Tackle. They also have those players you see that crop up and just have a day. Not getting much out of ‘Mr Could-not-be-a-worse-human-being-if-he-tried’ Tyreek Hill? No worries, some guy named Byron Pringle will rock up with nine catches for 162 yards and three touchdowns. Juan Thornhill, who sounds for all intents and purposes like a minor character in the Red Dead Redemption series, will every now and then crop up with a couple picks or a game-changing fumble recovery.
It’s not true to say that this Chiefs team is without weakness. Their linebacking corps is one of the weakest in football and with the losses of Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and Kelechi Osemele, the interior of their O-line is a little porous.
It doesn’t matter though, as a good, not great defense is a more than capable complement to an offensive unit that ranks not only as the most talented outfit in football, but also with one of the most creative schemes, one where every play seems to craft an opportunity to find a playmaker in space, be that Kelce or Edwards-Helaire or Mahomes on a designed run.
The reason, frankly, that we are not seeing Mahomes make the kind of ridiculous throws from all angles that he did in his MVP year is simple. It’s not that he can’t do it anymore. It’s that he doesn’t need to. KC has assembled something awe inspiring. I don’t think about the inevitable death of the universe as often perhaps as I should. But KC beating whichever poor schmucks roll into Arrowhead is only marginally less inevitable and therefore I should think about them more. No, less. More. Less. Now I’m confused. Don’t forget to breathe….
Las Vegas Raiders (6-4) 2nd in AFC West
Offensive PPG: 28.6 (8th in NFL)
Defensive PPG: 27.6 (26th in NFL)
Have you ever seen a person that looks more like a gammon joint than Jon Gruden? I haven’t.
These Raiders look good though, in their fresh new stadium that nobody is allowed inside. No, it’s ultra-VIP Platinum, they’ll tell you: even I’m not allowed inside, and I’m far more glamorous than you could ever dream of. This is VEGAS baby! On the field, though, the NFL’s equivalent of Siegfried and Roy are performing well and currently lie just outside the postseason places, well primed to make a good crack at the playoffs.
And they’re not without talent either.
Josh Jacobs is playing as well as he did in his rookie season. Hunter Renfrow, Darren Waller and company have continued their development into a decent pass-catching platoon, and it turns out that Derek Carr can throw deep. It’s just, he can seemingly only do it to Henry Ruggs. But it’s a start.
The defense plays well as a unit and is that old cliché: solid, but unspectacular. A couple more drafts under Mayock’s belt and I’m sure that they will be a great contender – well on their way, but for now lacking those couple of really tip top players along the D-line.
I think that the current Raiders brass have learned their lessons from the Great Antonio Brown Debacle and seem one of the few teams really committed to developing their in-house talent. There’s an argument for and against that. For one, John Gruden’s monstrous contract means that he has the time to truly mould the culture of the franchise into something great, and it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that that happens. Just as easily though, teams fail to self-scout and become too sentimental about their players.
The Raiders are in danger of doing that with Derek Carr. Yes, he is a perfectly reasonable passer who, under the right circumstances, can flourish. But you only have to look at what is happening to teams around the league to see that it wouldn’t be foolish for the Raiders to think about taking a quarterback early. Even if they sit behind Carr for a while.
Heck, get a project QB in the second or third round. I think that, with the upward trend this team is currently taking, Carr will soon become a limiting factor. It wouldn’t be the worst idea to have the heir apparent waiting in the wings.
Los Angeles Chargers (3-7) 4th in AFC West
Offensive PPG: 26.0 (15th in NFL)
Defensive PPG: 27.3 (24th in NFL)
The Chargers did a classic charger thing earlier in the year when they allowed some doctor type to puncture the lung of their starting QB, essentially for the bantz. But they’ve strengthened. Despite looking like the most ‘my father will hear about this’ player in NFL history, Justin Herbert has set the team alight. Yeah, they’re missing Derwin James on the back end, and it shows, although I’m struggling to remember what he played like after essentially missing every game over the past two seasons. The Chargers are basically an 8-8 team who are unlucky enough to reside in a division that features the Chiefs and Raiders.
There is precious little more to say about this team; with Joe Burrow’s recent injury the path to the Offensive Rookie of the Year is wide open for Herbert. I mean, at least they will get their hands on some silverware this year. Every cloud, eh? All twelve of their fans will be cheering their little socks off.
The truth is, the person who has cost LA the most games this year doesn’t play on offense or defense – it’s the head coach, Anthony Lynn. Which is a real shame, because I have a genuine soft spot for the guy – as anyone who watched Hard Knocks will tell you, Lynn is instantly likeable and has a definite talent for coaching the best out of the undrafted and lower roster players.
That said though, his conservative playcalling and inept special teams unit is killing these Chargers. It might be the most Charger thing ever. What is a season for the Chargers anyway if you don’t throw away 2-5 games in horrific fashion in the fourth quarter?
The faces change but the narrative remains. But don’t those midnight blue kits look absolutely gorgeous? SoFi stadium looks to be a cracker (although it does feel a bit like them sneaking into their older brother’s bedroom to play on the GameCube when he is out on dates whenever the Chargers play there). These Chargers are flawed, undeniably so. But are they actually good? The jury is still out
Denver Broncos (4-6) 3rd in AFC West
Offensive PPG: 20.6 (27th in NFL)
Defensive PPG: 26.7 (20th in NFL)
The Age of Drew Lock may be drawing to a close in Denver. This is sad to say, because the kid has arm talent in spades but, when you’re the latest in a series of big white quarterbacks with big white arms to flame out in Denver, I’d imagine that you don’t get plenty of rope.
Gone are the days of Paxton Lynch. I can’t imagine the powers that be will ever get rid of John Elway, but perhaps they’ll demote him to some charismatic figurehead with no real power… Old? Check. White? Check. Ridiculous haircut? Check. Skin like a careworn cream leather sofa? Check. Clinging desperately to power? Check. Heck, forget Broncos GM. Elway for president, 2024.
I digress. Elway has studded the roster with offensive talent to build around Lock, and he has been rewarded for his efforts with, um, four wins. Lock has put up gaudy numbers but also shown a lack of poise and ball security, and at times has completely overthrown wide receivers. Oh, and there was that time that Melvin Gordon pitched him the ball on an attempted flea flicker and he let it squidge through his fingers like a choc ice through a windmill.
This is another BAD lost season for Denver. In a year where, even if LA are struggling to put up points, the rest of the AFC West did a solid job of reloading and rearming, it seems as though Denver stocked up on offensive talent but did nothing to bolster a defense with few blue chip pieces.
They are garbage against the run, and not much better against the pass. I get it on one hand, the AFC west feels a little bit like a sort of tinpot dictatorship struggle for power – why not rearm and try to simply overwhelm the opposition? We were all praising their ingenuity on draft day. But time makes a fool of us all, and it turns out that without a quarterback to receive the ball from, wide receivers are basically just window dressing. All sizzle, and no steak, boys.
The worst part for the Broncos is that they went all Lions. They believed in their own hype. They rationalised their own long-shot aspirations. “Drew Lock can be a competent player” they said. “Pat Shurmur can maximise this passing game”. And now their genuine blue-chip talents are destined to stagnate on a team with no aspirations and no chance. And they aren’t going to be able to turn any of those talents into draft capital, because they wasted the year on the Drew Lock experiment. And for the record, that isn’t time wasted. But in the NFL, you need to know when to pump another dime into the gumball machine and try again, to avoid becoming just another also-ran. This team CAN draft a quarterback, I believe it. They’re a franchise with serious prestige. Better luck next time fellas.