NFL division preview: AFC West

Tyler Dragon
USA TODAY Sports Plus

It’s a quarterback-driven league and the Chiefs have the QB in the NFL.

Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs are the favorites to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl for a third-consecutive year. Can anyone in the AFC West challenge them?

USA TODAY Sports+ examines each division prior to kickoff of the 2021 NFL season. And there's plenty of intrigue surrounding this unique year, which features 17 games after the NFL expanded its regular season for the first time since 1978.

The playoffs will begin the weekend of Jan. 15 and Los Angeles will host Super Bowl LVI Feb. 13, 2022.

Now, let's get into it.

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AFC West

Team to beat? Kansas City Chiefs

Patrick Mahomes likely will be the first quarterback off the fantasy football draft board.

Kansas City had a banged up and veteran-laden offensive line during last season’s Super Bowl. The O-line severely hindered the offense in the 31-9 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Kansas City went all in investing in its offensive line since the frustrating loss.

The Chiefs traded for LT Orlando Brown Jr., signed OG Joe Thuney, convinced OG Kyle Long to come out of retirement and drafted C Creed Humphrey in the second round of this year’s draft.

Kansas City’s refurbished offensive line should bode well for the team’s $500 million quarterback and the skill position players.  

FIRST OVERALL: Patrick Mahomes ranked top NFL player by athletes around the league

Safety Tyrann Mathieu leads an opportunistic defense. Kansas City had a +6 turnover differential in 2020. However, the Chiefs defense is susceptible to giving up big plays.

When it comes down to it, though, the Chiefs have Mahomes and the best passing attack in the NFL. If the Chiefs evade the injury bug and the O-line and defense play up to par, the Chiefs are a clear Super Bowl LVI favorite.

Team on the rise? Los Angeles Chargers

The Chargers struck gold when they drafted quarterback Justin Herbert No. 6 overall in the 2020 NFL Draft. Herbert re-wrote the rookie record books last season on his way to winning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Los Angeles revamped its offensive line to protect Herbert. The Bolts will have four new starters along their offensive line, including first-round pick left tackle Rashawn Slater and All-Pro center Corey Linsley.

QB QUESTIONS:How will Justin Herbert develop with a new head coach and offensive coordinator? 

The defense welcomes back a healthy strong safety Derwin James after two injury-riddled seasons. James was arguably the best strong safety in the NFL his rookie year in 2018, yet he missed all but five games in 2019 because of a Jones fracture in his right foot and he was sidelined all of last season with a torn meniscus in his right knee.

The Chargers have two of the NFL’s best defensive players in James and pass rusher Joey Bosa.  

Los Angeles has the talent to be a playoff team. The question is if new head coach Brandon Staley can get the Chargers to play up to their potential.

Team with some intrigue? Las Vegas Raiders

It isn’t just Sin City that makes the Raiders intriguing.

The Raiders have a talented core on offense featuring RB Josh Jacobs, WR Henry Ruggs III and TE Darren Waller.

Waller, who turns 29 in September, is the veteran of the three.

Quarterback Derek Carr is 30 years old. Carr had career-highs in passing yards (4,103) and passer rating (101.4) last year. Yet, he only led Las Vegas to an 8-8 record. 

The Raiders’ .500 record was largely attributed to a defense that allowed 29.9 points a game.

Team with the most ground to make up? Denver Broncos

Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller (58) battles Los Angeles Rams offensive guard Tremayne Anchrum (72) during the first half of an NFL preseason football game, Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

The Broncos acquired quarterback Teddy Bridgewater for a sixth-round pick ahead of the 2021 NFL Draft. Bridgewater took the No. 1 quarterback job away from incumbent Drew Lock.

Bridgewater is the fifth quarterback to start a season for Denver since the team's Super Bowl 50 season. The 28-year-old quarterback will try to help improve a subpar offense.

The Broncos’ offense ranked in the bottom half of the league last season and the team’s 32 giveaways was worst in the NFL.

Defensive-minded coach Vic Fangio could have another stingy defense. Outside linebackers Von Miller and Bradley Chubb provide the Broncos with a formidable pass rush.

The Broncos finished last in the AFC West by two games in 2020. Denver has work to do as they attempt to get out of the bottom floor of the division.