The Kansas City Chiefs have won the AFC West for the past six seasons, the longest active divisional winning streak in the league after the Buffalo Bills usurped the New England Patriots in 2020. It’s something the other three teams in the division likely fumed about every season since 2015.
But last season, cracks began to show. The Chiefs faltered out of the starting blocks and looked on the precipice of letting go of the division and perhaps missing the playoffs. We all know how that story ended: Kansas City won nine of its final 10 games of the season, including 5-0 against the division, and took the crown again.
It’s a brave new world in the wild, wild AFC West, though. The Los Angeles Chargers, Denver Broncos and Las Vegas Raiders made sure of that. Every day during the first week of free agency (and the legal tampering period), one of those teams made a blockbuster move to bolster their roster. The Broncos effectively lit the match when they traded for Russell Wilson. Then, the Chargers traded for edge rusher Khalil Mack. Los Angeles signed J.C. Jackson soon afterward, to which the Broncos responded by swooping in to steal Randy Gregory from Dallas.
The Raiders saved the biggest surprise for last. After signing edge rusher Chandler Jones, they traded a first- and second-round draft pick to acquire All-Pro wide receiver Davante Adams and give Derek Carr arguably the best offensive weapon in the division.
In just a matter of days, the AFC West went from Kansas City’s to lose to a legitimate race between all four teams. The Chiefs are still the betting favorite at +135 to win the division with BetMGM, but the Chargers (+270) and Broncos (+280) aren’t far behind anymore, and the Raiders’ +600 odds aren’t bad, either.
“Our division is unbelievable right now. We’re all chasing Kansas City,” Chargers general manager Tom Telesco told “The Pat McAfee Show” on Friday. “Denver makes a move with Russell Wilson. We make a move with Khalil Mack. The Raiders make a move with Davante Adams. Luckily we signed J.C. Jackson. We’re all just trying to keep up with each other and go after Kansas City.”
AFC West is the best QB division in NFL
This is a quarterback league, and the AFC West has the best collection of four in the NFL. Between Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, Derek Carr and now Wilson, the division has 17 Pro Bowls, two Super Bowl titles, three of the top five passing yardage leaders in 2021, and four of the top 14 in passer rating last season between its starting quarterbacks.
“It’s an arms race, really, what everyone’s doing [in the division],” Broncos GM George Paton said on Friday. “You look at every team and you look at all the quarterbacks. If you don’t have one, how are you going to compete? If you don’t have a rusher, how are you going to get after the quarterback? If you don’t have the corners … how are you going to stop Davante Adams. There are weapons all across the division.”
When every team in the division locked down its franchise passer, it only made sense that the countermove was to find the player who can shut him down. It’s why every team in the division either signed, traded or extended a pass rusher.
The trio of Mack, Gregory and Jones added 22.5 sacks to the division. Even perfunctory signings like defensive tackles Sebastian Joseph-Day and Austin Johnson to the Chargers, D.J. Jones to the Broncos and Bilal Nichols to the Raiders added another 10.5 sacks. That’s not counting the stud pass rushers already in the division like Joey Bosa, Bradley Chubb, Chris Jones and the recently re-signed Frank Clark and Maxx Crosby.
The proliferation of defensive standouts doesn’t end at the line. The Chargers recognized they needed to pair safety Derwin James with a lockdown cornerback, so they paid up for Jackson. The Raiders traded for cornerback Rock Ya-Sin as well, and the Chiefs added safety Justin Reid. Las Vegas is reportedly interested in cornerback Stephon Gilmore, too.
And the quarterbacks? They got some new weapons. The Chargers already locked up their No. 2 receiver in Mike Williams earlier this offseason. Then the Raiders went out and acquired Adams to give Carr a true No. 1 option next to tight end Darren Waller, slot receiver Hunter Renfrow and running back Josh Jacobs.
The Chiefs added JuJu Smith-Schuster to give Mahomes a bonafide third pass-catching option. The Broncos didn’t bring in anyone new, but they already secured their young offensive corps with extensions for receivers Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick, who will continue to line up alongside third-year wideout Jerry Jeudy and second-year running back Javonte Williams.
Here’s how much the AFC West improved on paper
When the dust settled from all the moves, the Broncos, Raiders and Chargers ranked first, second and fifth in Pro Football Focus’ offseason improvement index, respectively. The three earned a Wins Above Replacement boost of +0.76, +0.62 and +0.41, respectively, as well, while the Chiefs stayed effectively flat with a -0.02 WAR.
The AFC West wasn’t the only division to improve. The whole conference is in on it. The AFC’s defending champion, the Cincinnati Bengals, upgraded their offensive line with three new starters. The Baltimore Ravens signed stud safety Marcus Williams. The Buffalo Bills, the current favorite to win the Super Bowl at +650 with BetMGM, signed Von Miller to a six-year, $120 million deal (with $51 million guaranteed). Even the Browns upgraded their receiver and quarterback situation by trading for Amari Cooper and acquiring and paying Deshaun Watson despite the 22 sexual assault allegations and possible NFL suspension hanging over his head.
The AFC will be difficult to win. But you have to make the playoffs to have a chance. Nowhere will it be harder to do so than the AFC West.
AFC West teams paid big money to contend
The Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus once said: “You must spend money to make money.” And oh, did the West spend money.
Denver allocated $99 million guaranteed between just Wilson, Gregory and Jones. Los Angeles dolled out $135.3 million guaranteed between Mack, Jackson, Joseph-Day and Williams. Las Vegas backed up the Brink’s truck even more and dropped $150.7 million guaranteed on just Crosby and Adams.
But this is the NFL, and the best teams don’t sit on their money and watch the rest of the league grow. Half of the playoff teams in 2021, including the Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams and runner-up Bengals, finished in the bottom half of salary cap space heading into the season and five playoff teams finished bottom-nine, per Spotrac.
The Broncos made the division very clear when they traded for Wilson that they were going to do everything in their power to compete. The Chargers and Raiders followed suit, while the Chiefs stood their ground and added a few complementary pieces to shore up a few weak points. Now, all four teams will turn to the NFL draft — though the Broncos, Raiders and Chargers all gave up premium picks for some of their moves — to clean up some of the outlying issues.
It all makes for the most interesting divisional race in the NFL. One that could possibly decide the winner of the AFC as well.