Almost every major sports website ran some version of the same headline in the offseason that already is starting to look premature at best.
“Is the 2022 AFC West the best division in NFL history?”
It didn’t seem like that extreme of a question at the time.
The Chiefs have been a dominant franchise for several years and have quarterback Patrick Mahomes and coach Andy Reid. The Raiders, despite replacing their coaching staff and general manager, added perhaps the league’s best wide receiver to a playoff roster. The Chargers added several elite players to go with a young franchise quarter. And the Broncos, a franchise that for years has been called a quarterback short of a contender, traded for an established star QB.
What could possibly go wrong? Well, through three weeks of the season, plenty.
The Chiefs are still trying to figure out the roles of their revamped wide receiver corps, and the Chargers have been decimated by injury, including to quarterback Justin Herbert.
Then there are the Raiders and Broncos, who will meet in a 1:25 p.m. Sunday game at Allegiant Stadium with one team still trying to find its identity and the other still trying to find its first win.
While there was a time each AFC West matchup could be the stuff of legend, the first meeting of the season between these division rivals is more a quest for consistency.
“It’s still September,” Raiders coach Josh McDaniels said. “I think all three other (AFC West) teams — and then you throw ourselves in there — I can’t imagine that there’s any team in the league that’s saying right now, ‘Man, we’re where we want to be at the end.’”
McDaniels further illustrated his premise by pointing out scoring is down more than 10 percent, with teams averaging less than 21 points per game around the league.
“When I saw that, I was like, ‘Whoa,’” he said. “It’s shocking, and that just tells me there’s a lot of development, and there’s a lot of improvement, and there’s a lot of things that need to get better.”
That wasn’t supposed to be the case in the AFC West, but the combined record of the four teams against nondivision opponents is 3-5.
While Denver is responsible for two of those wins, their 2-1 start has hardly inspired confidence. The red zone offense has been abysmal, and the only thing drawing more criticism among Broncos fans than Nathaniel Hackett’s play-calling is his game management.
McDaniels is more concerned with his team’s 0-3 start, but he’s preparing to encounter a better version of the Broncos than they have put on film for three games.
“Explosive team in all three phases, no doubt,” McDaniels said. “They’re playing well on defense right now, good pass rush, very good pass rush. They play a lot of tight coverage, and they’re pretty good in the defensive backfield
“Offensively, there’s a lot of things you could say about Russell Wilson, probably not enough superlatives over the last 10 years. I mean, this guy’s won games, fourth-quarter comebacks, completion percentage, quarterback rating, and he’s starting to do it again. They’ve trailed in the fourth quarter of all three of their games, and he’s brought them back and won a couple of those.”
Hackett said he also expects improvement from his team and the Raiders.
“September football, so everyone’s really trying to work out the kinks,” he said. “Everybody’s trying to figure it out, including us. I think we’re better than (we’ve been), and they’re better than (they’ve been). We’re both good teams.”
One of those teams is going to feel better about its progress after Sunday’s game. As for whether the division will live up to the hype, that won’t be known until the end of the season.
“People forget this is the NFL,” Raiders running back Josh Jacobs said of whether the AFC West had too much hype. “Everyone is good. Even the worst teams are good. Anybody can get beat on any given day, so it’s really just a matter of who can do it better for longer. That’s what the great teams do. They put it together from start to finish. That’s what we’re trying to find.”
Who: Broncos at Raiders
When: 1:25 p.m. Sunday
Where: Allegiant Stadium
Radio: KRLV-AM (920), KOMP-FM (92.3)
Line: Raiders -3; total 45½
Raiders’ keys to victory
1. Seeing red
The game could come down to which team can finish drives once they penetrate deep in opposition territory. Neither has had much success through three games. The Raiders are 26th in the NFL, scoring touchdowns on 46.15 percent of their red zone trips. Denver is last at 14.29 percent.
2. Play 60 minutes
This is getting as repetitive as it is glaring. In each game, the Raiders have played one good half. The other half is why they are 0-3. There is plenty of talent, but not enough to play well for only 30 minutes.
3. Seek balance
Coach Josh McDaniels talks about a desire to find more balance on offense for a team that has been reliant on the passing game. While some of it can be blamed on game script as the Raiders have fallen behind, Derek Carr has thrown on 70.88 percent of the snaps. That’s second in the league and higher than any team finished in 2021.