We’re almost one-fifth of the way into the season, and the AFC West is shaping up to be one of the very best divisions in football, making the task of ranking the four teams incredibly difficult.
Remember that we’re splitting hairs between all four of these teams, as you could make a pretty strong argument for any of the teams placing fourth, and any of them placing first.
Without further adieu, let’s get into it, in an attempt to answer; Who is the best team in the AFC West?
1. Denver Broncos
The discussion as to which team belongs atop the AFC West power rankings is a philosophical one, that comes down to what you think demonstrates better play on the path to victory — struggling against subpar opponents, or dominating bad opponents.
The analytics suggest that dominating poor opponents is actually a more reliable indicator of a quality team, so for this list, the Broncos own the top spot.
It’s fair to criticize them for only playing bad teams and wanting to see them carry their high-end play into games against more quality opponents, but through three weeks it’s hard to think what Denver could be doing better.
They are currently one of just three teams to boast a top 10 offense and defense according to Football Outsider’s DVOA rating, which attempts to add context to yardage and how a team produces. Of those three teams, they’re the only one to have both units ranked inside the top seven. EPA (expected points added), another excellent analytic, likes them even better, and currently views them as the NFL’s second-best team.
Sure, the Broncos played bad teams, but they thoroughly embarrassed those bad teams. Isn’t that what good teams do when they play bad teams? It’s not like the NFL cancels the game and reschedules a new opponent.
2. Las Vegas Raiders
Some Raiders fans might have perked up when they read that they’ve struggled against subpar opponents because as any fan of the other three AFC West teams could tell you, Raiders Nation has less-than-zero ability to stomach even the mildest forms of criticism.
“But we beat the Ravens and Steelers, and the Dolphins were almost a playoff team last year” one hears them yell, off in the yonder.
Last year that might have been an impressive accomplishment. The Ravens were one of the AFC’s juggernauts, and the Steelers performed even better than them through the first dozen games of the season. Meanwhile, the Dolphins really were a legitimate playoff contender that got unlucky down the stretch.
However, none of those three teams appear to be as impressive this year as they were in 2020.
The win over Baltimore is the most impressive of Vegas’ young season, but relatively speaking, one could argue the Detroit Lions gave Baltimore just as much trouble, if not more so. The Raiders didn’t lead the Ravens for a single second of their Week 1 matchup, while the Lions — who entered Week 3 at 0-2 with the NFL’s worst defense — would have beaten the Ravens in regulation if not for a miraculous last-second kick. The other game Baltimore played did result in a win over the Kansas City Chiefs, but if not for a fumble from Clyde Edwards-Helaire, the Chiefs win that game.
The Steelers did notch an impressive win in Week 1 against the Bills, but that game looks flukier and flukier by the week. In the two games since, Pittsburgh has been one of the league’s worst teams and was even blown out by the Cincinnati Bengals at home, in a loss that was more convincing than their loss to the Raiders. It should also be noted that the Raiders had the luxury of going up against a Steelers defense that was down five of its six most important players, and the one remaining — Minkah Fitzpatrick — is currently playing the worst season of his career by far.
That leaves us with the Raiders’ second overtime win of the season, which came against the Miami Dolphins. The fact this game was as close as it was, feels incredibly suspect. Especially when considering that the Dolphins have otherwise lost by an average score of 26-to-9 in their other two games and that Miami was without their starting quarterback for the game.
3. Los Angeles Chargers
The Los Angeles Chargers are coming off the most impressive Week 3 of any AFC West team, as they managed to take down Goliath and beat the Chiefs, at Arrowhead.
It appears the Chargers have found an excellent head coach in Brandon Staley, who was a part of the Broncos’ coaching staff in 2019. Staley has the defense playing well above their talent level, and clearly has his finger on the pulse of the locker room. His press conferences come across McVay-ian, and he seems to have an excellent feel for coaching the offensive side of the ball despite his defensive background.
The number might not be quite as stellar for Justin Herbert as they were a year ago, but the second-year quarterback still looks the part of a burgeoning superstar at the game’s most important position. Plus, a breakout season from Mike Williams and the return of Austin Ekeler makes the offense much more formidable.
However, one point of concern is that, much like the Raiders and Broncos, some of the Chargers’ early success might be over-inflated.
The Chargers did an excellent job winning the turnover battle 4-0, and all four of their takeaways came with the Chiefs driving into Los Angeles territory. That isn’t replicable. Despite that, the Chargers still needed to outscore the Chiefs 10-0 in the closing minutes of the game to emerge with the victory, and considering K.C.’s history late in games, during the Mahomes era, that doesn’t feel very replicable either.
4. Kansas City Chiefs
This Chiefs team is not the Kansas City Chiefs of the past two years.
The 2019 Chiefs were an unstoppable juggernaut, steam-rolling their way over the NFL and any who dared challenge them. The 2020 Chiefs were an elite team, but they earned the No. 1 seed in the AFC through consistently winning close games, as opposed to the convincing blowouts of the prior year.
The 2021 Chiefs feel like the next devolution in this process, as they’re no longer able to dominate the latter stages of close games to come away with hard-thought wins like they used to, through three weeks.
A team that has Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and Andy Reid always has the potential to right the ship, but right now, the roster feels fairly talent-poor outside that quartet, and it’s hard to see many of their issues magically being corrected.
The defense is the worst it’s been during the Mahomes era, and that’s saying something considering the defenses the Chiefs have had in recent years. The skill group has no depth to it, and Mecole Hardman has struggled to step up in place of Sammy Watkins. Lastly, the offensive line is improved from a season ago, but nowhere near as improved as it should be, considering the sheer number of resources invested into making it one of the NFL’s best units.