Can the Denver Broncos climb out of the AFC West’s cellar?

Denver Broncos quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (5) is sacked by Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Maxx Crosby (98) in the second quarter at Empower Field at Mile High.
Oct 17, 2021; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (5) is sacked by Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Maxx Crosby (98) in the second quarter at Empower Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

After this week, there’s no doubt that the Broncos belong in the cellar of the AFC West.

Now the remaining questions are, where do the other teams in the division stand, and is there any way that the Broncos could claw their way out of this hole? Let’s look.

1. Los Angeles Chargers

The Chargers did just get waxed by the Baltimore Ravens this week, but the Ravens appear to still be an AFC superpower, and they also present a lot of matchup problems to a team like the Los Angeles Chargers.

The Bolts entered Week 6 with the league’s second-worst run defense, and a defense that in general allowed a ton of yardage, and the Ravens had no problem capitalizing on the favorable matchup. The big difference was that Baltimore was able to convert that yardage into touchdowns, something everyone other than Cleveland and Baltimore have failed to do.

The offensive struggles are much more difficult to justify, but as Broncos Country recently learned, entering a matchup against the Ravens with a wounded offensive line, is a recipe for disaster.

The Chargers now have a bye week to prepare for a home matchup with the New England Patriots. If they drop that one, they could certainly slide in these rankings.

2. Kansas City Chiefs

It seems like everything is going wrong for the Kansas City Chiefs right now.

Against Washington, they once again suffered through a lot of turnovers, a lot of which felt fairly flukey. As a result, the game was much much closer than it should’ve been based on the talent and overall play of the two teams.

Kansas City’s offense is playing at a highly efficient rate, and in many metrics look just as deadly as ever, but the new defensive philosophy teams are using to stifle them has been very effective. Teams are forcing the Chiefs to score on long, 13-play drives and when you have 13 offensive plays, you’re much more likely to make a mistake on one of them than if you only had five offensive plays on a given drive. Maybe that mistake is a holding penalty, or a sack, or a turnover, and that’s just enough to give your defense the handful of stops it needs.

Then, on the opposite side of the ball, the Chiefs are digging themselves quite the hole, by making every opposing quarterback look like a superstar quarterback in their own right, negating Mahomes’ incomparable value to some extent.

All that said, the Chiefs do feel like a better team than the Raiders overall, though they’ll have to right the ship before their schedule heats up.

Next week they play the Titans, then they get a nice break with a home matchup against the Giants, before they have to play the Packers, Raiders, and Cowboys in a three-week stretch. That’s brutal.

3. Las Vegas Raiders

The Raiders are a really tough team to read, so they’ll stay put for this week.

Against the Broncos, the roster seemed galvanized to play for Rich Bisacchia and Co. after the switch from Jon Gruden, but whether that energy will be sustained into the coming weeks, and how much of that victory had to do with Denver being awful is yet to be seen.

One aspect of the coaching switch that hasn’t been discussed enough, is the move from Gruden to Greg Olson as the team’s offensive play-caller.

That didn’t seem to hurt Vegas’ offense too much on Sunday, but once again, we don’t know how much of that success had to do with Denver’s struggles. Olson has had little-to-no success as a play-caller over the course of his career, and if the Raiders’ offense regresses over the coming weeks, it could spell doom for their 2021 season. If they play like they did against the Broncos, however, they could potentially challenge for the division title.

4. Denver Broncos

Every single other team in the AFC West has something to hang their hat on. Every single other team in the AFC West also has a solution at no fewer than one of the three foundational pillars of a football organization; quarterback, head coach, and owner.

The Broncos have neither of those things.

The defense that was supposed to be excellent is entirely middling. One thing advanced analytics have taught us about middling defenses in recent years is that their overall ranks almost perfectly correlate with the quality of opposing offenses they have faced.

In other words, the only reason the Broncos still appear above-average in certain defensive categories, is likely because a third of their schedule has come against the New York Jets and Jacksonville Jaguars.

This defense had to be elite and it is far from it.

They also don’t have much of a passing game now, despite it being the third-most improved passing game in football according to expected points added per dropback. Their run game hasn’t been much better. They’ve had a lot of explosive runs, but on a down-to-down basis, the running game has been incredibly inefficient and largely responsible for the third-and-longs the offense is consistently tasked with converting.

It appears these players have given up on the coaching staff with how horribly flat they’ve played in recent weeks. Until we see some dramatic turnaround there, there is no reason to believe they’ll ever leave the AFC West cellar this season.

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