Enemy Territory: Why the sneaky Chargers can win the AFC West

Dec 14, 2014; San Diego, CA, USA; San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (17) looks to pass during the fourth quarter against the Denver Broncos at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

The argument for the Los Angeles Chargers to win the AFC West is surprisingly strong. Despite the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs being the favorites to take the division, there are plenty of reasons the Chargers deserve a look, too.

Dan Woike, a reporter on the Chargers beat for the L.A. Times, joined Eric Goodman and Les Shapiro on AM 1340 | FM 104.7 in Denver to argue why the Broncos need to look out for the team they’re about to play in the season opener.

“They’re a sneaky sleeper, sort of darling team and it makes sense why. If you want to talk yourself into the Chargers being the best team in the AFC West, I don’t think it’s that hard to do it,” Woike said. “They feel like they’ve upgraded at coach, they’ve hired a very good defensive coordinator in Gus Bradley, they’ve got tons of talent on the outside on offense, they’ve got great tight ends, they’ve got a great running back who’s young, they’ve got a very good, consistent quarterback in Philip Rivers. Then you look at their defense, you’ve got top-notch cornerbacks and you’ve got maybe one of the best pass-rushing duos in the NFL.”

The Chargers have plenty of talent, but they’ve also been cursed by the injury bug in recent years. This season has already been no exception. First-round draft pick Mike Williams is out until at least October with a back injury, second-round pick Forrest Lamp is out for the year with a torn ACL. Despite these two early injuries, Woike hopes the move to Los Angeles will help the team shake the injury bug.

“They look like they’re going to be pretty healthy for Week 1; the injury report is pretty scarce at this point,” Woike told Goodman and Shapiro. “That’s gonna be the challenge for this team. Their depth isn’t what it should be, or what it needs to be. You saw that in the preseason. This is a team that looked very good when the starters were on the field and not very good when the backups had to play. Over the course of a 16-week season, the backups are going to have to play.”

The biggest weakness for the Chargers, one that the Broncos could exploit when the two teams meet on Monday night, is their special teams play.

“They’ve been bad on coverage, they’ve been bad on returns, they haven’t kicked the ball very well,” Woike said. “It’s been kind of a work in progress. But those are the things that would hold them back: The health, the depth, and the special teams. Those are the three things that held them back last year.”

The Broncos will look to put pressure on a weak offensive line to halt Rivers.

“[The offensive line] is deeper than it’s been, but it’s still a little bit of a question mark. They’ve got all this talent outside of them. Can they protect Philip Rivers long enough?”

The Broncos and the Chargers meet at Sports Authority Field at Mile High Monday night at 8:20 p.m. A three-way tie for first place in the AFC West will be on the line, as the Chiefs and Raiders both won earlier in the week.

Listen to the full interview with Dan Woike, including how much interest there is in L.A. for the Chargers and the NFL, in the podcast below.

Catch Afternoon Drive with Goodman and Shapiro every weekday from 4p-6p on Mile High Sports AM 1340 | FM 104.7 or stream live any time for the best local coverage of Colorado sports from Denver’s biggest sports talk lineup.