2014 AFC West Preview: Can Anyone Challenge the Broncos?

The Broncos are the number one team in numberFire's preseason power rankings, but how strong is their stranglehold on the division?

Football has a tendency to be an unfair sport. Some teams get plopped in the AFC East, where a half-drunk labradoodle can fumble its way into a second-place finish. Others are in the AFC South, where 75 percent of the quarterbacks sometimes look like half-drunk labradoodles. Then there's the AFC West. Ain't no boozed-up puppy dogs in this house, friends.

In 2013, the AFC West was a major-league choke job away from having three-fourths of the AFC divisional playoff teams. Now, they're locked, loaded, and ready to give it another g-round.

The big question heading into 2014 is whether or not any of the other three teams can unseat the defending conference champion Broncos. In order to evaluate that question, we'll use numberFire's nERD stat. This can be used to create an expected point differential for two teams in a neutral-site game. For example, if a team has a 5.00 nERD, they would be expected to beat a league-average team by five points. A team with a -5.00 nERD would be expected to lose by five.

For each team, I'll also reference their Net Expected Points (NEP) from the previous season. In each situation, there is an expected number of points that a team will score on a drive. Each good play increases that, and each negative play decreases it. numberFire's data looks at every play to track the true effectiveness of an offense through the course of a season. That pumps out the NEP, which can be broken down into offensive and defensive, rushing and passing, and can also be adjusted for strength of schedule. If you want a more in-depth explanation, you can click here.

If you're wondering where we're getting all of these numbers, they're all in numberFire's Power Rankings. It has all of this data (and some bonus info if you call now!) for all 31 NFL teams plus the Jacksonville Jaguars. It's definitely worth 1 to 15 hours of your attention.

Now, let's rank these four AFC West teams based on their nERD scores.

4. Oakland Raiders

nERD: -5.44
Chance of Winning Division: 2.3%
Offensive Rank: 24th
Defensive Rank: 29th

There are three high-quality teams in the West this year; the Raiders are not one of them. When you rank in the bottom-fourth of the league in both offense and defense, that generally doesn't lead to sunshine and daisies.

Last season, the Raiders didn't exactly slay worlds in our NEP stats, but they also weren't horrendous. Below is a chart of where they ranked in four categories: Adjusted Offensive Passing and Rushing NEP and Adjusted Defensive Passing and Rushing NEP. For offense, positive is good; for defense, you want negative.

CategorySeason TotalLeague Rank
Adj. Pass NEP-24.3722nd
Adj. Rush NEP4.4612th
Adj. Def. Pass NEP101.3329th
Adj. Def. Rush NEP2.5218th

Hey, not too shabby, mates. They were actually above average at running the ball (thanks in part to noted numberFire friend and new Giant, Rashad Jennings). Just avert your eyes from the pass defense. That was a touchdown per game worse than an average offense solely on passing plays. No bueno.

But, things have changed. The Raiders turned a new leaf and actually brought in some ball-players this off-season. I wrote the night of the draft how much I adored the drafting of Khalil Mack. Add in Justin Tuck, and maybe the Raiders can turn around their pass defense woes. If they do, they could out-perform their projection of 5.9 wins. The odds of that happening when they have to face either Peyton Manning or Philip Rivers in 25 percent of their games may not be high, but you never know.

3. Kansas City Chiefs

nERD: 1.51
Chance of Winning Division: 12.0%
Offensive Rank: 18th
Defensive Rank: 10th

Gargantuan collapse or not, improving by nine wins from one season to another is un-freaking-real. The Chiefs used a fairly complex strategy in order to do this: don't allow the other team to score points. It's sheer genius.

In 2013, the Chiefs ranked fourth in the league in Adjusted Defensive NEP at -54.56. The only teams ahead of them were the Seahawks, Bengals and Panthers. After selecting Dee Ford in the first round of the draft, it looks like they want to make that defense even better. Because fourth best was just unacceptable or something.

The big news for the Chiefs was inking a new contract for Jamaal Charles. numberFire's projections have him as the top-ranked running back for this year, slotting him for 2,287 yards from scrimmage and 14 total touchdowns. Them be some slobber stats right there.

At quarterback, Alex Smith is the definition of "game manager." He finished the season 18th among quarterbacks in Total NEP (which takes both Passing and Rushing NEP into account) at 50.08. Obviously, if the team won 11 games, that's enough to get the job done. But if they want to push Denver for the division title, they may need a little bit more out of him this year.

Oh, and De'Anthony Thomas is a freak. That is all.

2. San Diego Chargers

nERD: 2.69
Chance of Winning Division: 17.6%
Offensive Rank: 4th
Defensive Rank: 30th

If you're looking for a team that can give the Broncos a push in the West, it's these bad mamma jammas right here. You know, if they pretend that defense is a thing, that is.

It's not as if the Chargers just had to fix their pass defense or rush defense for this year; they kind of stunk at both in 2013. The team finished 26th in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP and 31st in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP. Yet, they still managed to wiggle their way into the playoffs and knock off Cincy there. That might not cut it for a second-consecutive year.

But, fear not, brethren of the bolt. Re-enforcements are on the way. The team drafted corner Jason Verrett in the first round and outside linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu in the second and later signed former Chief Brandon Flowers with hopes that all three would be able to help the pass defense, whether in coverage or in pass-rushing duties. While the first two are unproven rookies and Flowers slipped last year, it really can't get a lot worse. Well, you'd hope so at least.

With that defense, it looks like the Chargers could be in a whole lot of shootouts. Luckily, they've got a gun-slangin' offense that can make it rain in those situations.

I've already slobbered over Rivers enough this off-season, so I'll let you read that bolded link if you want to see why I have a raging man-crush on him. But just know: the dude is a lot better than he gets credit for. numberFire projects him at 4,295 yards, 32 touchdowns and 12 interceptions this year. It's tasty. And his supporting cast actually isn't too shabby, either.

In the off-season, the Chargers brought in Donald Brown to give Ryan Mathews a study buddy in the backfield. As numberFire's Matt Goodwin wrote back in June, Brown was actually an analytics darling last year. His addition, plus the way that Mathews ran in the second half of last season plus tools like Keenan Allen, Antonio Gates and Ladarius Green (more on Green here from the delightful Brandon Gdula) could make the Chargers absolutely unstoppable this year. The problem is that opposing offenses could be unstoppable, as well.

1. Denver Broncos

nERD: 11.40
Chance of Winning Division: 68.1%
Offensive Rank: 1st
Defensive Rank: 6th

See that 68.1 percent chance of winning the division? That only tells half of the story. They have an 87.4 percent chance of making the playoffs, a 17.4 percent chance at winning the Super Bowl, and the highest nERD in the entire league. They are still very much the favorites in this division until further notice.

The defense under-went a complete face-lift during the off-season after allowing 43 points to the Seahawks in the Super Bowl. They brought in Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward and DeMarcus Ware to help their pass defense, which ranked 22nd in the league according to our metrics. Then they picked up Bradley Roby, a corner from Ohio State, in the first round of the draft. We should get a good little gauge of these acquisitions when they face off with Andrew Luck in Week 1.

Offensively, the team let Eric Decker and Knowshon Moreno walk in free agency. To replace Decker, they signed Emmanuel Sanders and drafted Cody Latimer out of Indiana in the second round. To replace Knowshon, they twiddled their thumbs and prayed to St. Montee.

To be clear, numberFire's algorithms do really like Montee Ball. They project him for 1,250 yards and 9 touchdowns yards on the ground and 461 yards and a touchdown through the air. He's not the issue. The depth is the potential issue. After Ronnie Hillman, the rest of the backs on the roster have fewer total career carries (seven) than Manning has rushing touchdowns (18). If Ball or Hillman were to go down, that would spell some serious trouble for the Broncos.

After the way the Seahawks man-handled their offensive line, that will also be something to monitor. They used their third and sixth round picks on linemen to bolster the depth, but there are still concerns here, especially with a less-than-mobile Manning in the pocket.

Even with all of these minor concerns, the Broncos are the heavy favorites to tackle the West yet again. They may not win 13 games for the third straight year, but they won't have to unless Alex Smith goes bonkers or the Chargers remember that they can play 11 men on defense. The Broncos will remain the favorites until another team gives us a solid reason to believe otherwise.