By Curtis M. Egan
BoltTalk Staff Writer
It is week ten in the NFL season, and I believe that the one thing that everyone can agree to is that the season thus far has been anything but business as usual. The term ‘parity’ has been bantered back and forth in the NFL for as long as I can remember. The rules have changed as well as the manner in which the NFL conducts business, all in the drive to achieve parity amongst the league’s 32 teams.
I for one understand the desire for parity. One constant saying you hear every season is ‘On Any Given Sunday (or Saturday, Thursday, or Monday night)’ meaning that any given team, can beat another team. As Herman Edwards would say “That’s why you play the game!” they want a level of uncertainty in every game, to fill seats in stadiums and ensure that the fans always feel there is a chance for their team to win… The NFL has strived to bring parity in, and it is here.
This year we have seen the Cleveland Browns, the poster child for ‘developing’ teams beat the Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints, as well as the New England Patriots. Upsets seem more prevalent this season and to some more upsetting…
Another example, and possibly one of the more visible effects of the NFL parity can be found in the AFC West. A Division that over the last six years has been won by just two of its teams; Denver won in 2005, and San Diego won the remaining five seasons.
This season however, things have played out a bit differently. Through the first half of the season Kansas City, arguably the most improved team in the division has maintained a hold on the divisional lead. Oakland, a team that has long found ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory are a close second place. San Diego and Denver follow the other two teams up.
This parity may be by design, or it may be that the salary cap has had its influence, or even that the teams are adjusting to their rivals. What ever the effect, it makes for a very interesting, exciting and unpredictable NFL Season.
So how did everything work out topsy turvey in the AFC West? I am glad you asked. San Diego was picked by many pre-season prognosticators as a team destined to head to the Super Bowl in Dallas this season. They had what looked to be an easy opening schedule, while the other teams in the division appeared to have it more difficult in the early goings.
However, things rarely with out as the pre-season predictors think they will. This season was certainly no exception. San Diego’s “easy” opening schedule turned out to be the second toughest in the division, based on the win/loss totals of their opponents. Through week 10, Denver had the toughest opening schedule, with teams accumulating 42 wins, and 31 losses. San Diego followed with 40-33, then came Oakland, 33-41, and the easiest schedule based on the win/loss totals of their opponents was Kansas City at 29-45.
Looking at the win/loss totals in week ten, we can see that the Kansas City played five teams that have losing records, including the winless Buffalo Bills, who are 0-8. Two of their opponents are at 4-4. The Chiefs faced only two teams in the first 9 weeks with winning records. Give credit where credit is due, they improved as a team across the board, and they made the most of their opportunities. They hit San Diego in the opening week and took advantage of the Chargers miscues, made their own good luck on the legs of a fast rookie return-man and won the game. The division race plays out right in line with the strength of the opening schedule. Kansas City sits atop of the division at 5-3, Oakland follows at 5-4, San Diego at 4-5 with Denver at the bottom at 2-6.
Now a team can only play the schedule. They can’t pick and choose, so the Chiefs played the people lined up against them and won more often than not. If you look at how the teams stack over all, statistically speaking in offense and defense you can see things are not shaping up the way you might expect.
San Diego, through their first nine games has maintained a ranking in over all offense of 1. They have, statistically speaking been the best offense in the league through the first part of the season. Defensively, there is not a big drop off, through week 10 they rank 2nd over all. Oakland ranks 9th in offense, and 7th in defense, that is a huge improvement on their previous seasons. Kansas City ranks 13th in offense and 15th in defense. Denver is 8th in offense and 23rd in defense.
Looking at those stats might think that the best team in the division is San Diego, followed by Oakland, Kansas City and then Denver, certainly that could be a good topic of debate... Again “That is why you play the games.”
We have looked briefly at the opening schedules and seen how the AFC West has played out thus far. Now let’s do some prognosticating of our own. Let’s look at the strength of schedules for the remaining.
Looking at the average offensive and defensive ranking of the teams remaining to be played, as well as the win/loss total through week 10 we can see who has the toughest remaining schedule.
Toughest Road: Oakland;
They face over the last seven weeks Pittsburgh, Miami, San Diego, Jacksonville, Denver, Indianapolis and Kansas City. The combined win/loss total of their remaining opponents is 30-27 which is the toughest in the division. The average offensive ranking is 10.8 which again is toughest, defensively, the ranking is 16.8 which is second toughest behind Denver.
It could be argued that facing the weaker defenses plays to Oakland’s strength, which is offense, and in particular running the ball. Oakland has the second ranked rushing attack in the league, behind Kansas City.
Steep Hill: Denver;
Denver who is sitting at 2-6 may be facing a hill steep enough to be considered a cliff. They have remaining on their lineup San Diego twice, St. Louis, Kansas City, Arizona, Oakland, and Houston. Their combined win/loss total is 29-30. The average offensive ranking is 12.4, defensively; the ranking is 14 which is the toughest in the division.
Setting Cruise Control: Kansas City;
Kansas City has the second easiest schedule remaining based on the strength of schedule thought week 10. They have coming up games against Arizona, Seattle, Denver, San Diego, St. Louis, Tennessee, and Oakland. Their combined win/loss record is 27-32. The average of the remaining teams defensively the teams they face is 16.9. Offensively they it is 18.6.
The Chiefs find themselves in a good position to hold onto the lead. They have the second easiest remaining schedule based on opponent’s win/loss record and the easiest schedule based on the average of the remaining teams both offensively and defensively. They have only three more road games this season, and face one of their toughest remaining teams, Tennessee Titans at home in week 16.
In Position For A Run: San Diego;
Slow starts are nothing new for this team. Nor are they something that came in with current Head Coach Norv Turner. San Diego has played it best football late in the season over the past 5 or 6 years. They are 12-5 in November, and 18-0 in December since 2006. The have remaining on their schedule Denver twice, Indianapolis, Oakland, Kansas City, San Francisco, and Cincinnati.
Those teams are a collective 23-24 which is the easiest remaining schedule based on strength of schedule. The teams they face, average out to 17.4 defensively, which is easiest in the division over the remaining seven weeks. Offensively the teams rank 11.1 which is the third easiest out of the division.
San Diego only has 3 teams remaining on their schedule who have winning records through week 10. The rest have only 2 wins apiece.
Of course one could argue that all this prognostication is worthless, and *que Herm Edwards voice* “That is why you play the games!”
They would be correct. We can look, try to identify trends, look at strength of schedule, defensive stats, offensive prowess etc… In the end, there are three facets to each game; execution, persistence and luck. Any one of the three teams Kansas City, Oakland or San Diego. I believe Denver is too far behind to make a run. San Diego historically has shown they can win in the late season. Kansas City is playing with emotion, and speed, while Oakland is running the ball against their opponents seemingly at will.
I would think that the division will come down to Kansas City and San Diego. I won’t pick between the two because my homer vision goggles would have me favoring San Diego.
In the end, I believe the AFC West will only send one team to the playoffs, that of course being the AFC West Champions. Only one time in it’s storied past has a team won the AFC West 5 times in a row. That was the Oakland Raiders. In their fifth season as AFCW Champions they went to and won the Super Bowl under Head Coach John Madden.
I am not calling for history to repeat itself, but at this moment the division is up for grabs, and a team is going to have to make their own luck if they, execute with precision, and persevere through injuries and elements if they want a chance to play in Dallas.
Who do you think that will be?
Remaining Marquee AFC West Match-ups:
Week 11; Oakland @ Pittsburgh, Denver @ San Diego (MNF)
Week 12; San Diego @ Indianapolis
Week 13; Oakland @ San Diego, Denver @ Kansas City
Week 14; Kansas City @ San Diego
Week 15; Denver @ Oakland
Week 16; Tennessee @ Kansas City, Indianapolis @ Oakland
Week 17; Oakland @ Kansas City, San Diego @ Denver