Today’s NFL is more popular than any other professional sport in America and arguably more intently followed and scrutinized than it has ever been. But within that overall climate of exciting, action-packed drama, not all franchises are created equally. Some teams make for true must-watch games while others are easy to skip on a Sunday in order to finish off your weekend chores.
And while winning games is undoubtedly the first, second, and third goal for every football team, style points certainly matter for those of us not invested in the outcome. So if there is a hierarchy of interest — outside of obviously partisan cities and fanbases — the AFC West sits on the very bottom of the divisional totem pole.
Yes, the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos reside in the AFC West. And yes, they’ll most likely be a playoff contender, given their defensive prowess. But even before quarterback Peyton Manning retired, their offense lacked the same type of explosion and excitement we had seen in previous years. With the juggling of Manning and Brock Osweiler throughout 2015, Denver scored by far the fewest amount of points (roughly a touchdown less per game) of the Manning Era. With Trevor Siemian or possibly Paxton Lynch leading the way, 2016 should be a similarly, and comparatively, low scoring season, even if Denver’s running game continues to improve.
That particular formula — top-notch defense paired with a steady, effective running game — is also how the Kansas City Chiefs plan to wrestle control of the division away from Denver. But the Chiefs take boring, hard-to-watch offensive football to a whole new level.
Jamaal Charles is one of his generation’s most thrilling runners. Remarkably, his 5.5 career rushing yards per carry is higher than that of Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Adrian Peterson or any other back in the history of the modern NFL. But coming off a second massive knee injury (he’s now torn the ACL in both legs), Charles has as of yet failed to reclaim his starter’s job. A trio of Charcandrick West, Spencer War, and a less-than-robust Charles will be uneventful to watch to say the least.
Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin and tight end Travis Kelce are excellent receiving options, and together they make the Chiefs passing game competent and capable. But “fun to watch” and seemingly ready to go 80 yards on one play? Not really. Quarterback Alex Smith is the reason. Smith is athletic and an elusive scrambler/runner. But nothing like Cam Newton or Michael Vick in his prime. And while he’s often praised for his accuracy, he’s often derided for not throwing the ball downfield, probably because he lacks the arm strength.
Smith is intelligent, knowledgeable, and an excellent leader. He knows the value of making the short, safe throw or throwing the ball away. He understands that a punt is better than a turnover. That line of thinking wins games, but not SportsCenter highlights or many retweeted gifs of awesome touchdowns. In fact, the best argument for watching the Chiefs offense might very well be the inevitable and incomprehensible way in which head coach Andy Reid manages the clock late in games. Much like a car wreck it’s hard to watch, yet we cannot turn away.
One team that does seem to be drawing a considerable amount of buzz and gaining appeal is the playoff-starved Oakland Raiders. They finally have an impressive collection of young stars, led by Khalil Mack, David Carr and Amari Cooper. To many of the prognosticators, the Raiders are the “It” team of 2016, expected to break out and make a postseason push. That — as well as major questions on the offensive line and in the secondary following the retirement of Charles Woodson — is explicitly why they shouldn’t be expected to do so.
And finally, the AFC West is home to the most “meh” team in a division full of them: The San Diego Chargers. Just like every franchise, the Chargers have talent. Wide receiver Keenan Allen is one of the most underrated players in football, Jason Verrett and Melvin Ingram are excellent defenders, and even without a preseason, Joey Bosa appears to have the physical tools to be a fine rookie pass rusher. But the real faces of the franchise are quarterback Philip Rivers and tight end Antonio Gates.
Certainly, both are great players — Gates a sure-fire Hall of Fame selection, Rivers in the discussion — but they’ve also been the cornerstone of the organization for nearly a decade. And where has it gotten San Diego? One playoff berth in the last six years.
Being long-tenured with a championship (Tom Brady, Eli Manning, Drew Brees) carries much more weight than long-tenured with little to show for it. Rivers, Gates, Allen, and a handful of other Chargers very well may rack up impressive yards or Pro Bowl selections, but if the Chargers post another sub-.500 record — and that’s a good bet — it won’t generate much interest inside or outside Southern California.
But the worst part of the AFC West? Someone has to win it, and in return, will be given — at the very least — a home playoff game. For the sake of ratings, NBC or CBS (whichever network broadcasts that matchup) had better hope the winner of the AFC West draws a far more compelling playoff opponent.