The NFL tends to operate with the same basic barometer — Al Davis’ “Just win, baby!” — thanks to the parity that results from a hard salary cap and an annually impactful draft. The reality is, unless your name is Jeff Fisher, you have to make the playoffs in your first two years as a head coach or you’ll be looking for work.
But success can still be relative for teams that are either rebuilding, ascending or ready to contend. The strength of the division as well as the conference, and a team’s schedule can help determine how high the bar can realistically be set.
All22.com is taking a close look at each of the division races to see which teams have a legitimate shot at the postseason.
In this installment, the AFC West.
Denver Broncos (12-4, first place, won Super Bowl in 2015)
It’ll be a successful season if: The Broncos win 10 games and return to the playoffs with rookie quarterback Paxton Lynch on the sidelines for at least the first eight games. During last year’s Super Bowl run, the Broncos’ success was all about dominating in every area — except the passing game. This season, it’ll be the same idea to a lesser degree, with the qualifier that the passing game needs to emerge by late in the season. Denver was aggressive in landing a future starting quarterback in Lynch, but it needs to give him the time to make the transition to coach Gary Kubiak’s roll-out offense. That’ll mean newly acquired quarterback Mark Sanchez will have to be proficient and the defense will have to adjust to the loss of defensive tackle Malik Jackson and linebacker Danny Trevathan.
Why it should happen: The Broncos still have star power remaining from one of the best defenses in recent memory, including edge rusher Von Miller and coordinator Wade Phillips. With linebacker Brandon Marshall signed to an extension, Trevathan is replaceable considering how often the Broncos play out of sub packages. Replacing Jackson is a bigger deal, but Miller and DeMarcus Ware can do enough on their own as edge rushers. The bar for Sanchez isn’t all that high after last year’s Broncos quarterbacks, including Peyton Manning, led the NFL in interceptions and still won the Super Bowl.
And if it doesn’t: John Elway might regret thinking he could wait to lock up free-agent quarterback Brock Osweiler until after he hit the open market. Off years happen for Super Bowl champions, and this could be one in a tough division. The Broncos have to hope they’ve aligned the pieces right for Lynch to ease into his transition to the NFL, or they’ll lose the stranglehold they’ve long held on the AFC West.
Kansas City Chiefs (11-5, second place, lost to New England in divisional round in 2015)
It’ll be a successful season if: The Chiefs win at least 10 games, win a playoff game and return linebacker Justin Houston to form by the end of the year. The Chiefs would like to take a step beyond last year’s divisional round appearance, but the long view is most important. Protecting that means getting Houston back to his terrorizing form following knee surgery and keeping intact the pass rush that has propelled Kansas City to start thinking about reaching the Super Bowl.
Why it should happen: Houston’s recovery could be a lengthy one, but he’s a tireless worker on a team that holds the long view and shouldn’t rush him back. The Chiefs return enough from the league’s seventh-ranked defense and should see an uptick in offensive production with running back Jamaal Charles healthy and tackle Mitchell Schwartz shoring up the right side of the line.
And if it doesn’t: The deep, attacking defense that has been a staple of Kansas City’s recent success could start to slowly wither away. Cornerback Sean Smith left for the Raiders in free agency, linebacker Tamba Hali is turning 33 this season and safety Eric Berry is playing out a year on the franchise tag. If Houston doesn’t come back as close to the player he was, fortunes could change quickly for the Chiefs.
Oakland Raiders (7-9, third place in 2015)
It’ll be a successful season if: The Raiders win 10 games and reach the playoffs. It would mark Oakland’s first trip to the postseason since 2003, when it reached the Super Bowl. The Raiders made big splashes this offseason on both sides of the ball, adding veteran pieces to a team as loaded with young cornerstones as any. The solid drafting of recent years hasn’t gone on long enough yet to fill out the entire roster, so baby steps seem realistic in a difficult division.
Why it should happen: The Raiders took a big step last season, moving from three wins to seven, and they did it with a core of stars all under the age of 26. With quarterback David Carr, wide receiver Amari Cooper, guard Gabe Jackson and defensive end Khalil Mack adding experience, and guard Kelechi Osemele now in the mix, the Raiders appear to be playoff worthy. The explosive passing game should only get better with age, and the Raiders did a commendable job using free agency and the draft to fill their glaring holes in the running game and pass defense. With the Broncos potentially down, this team looks ready to close the gap.
And if it doesn’t: Like other ascending teams, a lack of depth could prove to be a fatal flaw, which would mean at least one more good draft led by general manager Reggie McKenzie would be necessary. If the free-agent signings of linebacker Bruce Irvin and safety Reggie Nelson don’t pan out, rebuilding the defense could delay a postseason trip.
San Diego Chargers (4-12, fourth place in 2015)
It’ll be a successful season if: The Chargers win nine games. It might seem like a steep climb for a team that went 4-12 last season, particularly in a strong division. But it’s a necessary improvement for coach Mike McCoy and general manager Tom Telesco to maintain job security. It’s also realistic after the way injuries wracked the Chargers to a degree few other teams have seen in a long, long time. McCoy’s first two teams in San Diego went 9-7, so if the crazy injuries stay away, the Chargers should bounce back.
Why it should happen: Despite playing with no names up front and out wide the second half of the year, quarterback Philip Rivers still led the Chargers to a No. 8 ranking in pass efficiency. With the return of offensive tackle King Dunlap and wide receiver Keenan Allen to health and the addition of center Matt Slauson and wide receiver Travis Benjamin, there is no lack of talent for an offense that has its former coordinator back in Ken Whisenhunt. A healthy line will give the first fair look at running back Melvin Gordon, and if they can create any semblance of a running game, the Chargers could push for the best offense in the division. The defense added cornerback Casey Hayward, nose tackle Brandon Mebane and end Joey Bosa (should he end his contract holdout) to offset the departure of safety Eric Weddle, and the disastrous special teams received an overhaul in the draft. That’s a lot of moving parts, but there’s a reason this team has won at least eight games in 10 of 12 seasons since trading for Rivers.
And if it doesn’t: It could lead to McCoy and Telesco being shown the door, which would mean starting fresh with a 35-year-old quarterback and questions abound.
Nate Atkins is an NFL features writer for All22.com. He previously covered the Chicago Bears and the NFL for Pro Football Weekly. You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and can follow him on Twitter @NateAtkins_.