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AFC West Preview: Exit Tebow, Enter Peyton Manning

1. Denver Broncos
2011 RECORD: 8–8
The signing of QB Peyton Manning makes the Broncos the clear favorites to win the AFC West. The 36-year-old superstar missed all of last season with a neck injury, but he is fully recovered. Manning has two promising receivers in Demaryius Thomas (551 yards) and Eric Decker (eight TDs). The rushing attack, anchored by Willis McGahee, Knowshon Moreno, and Lance Ball, is good enough to keep defenses honest. With Manning under center, Denver's offense will be much more balanced this year. On defense, the Broncos struggled in 2011, ranking 24th in points allowed. But the team has a franchise player in LB Von Miller (11.5 sacks, third in AFC), the 2011 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. And with an offense that will put more points on the board, the D will be under far less pressure this season.

BOTTOM LINE: If Manning stays healthy, Denver will win the AFC West.
Grade: B+

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2. Kansas City Chiefs
2011 RECORD: 7–9
The Chiefs' 2011 season was painful. Kansas City lost starting QB Matt Cassel, S Eric Berry, RBJamaal Charles, TE Tony Moeaki, and LB Brandon Siler to season-ending injuries. All those players should be ready for the 2012 season. LB Derrick Johnson (131 tackles) and DE TambaHali (12 sacks) lead a defense that was the best in the division in 2011. Kansas City's success will fall on the shoulders of its offense. If Cassel can deliver to WR Dwayne Bowe (1,159 yards) and Charles can return to his 2010 form, the Chiefs have a shot at the playoffs.

BOTTOM LINE: A healthy Kansas City squad could surprise Denver.
Grade: B

3. San Diego Chargers
2011 RECORD: 8–8
Despite a talented roster, the Chargers have missed the playoffs the past two seasons. QB Philip Rivers (4,624 yards, second in AFC) has been inconsistent — he threw a career-worst 20 interceptions in 2011. Third-year RB Ryan Mathews (1,091 yards, six TDs) needs to have a breakout season. San Diego's D took a step back after leading the league in total defense in 2010, ranking 16th last season. Promising rookie LB Melvin Ingram and S Eric Weddle (NFL-leading seven INTs) are bright spots, but the rest of the unit must step up.

BOTTOM LINE: If the defense is steady and the offense cuts down on turnovers, the Bolts can win 10 games.
Grade: B

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4. Oakland Raiders
2011 RECORD: 8–8
Oakland is the boom-or-bust team in this division. Darren McFadden (614 yards in seven games) is among the most explosive rushers in the game, but the injury-prone back has yet to play more than 13 games in any of his four pro seasons. QB Carson Palmer (2,753 yards, 13 TDs) completed 60.7 percent of his passes last season, but he also threw 16 interceptions. Palmer must protect the ball because Oakland's defense is awful: It allowed 27.1 points per game last season (fourth-worst in the league) and could have four rookie starters.

BOTTOM LINE: The Raiders' offense has potential, but the defense is too young for Oakland to challenge teams in this division.

Grade: C+