The little strokes of luck that add up to a championship season are the stuff we write books about, but the Broncos may end up wanting to edit down the fatal mistakes made by their 2015 opponents for space. Nine of Denver’s 12 regular season wins came in one-possession games—the last Super Bowl winner to survive that many close calls before the playoffs had even started was the 1986 Giants—and whether or not those escape acts are a testament to the defending champs’ merit or a qualifier to it is in the eye of the beholder.
Long before they shut down the Panthers in Super Bowl 50, the Broncos coaxed costly fourth-quarter turnovers out of the likes of Joe Flacco, Jamaal Charles, Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Carr and Josh McCown to build an early-season cushion in the standings. Which of those last-minute breakdowns were self-inflicted, and which were the product of coordinator Wade Phillips’s masterpiece, a relentless defense backed by an opportunistic group of playmakers?
In the right light, any of them can be construed as a fortunate break: Flacco’s decision to float a jump ball over the middle to a tight end with 12 career receptions, Charles’s inexplicable lapse in ball security, Carr, McCown and Bridgewater’s miscalculations of the split-second windows they had to make a play. Pick any one, and you have the difference between securing a daunting wild-card berth and landing home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
Blessed with that sublime defense and saddled with the political nightmare of a legendary quarterback in the twilight of his career, the Broncos made winning ugly a habit on the way to their fifth straight AFC West title. After Peyton Manning’s retirement and Brock Osweiler’s big deal with the Texans this spring, the Broncos are down to just the sublime defense, and the void under center threatens to close the gap between them and the Raiders, Chiefs and Chargers.
Whoever starts the majority of the Broncos’ games this fall—Trevor Siemian, Mark Sanchez or rookie Paxton Lynch—easily becomes the worst starting quarterback in the division. In contrast, each of the three challengers has reason to feel confident in its QB.
The Chiefs know that Alex Smith will play well enough to put them in playoff position at bare minimum. San Diego reunited the coach-coordinator tandem of Mike McCoy and Ken Whisenhunt that helped Philip Rivers to a career year (and the Chargers’ last playoff berth) in 2013. The Raiders are paying free agent Kelechi Osemele left tackle money to play left guard with an eye toward giving Derek Carr every chance to emerge as one of the game’s best young quarterbacks as soon as possible.
At some point, the bill has to come due for the impossibly tight margins that lifted the Broncos to their most recent division title, and when it happens, they could be dropping back to a pack ready to blow past them. It may come down to which quarterback solves that championship-caliber defense first.
Favorite: Kansas City Chiefs
That Charles fumble that Broncos corner Bradley Roby returned for a last-second touchdown in Week 2 is all that separated the Chiefs and Broncos from the AFC West crown last season. The star running back is expected back from his torn ACL by the start of the season, but the contributors that lifted the team to the playoffs in his place are back, too, leaving the Chiefs loaded and ready to displace Denver as the division’s perennial front-runner.
The full-time No. 1 cornerback duties shouldn’t be too big for Marcus Peters, who finished tied for the league lead in interceptions after some early-season stumbles that fooled quarterbacks into testing the swaggering rookie the rest of the year. The loss of veteran corner Sean Smith in free agency mandates that Peters turn in 16 lockdown performances on the perimeter.
Another second-year pro under the microscope is wide receiver Chris Conley, Kansas City’s best hope for a complement to Jeremy Maclin within a passing game starved for big plays. His emergence would be gravy for quarterback Alex Smith, who is working on a run of five seasons with seven interceptions or fewer and just proved he can lead a team to the divisional round while throwing almost solely to Maclin and tight end Travis Kelce.
Dark horse: San Diego Chargers
Somewhere between mid-March and early August, the Raiders lost all pretense of sneaking up on the league, leaving their in-state partners in relocation drama as the only team in the division without many prognosticators in its corner. That makes San Diego the pick by default. Ten of the Chargers’ 12 losses in 2015 ended as one-possession games, pushing Rivers to his boiling point as offensive starters dropped like flies around him and the defense struggled to stop anyone on the ground.
Keenan Allen, who was on his way to a top-five receiving season before he suffered a lacerated kidney in Week 8, will be expected to pick up where he left off, and San Diego signed home-run threat Travis Benjamin to help keep defenses honest on the other side of the field. Running back Melvin Gordon won’t be able to completely shake his nightmare rookie season until he finds the end zone for the first time in his career, but the 2015 first-round pick has run well in the preseason behind an offensive line whose injury luck can go nowhere but up.
The increasingly messy holdout of Joey Bosa was partially dulled in camp by solid play from Darius Philon at the defensive end spot intended for the No. 3 pick, and even with the departure of safety Eric Weddle, the secondary will be fine as long as its top cornerback tandem of Jason Verrett and Brandon Flowers stays healthy. There’s reason to believe it could all go wrong again, but a manageable fourth-place schedule should give Rivers & Co. a little more margin for error to stay in the hunt.
Division MVP: Von Miller, OLB, Broncos
The Summer of Von may be over, but Manning’s retirement means that the reigning Super Bowl MVP will have no competition for marquee billing in Denver. The departure of defensive end Malik Jackson in free agency, a season-ending injury to his replacement Vance Walker and the advancing age of DeMarcus Ware mean Miller will have to be at his most dominant to keep the Broncos on top of the league’s defensive rankings and the division standings.
Potential breakout player: Clive Walford, TE, Raiders
The Raiders liked what they saw down the stretch last season from Walford, the hulking third-round pick who was brought along slowly within the passing game as a rookie after missing a good chunk of his first training camp with injury. Not every throw can go to Amari Cooper, and Walford has a feel for working his way free in the middle of the field and a 6’ 4”, 250-pound frame to punish defenders at the second level that combine to make him a crucial option for Carr.
Coach with the most to prove: Jack Del Rio
The defense that Del Rio left as coordinator to take the Raiders’ head job became the NFL’s best defense overnight, which would have been embarrassing even if that defense hadn’t belonged to an archrival Oakland was chasing in the standings. The only way he can counter is by delivering on the expectations of the Raiders’ free agency splurge in his second season in charge. His team played its way into the playoff race a little ahead of schedule in 2015, and this off-season’s signings have pushed up Oakland’s developmental timeline considerably. Del Rio will pay the price for any in-game shortcomings well before any of those expensive acquisitions will.
Must-watch divisional game: Raiders at Chiefs, Week 14 (Dec. 8)
Two years ago, this matchup set Thursday Night Football back a decade when the 0–10 Raiders sent Kansas City’s season into a tailspin with a 24-20 win in Oakland. This time Arrowhead Stadium will get the prime-time treatment, and both teams expect to be squarely in contention entering the season’s final month. Kansas City played spoiler last year, picking off Derek Carr three times in the fourth quarter to turn a six-point deficit into a 34–20 victory that bumped the Raiders from the wild-card race. At that late stage of the season and with a short week to prepare, don’t expect too many mysteries between these two longtime rivals, but bank on defensive playmaking to once again put the winner on the inside track to a playoff berth.