The AFC West is the best division in football for the second year in a row, and you may hear over and over again, “why does the division matter?”, or maybe you’re the one asking. Whether it’s the team’s performance or individual players, it makes a huge difference. First and foremost, each team plays their division rivals twice in a season. That means that more than a third of the games played are against the same teams that they know and adjust for easily. Whether they’re spectacular or complete crap can make or break a club’s path to the big game. The final record within the division is what matters to make it to the postseason, so even the best of the worst will make it by default. Conversely, some of the best teams will miss a playoff berth, merely for the fact that they finished second or third, even if their record tops other divisions completely.
In general, the teams are pretty well-distributed throughout the league. There are, however, some spots rich with talent, and conversely areas devoid of it. Those areas inherently pave the way for a winning schedule and almost guarantee a trip to the playoffs.
Take New England for example. They have largely dominated the postseason for this entire century. Granted, they are a great team with easily the best quarterback/coach duo in history. But how much of their success has been dictated by the strength of schedule and the division that they’re in? A lot, at least when it comes to division titles. The Patriots have demonstrated that they have the chops to win, but not every champ can say the same.
Now consider the NFC West. Easily the worst division in football, and here’s why. Of the four teams, only one had a winning record. That team, the Seattle Seahawks, was promptly eliminated in the divisional round of the playoffs, which they made by default. The team had a worse record than the Raiders, who were eliminated in the Wild Card round by a talented Houston Texans defense. The Seahawks defeated a beat-up Detroit Lions team to advance but were promptly eliminated by the Atlanta Falcons.
Each team has its own strengths and weaknesses to deal with, in or out their division. But even if they’re playing the toughest opponents across the country, with six games each year within a division that’s better or worse than the rest of the teams in the league, the route to the postseason is a predetermined road.
This year’s schedule is undoubtedly the biggest challenge in the league, and the AFCW boasts 3 of the 4 teams in the top five of the most difficult. Both Super Bowl champ and NFC champ have middle-of-the-road schedules, and a lot of that is based purely based on their division. The Falcons’ NFC South is pretty awful, although an up and coming Tampa team may press that issue soon. But unless there’s some miracle in the next couple of years, New Orleans won’t pose a threat to anyone and Carolina is, well, Carolina. They’re hot and cold, posting almost opposite records from year to year, at least that’s how it seems by the end of week 17.
The AFC East has a couple of stinkers as well, and a couple of decent or better clubs. Although Buffalo seems to have the Patriots’ number more often than would be expected, the only other contender is the Miami Dolphins. We’re still waiting for them to break out enough to seem threatening. Again, they’re in a pretty piss-poor division, where half of the teams finished below .500. So the question mark this year will be that Mexico City game, where we might very well be gifted with a preview of the AFC championship game if all goes as expected. History dictates that the loser of that game comes back with a vengeance in the playoffs. It frequently happens that two teams meet up in the regular season, then meet again post-season with the opposite result and the underdog takes the battle. The Falcons lost to the Seahawks in week 6 last year, and everyone knows how that turned out.
In the AFC West, there are three strong teams that will give everyone a run for their money. In fact, all four teams were still in the hunt for the first two-thirds of last season. That speaks volumes about the talent all packaged into one chunk of the league. This year the West plays the NFC East, where the talking heads all predict that Dallas, who had a 13-3 record last season, drops significantly in the standings. That’s a good indicator of the strength of their opponents as well as their divisional rivals.
So the only question left is, “how will this all end?”. Expect to see a dog fight between Kansas City and Oakland, and the Broncos will have something to prove, having barely missed the playoffs last year. The LA Chargers will be adjusting and they’re working through some personnel issues, so it’ll be another year before they rise to the level of the rest of the division. Unless they have a good draft, which evidently can change everything. Expect no less than a 12-4 record from both the Chiefs and the Raiders. The Broncos will come out with 9 or 10 wins. The math is easy and proof positive that they are among the elite across the league with a division that tops all others. Follow the compass West to see the best battles around in 2017.
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