The AFC West is the NFL's best division. No other division can match the AFC West's star power at quarterback, which includes a former league and Super Bowl MVP, a nine-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion, a three-time Pro Bowler, and a former Offensive Rookie of the Year. With their quarterbacks leading the way, each AFC West team has legitimate hopes of a deep playoff run and even a chance at hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February.
Before that can happen, each AFC West team will first have to get through a grueling 17-game season that includes 24 games against each other. Along with defeating their opponents, each AFC West team also has to answer significant questions about itself, questions that will likely define its season.
Let's take a look at each AFC West team's burning question, starting with the club that finished last in the division in 2021.
Broncos: Can Russell Wilson end Denver's playoff drought?
It's hard to believe, but Peyton Manning remains the last quarterback to lead the Broncos to the playoffs. Manning capped off his Hall of Fame career by helping the Broncos capture Super Bowl 50, two years after coming up short against Russell Wilson's Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Ironically, Wilson is the quarterback who will try to lead the Broncos back to the playoffs for the first time in seven years. Denver is hoping that Wilson will help the Broncos offense match the recent play of their defense, a unit that finished third in the NFL in points allowed in 2021. Denver's defense will now be led by Ejiro Evero, who recently won a Super Bowl as the Rams' defensive passing game coordinator/secondary coach.
Wilson will have help in Denver. Complimenting him will be a considerably deep receiving corps, led by Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick. Wilson also has one of the league's top running back duos to work with in Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon. And while they may not be the league's best unit (it ranked 19th in the NFL in Pro Football Focus' final 2021 rankings), the Broncos' offensive line is better than the one Wilson played behind during the end of his run in Seattle.
Can Wilson get Denver back into the playoffs? It largely depends on how fast he can master new head coach Nathaniel Hackett's offense. It also depends on whether or not Denver can win enough games against some of the top teams on its schedule, teams that includes the 49ers, Titans, and Rams as well as the teams within its division. The Broncos also need to take care of business against the weaker teams on their schedule like the Texans, Jets and Jaguars.
Given Wilson's talent and the overall talent on Denver's roster, it's possible the Broncos can get to nine wins while posting their first winning record since 2016. Wilson will likely have to play at an MVP level if Denver is going to further strengthen its playoff odds.
Chargers: Is this the year L.A. breaks through?
Breakthrough is a relative term. For the Chargers, breaking through in 2022 would be making the playoffs and possibly making noise once there. Justin Herbert, who has yet to take his first playoff snap, has his sights set on winning the franchise's first Lombardi Trophy.
"It would mean everything," Herbert told CBS Sports last fall when asked about winning a Super Bowl. "That's the entire goal is to get to that point. ... I know that we're doing the right things to give ourselves a shot, but it's all about execution when we get down to it. I'm really looking forward to the challenge."
Winning more close games would go a long way in improving the Chargers' playoff chances. Los Angeles went 5-7 in one-possession games in 2020, Herbert's rookie season. It started 3-1 in one-possession games last season before finishing with a 5-5 mark in such contests. The last one, an overtime loss to the Raiders in Week 18, sealed its third straight non-playoff season.
An improved defense is also vital to the Chargers' playoff chances. The 29th-ranked team in terms of points allowed in 2021, the Chargers added two big-name defensive players this offseason in linebacker Khalil Mack and cornerback J.C. Jackson. The Chargers are also hoping to get significant contributions from rookies JT Woods (third-round safety) and Otito Ogbonnia (fifth-round defensive tackle).
Chiefs: Will KC miss Tyreek Hill?
Hill's departure was one of the offseason's most shocking transactions. But when looking back at the Chiefs' last two seasons, one can understand Kansas City's logic. In the two years since their Super Bowl win, the Chiefs offense, while still prolific, has struggled to make the key plays in the most pivotal moments in big games. Defenses, intent on containing Hill, have played further back while forcing Patrick Mahomes to be more of a field general.
Instead of giving Hill a big payday, the Chiefs traded him to Miami, where the All-Pro receiver received his new deal. The Chiefs then rebuilt their receiving corps with veterans JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and rookie Skyy Moore. The Chiefs also still have Mecole Hardman, whose 59 receptions and 693 receiving yards last season represent career highs, and the best tight end in the NFL in Travis Kelce.
The Chiefs' receiving corps is deeper than it has been at any prior point in the Mahomes era; that much is clear. But who among Kansas City's receivers will step up in big moments, when the game and possibly season on the line? That question likely won't be answered until it's time to find out.
Raiders: Is this Derek Carr's second breakout season?
Perhaps no player has changed his narrative more in recent years than Carr, whose herculean effort last season helped the Raiders clinch a playoff berth. It was the Raiders' first trip to the playoffs since 2016, the year Carr found himself in the middle of the MVP race before an injury prematurely ended his season.
Instead of being traded, Carr received a lucrative contract extension this offseason. He was then reunited with All-Pro receiver and former college teammate Davante Adams. The Raiders also signed former Chiefs wideout Demarcus Robinson and veteran wideout Keelan Cole. Carr also still has his safety blanket, Hunter Renfrow, and one of the NFL's best tight ends in Darren Waller. Elsewhere, the Raiders added to the running back group with the selection of Zamir White, who is hoping to add his name to the long list of former Georgia backs who have enjoyed success in the NFL.
With new head coach Josh McDaniels and an upgraded receiving corps, Carr is set up to have his best season to date. If he does, it will certainly lead to good things for the Raiders, who also invested in their defense this offseason with the additions of Chandler Jones, Vernon Butler and Jayon Brown, as well as rookies Neil Farrell Jr. and Matthew Butler.