2016 AFC West Previews & Predictions

The real reason Osweiler may have left the division.

The real reason Osweiler may have left the division.

What is it about the Denver Broncos winning Super Bowls and having quarterbacks retire?? This of course wouldn’t mean as much had Brock Osweiler stayed around. Now they have Mark Sanchez and highly regarded 1st round pick Paxton Lynch. This time around there won’t be a Mike Shanahan brain fart going with untested Brian Griese over veteran Bubby Brister. Hopefully Coach Kubiak will opt for the veteran and bring his prized rookie along slowly.

However an autumn wind is billowing in from the west. Its always fun to watch a team as it starts growing before your very eyes. Khalil Mack, Derek Carr, and Amari Cooper headline a young star studded group out in Oakland. The question is will it grow to a point to challenge for supremacy in the AFC West this season??

raiderfanlogo2016 AFC WEST PREDICTIONS

Oakland Raiders 10-6 *

Kansas City Chiefs 9-7

Denver Broncos 7-9

San Diego Chargers 4-12

Most will scoff at the notion of the Raiders overtaking the Chiefs until you realize Alex Smith is still their starting quarterback. We have seen the best of his abilities and he will just keep you in ball games. At times he plays scared of throwing the football down the field. Jamaal Charles just made it off the PUP list but when will he gain his original explosiveness??  Now with LB Justin Houston returning from knee surgery also can we expect the same production there?? They were 11-5 with the 7th best defense in the NFL and OLB Tamba Hali is coming back from a broken thumb. This team will slide back in 2016.

Anderson will breakout n 2016.

Anderson will breakout n 2016.

In Denver the preseason has played out exactly as The Chancellor thought, no one is taking control at the quarterback position. Mark Sanchez’s penchant for turnovers has come back to haunt him in both preseason games. We still don’t have a starter named going into week 3 of the preseason. First rounder Paxton Lynch still needs grooming. He’s taken a few more sacks than you’d like but could become the starter by mid season if the offense sputters. His arm has shown zip. Now he needs to develop touch and throw the ball on time.

For a team that was 6-1 in games decided by 6 points or less the one thing they can ill afford is turnovers. Turning the ball over 3 & 4 times a game will get a defense in trouble. Even a #1 ranked defense. Go ask the ’85 Bears, 2000 Ravens and ’02 Bucs why they didn’t repeat. So expect Coach Kubiak to lean on RB CJ Anderson who should breakout with a 1,400 yard season. However the ball doesn’t bounce a team’s way 2 years in a row and QB instability will lead to 3 or 4 close losses this season.

Carr will lead Oakland to the playoffs in 2016.

Carr will lead Oakland to the playoffs in 2016.

It won’t be enough to hold off the growing Raiders under Coach Jack Del Rio. Look no further than the stunning development of Derek Carr. Last year’s performance (350 of 573  3,987 yds 32 TDs / 13 ints) marked him as an up and coming superstar and this will be the year he cements that notion. Both Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree are back as his main receivers along with 1,000 yard rusher Latavius Murray.

The improvement has to come from last year’s 22nd ranked defense. Defensive Coordinator Ken Norton Jr did get LB Bruce Irvin from Seattle this year and signed S Reggie Nelson to replace Charles Woodson. Both are coming from winning organizations which should provide veteran leadership to help a young team learn how to win. First round draft pick Karl Joseph has Nelson to groom him for the pro game.

Circle the week 6 match-up with Kansas City, where the Raiders could be sporting a 4-1 record against a 1-3 Chiefs team. The knockout blow that could ignite an AFC West Championship for the Oakland Raiders.

The Chancellor & Super Bowl LI Trophy at the Hall of Fame.

The Chancellor & Super Bowl LI Trophy at the Hall of Fame.

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SUPER BOWL XXXII CHAMPION 1997 DENVER BRONCOS: Curse of the 1983 Draft

Thirteen losses in a row??  Are you kiddin’ me?? Hard to believe but from 1983-1997, the AFC lost every Super Bowl and many in decisive fashion.

xxxiiThe NFC’s dominance in the Super Bowl had reached an embarrassing level and let’s face it the Green Bay Packers were poised to become back to back champions.  Brett Favre, at the height of his powers, having collected his 3rd straight MVP trophy was leading an offense that was stronger than the one that won the Super Bowl the year before.

Dorsey Levens was having a career year in rushing with 1,435 yards.  Reggie White, had former Philadelphia Eagle Seth Joyner join him with Green Bay in a quest to get a ring like White, Sean Jones, Keith Jackson, Andre Rison, Desmond Howard, and Eugene Robinson had the year before.  This team had just run roughshod over the San Francisco 49ers 23-10 in Candlestick to take the NFC Championship…What happened?

First, let’s take you back to 1983. The great quarterback class that brought Jim Kelly, John Elway, Dan Marino, Tony Eason, Ken O’Brien, and Todd Blackledge all to the AFC.  From that time on the conference made personnel moves and strategies based on being downfield passing attacks.  Subsequently the teams also geared their defensive personnel to stop that kind of approach.  They had thinner, lankier linemen to pass block and defenders to rush the passer and cover running backs.

Think back to the Patriots DE Garin Veris, Denver’s DE Rulon Jones, Dolphins DE’s Kim Bokamper, Cleveland’s Al “Bubba” Baker. All AFC defensive line prototypes you didn’t see in the NFC.

Their less fortunate Earth bound NFC brethren stayed rooted in running the football. They were stouter in the types of linemen they kept and played stronger at the line of scrimmage.  How do we know this?  From 1983-1997 there were really only two running backs that led the NFL in rushing from the AFC: Marcus Allen ’85, Eric Dickerson in ’88 after being traded from Rams, and Christian Okoye in 1989. In Okoye’s case, he carried the ball 90 more times and only outrushed Barry Sanders by 10 yards.  On the last day of the season with Okoye’s day completed, Sanders was 10 yards away in a late game with several minutes to go, yet was uninterested in the rushing title.

xxxii2When you think back to the Super Bowls during the 13 game losing streak, what became apparent was how much more physical the top NFC teams played. They simply overpowered the AFC Champions on the line of scrimmage.  This was the curse of the great quarterback class of 1983. Yes they made it to the top of their conference yet it wasn’t a coincidence that they were a combined 0-9 in the Super Bowl during that stretch.  So what did they need to do?  Well…to get John Elway a Super Bowl ring, Denver had to build him an NFC team.

Since the advent of Free Agency in 1993 the physicality of the NFC started to have an effect on the AFC as players switched sides.  The teams were getting more physical by the year and if you look at the 1997 Denver Broncos, a significant number of new players on their roster had come from NFC camps. CB Tim McKyer, LB Bill Romanowski, FB Howard Griffith, WR Ed McCaffrey, OL Mark Schlereth, OL Brian Habib, RB Dereck Loville, and DE Alfred Williams to name a few, had come over to give Denver a stronger more physical team.

They drafted Terrell Davis, a north/south NFC power-type runner more suited to the NFC East than the pre Mike Shanahan Broncos.  The AFC began to change & starting with the ‘95 Steelers, the AFC Champion arrived much stronger on the front lines than their predecessors in previous Super Bowls.  The inability to control the line of scrimmage is what doomed the AFC in those 13 previous Super Bowls.

Couple that with the sentimental favorite to win it all, John Elway. We forgot that it had been 8 years since Elway was called “The Duke”, a nickname of late 80s fame when he had gone to 3 Super Bowls in 4 years.  We kept waiting for THOSE Bronco teams in orange jerseys to show up with a pedestrian running game.  Unfortunately so did the Green Bay Packers who woke up in the second half of Super Bowl XXXII tied 17-17, and were facing Terrell Davis running north and south on them. This brought the linebackers up and allowed Elway to complete several choice seem passes to Ed McCaffrey and Shannon Sharpe which led to the famous diving, helicopter spinning, run of Elway’s that told Bronco nation that THIS Super Bowl was going to be different.  Much different!!

The galvanized Broncos, from that point on were physically punishing the Packers defensive front and Davis controlled the rest of the 3rd quarter and most of the 4th after Brett Favre had driven down to tie it at 24.  Everyone seems to forget that the Broncos were on the verge of blowing out the Packers. After Terrell Davis scored to give the Broncos a 24-17 lead, Tony Veland forced Antonio Freeman to fumble the subsequent kickoff and Tim McKyer recovered at the Packer 17 yard line.  Only Eugene Robinson’s timely interception at the goal line kept Green Bay in it.

As for Howard Griffith, the fullback who led Terrell Davis into the endzone on his 3 TD runs, go back and look at his blocking in that 4th quarter on that last drive.  Go back and watch on one play where not only did Griffith block two different Packers on a sweep to the left but WR Ed McCaffrey absolutely “de-cleat” Packer linebacker Brian Williams as Davis ran for a big first down that demoralized the Packer defense. Why do I say this?  This was the point that Green Bay realized their defense was dead.  The next play after Davis went left (again) thru a gaping hole for 17 yards to the 1 yard line, Coach Holmgren told the defense to “let them score” knowing they were powerless and give Favre some time.  Denver held them on downs and the celebration began.

xxxii3To win “This one’s for John”, Denver Bronco’s first Super Bowl triumph, they had to build Elway an NFC team to do it.  They played and looked like the Giants, Redskins, and 49ers that had manhandled them on the front lines in previous Elway led Super Bowls.

So yeah, Super Bowl XXXII was different, much different.  It actually featured 2 teams from the NFC…just ask the Packers front line…

SUPER BOWL XXIV RUNNER UP 1989 DENVER BRONCOS

Whenever the 1980’s Denver Broncos are brought up the first player that comes to mind is John Elway. Rightfully so as he led one of the NFL’s most successful teams during the decade. However his teams did have some great talent on them. Did you know LB/DE Karl Mecklenburg, FS Dennis Smith, and SS Steve Atwater have been Pro Football Hall of Fame semifinalists in the last couple years??

sb24denIf we rewind the clock to 1989, Atwater was a wide-eyed rookie learning the ropes under Smith’s tutelage. Big hits rang up all year as receivers ducked for cover against these big safeties. Smith was a Pro Bowl player in 1989, the 3rd of 6 trips to Hawai’i after an 82 tackle 2 interception season. The intimidation factor they brought led the Broncos to a #3 defensive ranking overall or #2 in the AFC, and yielding the fewest points in the league with 226 points.

Meanwhile Mecklenburg was a Pro Bowl player with 143 tackles, 7 1/2 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and 4 fumble recoveries. The 1989 season was the 4th of his 6 Pro Bowl trips and where there are a ton of vids showcasing Smith and Atwater, Mecklenburg is largely forgotten in circles outside of Denver. This vignette from ’86 showcases his talent best

In each of the Denver Broncos Super Bowl seasons they fielded a top 10 defense. Unsung players like Simon Fletcher and Michael Brooks made the back 7 one of the best during this era.

sb24den2Another factor in 1989 was the Broncos finally landing a top running back in rookie RB Bobby Humphrey out of Alabama. He was Denver’s first true breakaway threat since Floyd Little. He rushed for 1,151 yards and 7 TDs after starting the season on the bench. Denver climbed to #6 in rushing where they had ranked 20th in the 1st Elway era Super Bowl team in 1986.

Yet alas this team ran into one of the all time great teams in Super Bowl history. This is the championship ring won by Denver after beating Cleveland for their 3rd AFC championship in 4 years.

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SUPER BOWL XXII RUNNER UP 1987 DENVER BRONCOS

Coming off a Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants the year before was disappointing, however #1 draft pick John Elway had arrived.  By all accounts Elway came of age with “The Drive”, the 98 yard march in Cleveland Municipal Stadium in the last minutes of the AFC Championship Game. Denver tied it at 20 in the final minutes and won 23-20 in OT.

87 Broncos ringThe game was seen as an all time classic.  Cleveland’s “Dawg Defense” smarted for over a year feeling as though they let the Brown’s fans down and swore to get revenge against the Broncos, and Elway in particular.  Two weeks later Elway came up a little short in his upset bid of the New York Giants out in the Rose Bowl, Super Bowl XXI, yet had a bright future. Denver would have many opportunities with a quarterback who conceivably could carry a team seemingly all by himself…wouldn’t they??

Bronco fans were buoyed with more optimism for the future with Elway than wracked with Super Bowl disappointment.  After all, this franchise hadn’t won a league championship in their first 26 years of existence. They hadn’t been among the league’s elite since the late 70s. This was the first time the Broncos had a legitimate “franchise quarterback” and Elway followed up his ’86 campaign with a better one the following season.

1987-cf-tnElway’s mobility was a vital element in the offense; he would scramble for first downs, scramble to keep passing plays alive, then deliver the ball anywhere on the field with his rocket arm. The offense being more potent helped resurrect the Orange Crush defense by keeping drives alive and the defense rested. Many pundits predicted that 1987 would be the Broncos year.

Enter the 1987 season; the Broncos bolstered their passing attack with speedy receiver Ricky Nattiel from Florida. He supplemented incumbents Vance Johnson and Mark Jackson and the three proved harder to defense. The “Three Amigos” were deadlier than ever thanks to an increasing penchant of Bronco coach Dan Reeves to go with more 3 receiver sets to create mismatches.

Steady play came from Sammy Winder at running back.  Versatile Steve Sewell saw increased playing time as a third down back with the loss of Gerald Willhite due to injury. Points rang up all year as the Broncos went 11-4 (strike shortened year) and earned home field advantage throughout the AFC Playoffs with a 24-0 win over San Diego in the snow in the final week. So this year, if they faced nemesis Cleveland, it would be in the friendly confines of Mile High Stadium.

00033503From 1977 – 1990 the Denver Broncos enjoyed the best home record in all the NFL. It was loud, the steel framing of the stadium & stairs made it louder when the 75,000 fans began to stomp on them. Already vociferous in nature, the din of the fans, along with the thin air that made it hard to breathe for hyper ventilating opponents. It made Mile High a most inhospitable place.  Many teams fell victim to this lethal combination….except one.

The Cleveland Browns were on a collision course with the Broncos.  They were running roughshod over the AFC Central and again finishing with a 10-5 record. Bernie Kosar, Webster Slaughter, Earnest Byner led the offense, where Clay Matthews, the late Eddie Johnson, Hanford Dixon, Ray Ellis, and Frank Minnifield again led the Dawg defense which added a new wrinkle. To take advantage of their superior cornerback play started to employ the “Bear” defense which was the Browns version of the “46 defense.”

As the AFC Championship began, Elway was on fire taking a 14-3 lead as Cleveland couldn’t get out of their own way. Several turnovers kept the Browns fighting an uphill battle. He kept play after play going with his legs and scrambling to find open receivers. They built a 21-3 halftime lead and when the Browns threatened to comeback, Elway made plays to turn the momentum.

super-bowl-logo-1987When Cleveland closed the score to 21-10, three plays later he escapes a 3 man rush scrambles out and hits Mark Jackson. He eludes 3 defenders and completes an 80 yard touchdown to put the Browns behind by 18 points again at 28-10. Once the Browns orchestrated a second half come back tying it at 31, he then drives the Broncos to the winning touchdown to Sammy Winder to make it 38-31. They withstood a final charge and recovers Earnest Byner’s fumble to escape to Super Bowl XXII.

Denver needed every great play from Elway that day to edge the Browns. His second AFC Championship solidified his position as one of the premier QBs with a bright future ahead. All he had to do was win a Super Bowl and he would have his second chance against the Washington Redskins.

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SUPER BOWL XXI RUNNER UP 1986 DENVER BRONCOS

It was a dreary, cold, dark, foreboding day in Cleveland. It was January 11, 1987 in Cleveland yet there was an excitement in the air…

xxireflectionOh yes…the 1986 AFC Championship on the line and a trip to SuperBowl XXI in Pasadena awaits.  John Elway and the Broncos are 98 yards away from the “Dog Pound” and the tying score with 5:43 seconds left…*sigh* Elway sent the entire state of Ohio into a catatonic shock that lasted thru the next football season and up to and thru Earnest Byner’s fumble in the following AFC Championship game in ’87.

However lets take you back to the game where John Elway had arrived. It was the moment forgotten once he performed “The Drive” that came a week prior. The 1986 Broncos had a maturing quarterback coming of age and if you remember were still smarting from posting an 11-5 record, while missing the 1985 playoffs on a tie break technicality.

Elway was typical of a young quarterback who struggled to be consistent throughout. After taking off on a 34 yard touchdown early in the game, he severely sprained his ankle. He hobbled and gutted it out against Andre Tippett and the Patriots defense. The big thing was he didn’t make the big mistake and struck when the defending AFC Champions blinked. Down 17-13 late in the 3rd quarter, Patriot LB Don Blackmon jumped offside. With a free play Elway fired deep to Vance Johnson to take a 20-17 lead.

Then Rulon Jones sack and safety of Tony Eason sent the Broncos to their first AFC Championship since 1977 22-17. ESPN’s Tom Jackson was a linebacker on both the ’77 and ’86 teams and was from Cleveland. Fittingly the last win he experienced as a player was “The Drive”, as the Broncos prevailed 23-20 in overtime.

Subsequently the Giants beat the Broncos 39-20 in Pasadena to win Super Bowl XXI. This ring commemorates the accomplishment of getting there.  Denver would get to more Super Bowls right? Elway was just a young pup…he’d have plenty more…right?

The one thing that was lost were the pundits made it seem that Elway was the only player on that team. They ran the ball by committee with Sammy Winder and Gerald Wilhite. Had solid receivers in Vance Johnson and Mark Jackson. Yet they had the AFC’s 3rd ranked defense, 9th overall which ranked higher than The Dawg Defense of Cleveland ranked 19th.

super-bowl-logo-1986Pro Bowlers Karl Mecklenburg, SS Dennis Smith, DE Rulon Jones, and CB Mike Harden led a resurgent “Orange Crush” defense. It wasn’t quite as dynamic as the group that carried Denver to Super Bowl XII. Of course I could be partial to the ’77 group since I lived there at the time and they were influential on a youngster.

This was the ring commemorating the ’86 Broncos who came out of a competitive AFC West to win the conference.

Epilogue circa 2010: John Elway should be thanking Art Modell and Lebron James for getting him off the hook.  These are the most hated men in Cleveland now.  I don’t think Elway golfs or vacations there…lol…but he has a fair chance of not getting stoned to death.  So hated was Elway in Cleveland that in 1989 the Broncos were huddled in the “Dog Pound” end zone of Municipal Stadium when Elway gets conked on the head with a flashlight battery.

The debris became so great that Jerry Markbreit (referee) actually had the teams switch sides on the field.  The Chancellor of Football had never seen that before in an NFL game or since.  Cleveland won 16-13 for a measure of revenge yet lost again in the 89 AFC Title 37-21 to further fuel Elway angst in Ohio.  I was one of ’em…and it took a long time to let it go.

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SUPER BOWL XII RUNNER UP 1977 DENVER BRONCOS

Growing up at the time in the “Mile High City”, nothing beat the 1977 season of the Denver Broncos. They would show commercials with the Broncos from the prior week with Carly Simon’s Nobody Does It Better playing in the background. It was the first winning season in the 18 years of the franchise. “Bronco-mania” took off with everyone attending the games wearing anything orange.

77afcringWhat you also had was the emergence of the Orange Crush Defense. Although the Oakland Raiders were the first full time unit to fully employ the 3-4 defense and win the Super Bowl, it was the swarming nasty Bronco outfit that achieved greatness.

The original Orange Crush defense that led the Broncos to Super Bowl XII and Denver’s first ever winning season. This was the first great full time 3-4 defense that yielded only 148 points (10.6 pts / game) and just 18 touchdowns for the season. Holding 7 of their opponents to 10 points or less.

Even with an offense that turned it over 8 times, the still held Dallas to 27 points in Super Bowl XII.

Led by Randy Gradishar, ESPN’s Tom Jackson, and the late Lyle Alzado this defense had an unheard of 4 All Pros concentrated on this defense and 5 Pro Bowlers. This not ready for primetime group came out of nowhere and swallowed the Steelers and Raiders in the playoffs before falling to Dallas in New Orleans in Super Bowl XII.

The story of this group was how it had to overcome being the weak little brother that grew up to take on the bully of the division and the conference. They had taken the AFC West crown from the Oakland Raiders, who perennially dominated the division. Although they split with the defending Super Bowl champion Raiders, doubters still persisted as they were about to face off in the ’77 AFC Championship Game.

sbxiiden2You have to keep in mind that the Broncos had lost 15 straight home games to the Raiders at this point. So we’re talking 1963-1977. They had beaten the Pittsburgh Steelers 34-21 and had QB Craig Morton plucked from the hospital after a 2 day stay for his bad hip. The Bronco defense led by Alzado, Jackson, and Gradishar had to set the tone early.

After a roughing the punter allowed the Raiders to finish a 9:00 drive to establish a 3-0 lead, an anxious Denver crowd sat on its hands nervously. Would they be able to move the ball against the defending Super Bowl champs?? Could they overcome the stigma as having been life time bottom feeders of the AFC West?? Craig Morton, who was 0-3 on that bad hip, struck with the most important touchdown in the history of the Denver Bronco franchise.

That 74 yard touchdown from Morton to Moses established the Broncos were for real and they went on to dominate in a 20-17 win. In one year they had gone from never having been to the playoffs, to vanquishing the Steelers and Raiders, who had won the last 3 Super Bowls. All they had to do was take on the Dallas Cowboys down in the Superdome to become world champions.

super-bowl-logo-1977They came up short in Super Bowl XII 27-10 but the memories of that season were great. Head Coach Red Miller was only the second rookie coach to take his team to the Super Bowl. Craig Morton became the first quarterback to lead two franchises to the Super Bowl, having led Dallas to V.

The franchise has gone on to win Super Bowls in the late 1990s but nothing will match the magic of the first visit. I got the chance to meet Lyle Alzado at Owens Boys Club in 1977. “‘Broncomania” school spirit wearing orange on Fridays in Ms. Carmen’s 2nd grade class at Goldrick Elementary. In fact the whole school was in orange every Friday of the season. 1977 was a great year.

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