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Division goes down to Raiders-Chargers on New Year's Day

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We've all heard the phrase, "How the West was won." But how will the AFC West be won?

Week 17, San Diego at Oakland, is your answer.

Carson Palmer or no Carson Palmer, I've felt through the lockout and preseason that the Raiders would be right there with the Chargers come the end of the season. The Palmer trade does little to alter that opinion; certainly his addition doesn't hurt matters.

While so many around the league had the Raiders going 5-11 this season, this franchise's biggest issues didn't seem all that calamitous.

True, the wide receivers didn't engender much confidence coming into the season. Football discipline -- i.e. penalties -- is still a big problem. And of course the question mark at quarterback.

Darrius Heyward-Bey has raised his game, doing his best to rectify a somewhat weak position group. On the penalty front, the absence of focus is correctable -- unlike, say, the injuries Kansas City is dealing with or the various holes Denver has on its roster. Meanwhile, the third issue has changed.

Through the Crystal Ball -- Raiders' 2011 Season
Opponent Result, Record What Goes Down...
vs. Chiefs Win, 5-2 Palmer 12-24, 165 yds in a 17-14 win
vs. Broncos Win, 6-2 Tebowmania dies after mirage in Miami
@ Chargers Win, 7-2 Raider "upset" on Ford ret TD
@ Vikings Loss, 7-3 Vikes D ponders W with McFadden shutdown
vs. Bears Loss, 7-4 Sack Cutler 5 times, but Forte too much
@ Dolphins Win, 8-4 Sage advice: don't start him or Moore
@ Packers Loss, 8-5 Game gets away from OAK in 2nd half
vs. Lions Loss, 8-6 Megatron Routts Stanford and C. Johnson
@ Chiefs Win, 9-6 KC smells upset until Cassel stinks
vs. Chargers ???????????? AFC West is won or lost

What used to be, "Can Jason Campbell lead the Raiders over the 8-8 hump?" is now, "How will Carson Palmer fare after sitting on his can for nine months?" Palmer's last game was Jan. 2. He hasn't been the Palmer of '06 since ... well, 2006. And he's beginning to look more and more like Jason Garrett. Luckily, he won't be calling plays, but that's a story for another day.

So despite Palmer's inactivity, does the fact that the revived Heyward-Bey is his best option, and the fact he's guaranteed to deal with at least nine penalties per game, preclude the Raiders from playing for the division title in Week 17?

No.

A midseason quarterback change does not prohibit a team from winning its division. The shift from Drew Bledsoe to Tom Brady (2001), Bledsoe to Tony Romo (2006), Donovan McNabb to Jeff Garcia (2006), and even Campbell to Todd Collins (2007) all resulted in playoff berths for their respective teams.

So perhaps the quarterback situation is not a thorn in Oakland's side. But head coach Hue Jackson still has a quarterback issue: The rival Chargers have a better QB than he does, Palmer's acquisition notwithstanding.

Through the Crystal Ball - Chargers' 2011 Season
Opponent Result, Record What Goes Down...
@ Jets Loss, 4-2 NFL almost has Shake-Gate II
@ Chiefs Win, 5-2 Jackson and Floyd burn KC safeties in 4th
vs. Packers Loss, 5-3 GB's 1st loss comes in Week 12 at Detroit
vs. Raiders Loss, 5-4 Special Teams rears ugly head again
@ Bears Loss, 5-5 Special Teams II, the Return: Hester
vs. Broncos Win, 6-5 Tebowmania can't figure out Manusky's D
@ Jaguars Win, 7-5 MJD goes for 125 in game Rivers saves
vs. Bills Win, 8-5 Top 5 Pass Defense bottles up Fitz-magic
vs. Ravens Loss, 8-6 Chargers have no run game; Rice rolls
@Lions Win, 9-6 Stafford trouble finding anyone besides #81
@Raiders ??????????? Battle for AFC West

As long as Philip Rivers is lacing them up, the Chargers have a chance to make the playoffs every year. In fact, he's the reason they are usually considered the favorites in the AFC West, because he's the best player in the division. Throw in having big-play threat Vincent Jackson for a full season and greatly improved play from Ryan Mathews, and the Chargers offense is seemingly in better shape.

Yet, somehow Norv Turner's offense has lacked the continuity of recent seasons. The unit that led the NFL in yards per game in 2010 and terrorized teams over the back half of 2009 has been up and down. Unfortunately, much of the "down" part has come about once the Bolts get inside the 30-yard line, where Rivers sports a not-so-sterling passer rating of 52.9.

Defensively, Greg Manusky's group is ranked fourth overall, but has also floundered inside the 30, allowing the most yards per play in the entire NFL.

So while San Diego has the franchise quarterback and is considered the most talented team in the West, they're not exactly running away with the division. In fact, the Chargers have a formidable stretch of games at midseason that could have them hovering around .500 in November (see chart).

The Raiders -- despite their affinity for self-inflicted wounds (penalties), wounds they can't control (Campbell), and a potential starting quarterback who hasn't seen an NFL field since before the Packers earned a playoff spot (much less won the Super Bowl) -- will be playing for the division title on New Year's Day.

The Chargers will have to fight for it too, irrespective of the fact that they were the preseason favorites, and pulled off the rare deuce last season of leading the NFL in both offense and defense.

So what say you? Who ends up getting the prom queen on Jan. 1? Because right now, the AFC West is anyone's boxing match.

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