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Kansas City Chiefs set to dethrone Denver Broncos in AFC West

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The Kansas City Chiefs are better than you think.

Yes, they're coming off a 9-7 playoff-less season in which they lost four of their last six games. Yes, their quarterback is often derided as a game manager. Yes, they play in the same division as one of the best quarterbacks of all time in Peyton Manning, whose Denver Broncos have won the AFC West four years running. But I see big things for this team in 2015.

I've had reason to feel optimistic about this squad before, most notably two years ago, when I predicted -- correctly -- that the 2013 Chiefs would reach double-digit wins. Well, this year, I'm taking it up a notch after getting an up-close look at them in training camp: I'm picking them to win the AFC West.

The Broncos and Chargers are imposing obstacles in the division; even the Raiders should be better. But when the dust settles on the 2015 season, all will have fallen prey to the Chiefs.

Here are nine reasons to believe in Andy Reid's squad:

1) The presence of an honest-to-goodness receiving threat.

Kansas City famously did not have a single touchdown reception recorded by a wide receiver last season, and the lack of a big-play, downfield pass-catching threat really held the team back. Free-agent signee Jeremy Maclin, who posted 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns with the Eagles in 2014, has the speed and ability to fill that void in 2015. The offense should be further helped by the continued development of mismatch nightmare De'Anthony Thomas and Albert Wilson, who has really improved his pass-catching and route-running abilities. Tight end Travis Kelce (67 catches for 862 yards and five touchdowns in 2014) is going to be an even better player in his third pro season.

2) We can expect much more from the offensive line.

The oft-criticized unit allowed 49 sacks in 2014, seventh-most in the NFL. But the group also helped pick up 4.6 rushing yards per carry, tied for the third-best average in the league, matching the 49ers and -- notably -- the Cowboys and their lauded line. Of course, much of that is owed to Jamaal Charles' 5.0 yards-per-carry mark. But imagine how much more effective the offense could be with better overall line play. And that's what I expect this year.

Jeff Allen, a good football player who missed all but one game last season after undergoing surgery on his elbow, will be back. Trade acquisition Ben Grubbs is on the older side (31), but he's reliable (16 starts per season over the past three seasons) and just a season removed from the Pro Bowl. Center Rodney Hudson signed with Oakland, but the Chiefs shouldn't take an appreciable step back at the position, with second-round pick Mitch Morse, a pretty good player, and big, strong third-year pro Eric Kush capable of filling in. Finally, former No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher has gotten bigger and stronger and will give the team much better play at left tackle. I've talked to people who say he's the most improved player in camp so far; I can see him becoming a Pro Bowl-caliber player.

3) Alex Smith will be a better quarterback.

Smith is a vastly underrated player often dismissed as a "game manager," but with Maclin on board and the offensive line improving, I see the quarterback shedding that label. The former No. 1 overall pick has had four consecutive winning seasons, piling up an overall record of 38-16-1 as a starter (with the Niners and Chiefs) in that span. Last season, he posted a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 18:6 with a passer rating of 93.4. I talked to the very confident Smith for about 30 minutes, and I can tell you he feels good about his receivers. He looked pretty good at camp; in fact, I can see him having his best season in 2015.

4) They still have Jamaal Charles.

The self-styled "LeBron James of football" has a career yards-per-carry mark (5.49) better than that of Jim Brown (5.22), Barry Sanders (4.99) and Adrian Peterson (4.96). And this season, Charles should have even more room to run than usual, with better offensive-line play and defenders less able to stack seven or eight in the box to stop him. I see Charles -- whom I've known since his days at Texas -- finishing with 1,500 rushing yards (his career high is 1,509, set in 2012) and somewhere around 50 catches.

5) The defensive backs will be better.

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The Chiefs had 46 sacks in 2014, fifth-most in the NFL -- which means they should have had way more than six picks (tied for last). That inability to capitalize on the pass rush was one of the things that really hurt Kansas City in 2014. Though the Chiefs will be without Sean Smith, who was suspended for the first three games of the season, in the early goings, there are signs that their secondary should be in much better shape.

First-round pick Marcus Peters has looked very good in camp and will start; he should be an upgrade over what they've had in the past. Phillip Gaines, a second-year pro with excellent coverage skills, will fill in for Smith before sliding into the third-corner role. As for Smith, he doesn't get a lot of interceptions, but he's a long, tall (6-foot-3) guy who knocks down a lot of passes. At safety, Ron Parker, who was re-signed, will help -- and, of course, the team is welcoming veteran Eric Berry, who fought his way back to the field eight months after being diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma. Berry, who can play a crucial role in making sure the secondary is lined up correctly, looked healthy and on his game in camp. Kansas City also signed Tyvon Branch and drafted cornerback Steven Nelson, to provide depth. Hall of Famer Emmitt Thomas does a great job with young players as the defensive backs coach, and I expect this to be a much-improved unit.

6) Derrick Johnson will be back.

The linebacker, who missed almost all of 2014 with an Achilles injury, is a special player. He told us how good he felt -- that, in fact, he's hoping to play another four or five years. He excels at forcing turnovers and means a ton to this defense, which should be in top form with Johnson and elite pass rusher Justin Houston leading the way -- especially if nose tackle Dontari Poe (back surgery) can make it back quickly.

7) Their schedule -- and the Broncos' slate -- will help.

The Chiefs have lost six straight to Denver -- but the way the schedule shakes out, they'll have an early chance to deliver a significant blow to their divisional rival. After opening at Houston -- a much easier proposition now that stud Texans running back Arian Foster will be out as he continues to recover from groin surgery -- Kansas City returns home to welcome Denver for Week 2's Thursday night matchup. The Broncos, meanwhile, will be coming off what promises to be a tough home matchup with Baltimore. Given that it can be challenging to travel for a road game on a short week like that, the Chiefs should have an opportunity to beat Denver for the first time since the 2011 campaign -- and start 2-0 while potentially dropping the Broncos to 0-2.

The Chiefs should also benefit from having their bye week come in the mid-point of the season, in Week 9, and from playing four of their final six regular-season games at Arrowhead Stadium, where the noise and atmosphere give them a real advantage. One disadvantage: the Week 8 matchup with the Lions in London counts as one of the Chiefs' home games.

8) They return a stellar coaching staff.

Offensive coordinator Doug Pederson is head-coach material. Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton is very good. And both coaches are back after contributing to Kansas City's 9-7 finish in 2014. Coaching continuity can be a real boon to a team, especially when it comes to mastering schemes and systems. And then there's head coach Andy Reid, a players' coach who can also be a strong-handed leader when needed. He's the absolute right guy for the job.

9) K.C. spent some money.

The fact that the Chiefs opened their pocketbook for pass rusher Justin Houston (who landed a six-year, $101 million extension in July) and Maclin (who signed for five years and $55 million) is a big deal. The moves showed everyone in the locker room that management is willing to pay the price to win and gave everyone else an incentive to perform. Things like that generally beget a positive atmosphere within the team.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.

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