AFC West allure: Top to bottom, this division demands attention

OAKLAND -- Here's a quick overview of the AFC West: The division's two non-playoff teams could be relocating to Los Angeles; its top team's most popular player might have already played his final career snap; and its hottest team has the least-feared quarterback.

There might be more pressing drama in various spots around the NFL -- see: Odell Beckham Jr., the Cowboys' D-League quarterback situation, Honey Badger's crushing injury, Cleveland's treadmill of futility, Pittsburgh's surge and Carolina's dominance -- yet the hodgepodge of oddity in the AFC West could be the most intriguing thing brewing into the final weeks of the season and offseason, simply because of the slippery slopes at every turn.

The Down and Maybe Out

Oakland and San Diego face off Thursday in a battle of non-playoff teams that could be sharing a stadium in Los Angeles, beginning next season. The January vote that could move the teams and tear the hearts out of their fan bases will keep the clubs in the public conscious much more than what happened on the field in 2015.

The Chargers have been totally decimated by injuries and, at 4-10, are one of the worst teams in the NFL. Quarterback Philip Rivers is second in the league in total passing yardage and he is one of the biggest gamers there is, but his lack of support is overwhelming -- and that's when most of the team is healthy.

The Bolts look like they will be in a long-term rebuild, no matter where they play.

The Raiders are 6-8 and could finish 8-8. To some, this is disappointing, especially since Oakland had the chance to win so many games it lost. However, after logging 11 wins in the past three seasons combined, finishing .500 would represent major progress. Head coach Jack Del Rio has changed the culture in Year 1, and after some early misses, general manager Reggie McKenzie has parlayed losing campaigns into strong drafts.

Pass rusher Khalil Mackleads the NFL in sacks (15) in just his second season. Quarterback Derek Carr, who was drafted one round after Mack, has thrown 30 touchdowns -- four shy of tying the franchise record. Third-year running back Latavius Murray is the AFC's top rusher with 956 yards, the fifth-highest total in the NFL. Then there is Amari Cooper, who is a legit candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year and is the first Raiders wide receiver to surpass 1,000 yards in a decade.

That is a nucleus that not many teams in the NFL have to build upon. It's also a nucleus that could finally restore the franchise's "Commitment to Excellence."

"Just to have that talent at those positions is good," Murray said. "To be able to grow together and do great things together, that is very exciting."

Added Mack: "You have to win the close games, and going through this year, we have to learn from wins and losses. We played a lot of tough games. It's a matter of finishing. You look at those close games and learn from them. We can't make excuses anymore. We know what we need to learn from and the pieces that we need."

The Tortoise and the Hare

Denver leads the division at 10-4, but it hasn't scored in the second half of its past three games. The way those games played out is a lot like how things are going with the team's season. The Broncos, who were among the top teams in the NFL two-thirds of the way through the season, are suddenly just one game ahead of the Chiefs. There is a chance they could be shut out of the playoffs, just like they've been shut out after halftime in December.

They've been the hare to Kansas City's tortoise, which started 1-5 but is on an eight-game winning streak despite currently being without its two best players, running back Jamaal Charles and outside linebacker Justin Houston, who are hurt. The way the Chiefs are playing -- and with forthcoming home games against the Brownsand Raiders -- they should win out to get to 11-5.

Quarterback Alex Smith has been more of a playmaker than in past seasons, spreading the ball around and using all of his weapons. Charles' injury in Week 5 forced his hand, since the star running back was so much of Kansas City's offense. Now, K.C.'s attack looks like it can play with anyone.

Though Ron Rivera, Mike Zimmer, Bruce Arians, Marvin Lewis, Bill Belichick and Mike Tomlin are going to get a lot of love for Coach of the Year honors, what Chiefs boss Andy Reid has accomplished in turning this season around is nothing short of remarkable.

Reid also is fortunate not to find himself in the position Denver's Gary Kubiak faces, which is possibly having to make a quarterback switch at the most crucial juncture of the season.

Brock Osweiler replaced a struggling Peyton Manning, who, as it turns out, had a major foot injury that's sidelined him for the past five games. Osweiler started strong, but has not guided the offense to a full game of production this month. The Broncos' shortcomings aren't all on Osweiler, as Denver's offensive line has gotten roughed up and receivers have dropped passes.

Still, Manning's been there and played well when it matters most. He's one of the greatest ever; he just didn't play well for parts of this season when he was healthy. A change could make or break Denver's all-in push for the Super Bowl.

Osweiler will start against the AFC North-leading Bengals on Monday night in an important contest for both teams. This will indeed be a tell-tale game.

In the long term, all signs point to Manning not being back in Denver -- and maybe, the NFL -- next season. Meanwhile, Osweiler is a pending free agent and some team other than Denver might make a deal too rich for the 25-year-old QB to turn down. It's just another reason why the Broncos are dying to win it this season.

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Yes, intrigue abounds in this division; intrigue that'll carry over into 2016 and beyond. Four teams at varying states of strength and stability. This is the wild, wild AFC West.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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