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.
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.
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?
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.