**1. Denver: 9-7
Denver allowed 42 sacks in 2011 (23rd most), but that is largely the result a hesitant quarterback with a molasses release. Swapping Peyton Manning for Tim Tebow is all the remedy the O-line will need. Manning is reunited with tight end, Jacob Tamme, and has more-than-ample receivers in Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas. More time with the lead will allow their super-talented pass rushers, Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller, to pile on the sacks.
Bottom Line: The West is going to be tight top to bottom, but Manning gives Denver an edge that cannot be found in any of their competition.
Key Games: Week 5 @New England, Week 9 @Cincinnati
**2. Kansas City: 9-7
Kansas City’s offense will be improved with the return of Jamaal Charles, but what really has me excited about this season is their young, immensely talented defense.
DeMarcus Ware and Terrell Suggs are the only hybrid linebackers I’d take over Tamba Hali. Patrick Willis is the only interior linebacker I’d take over Derrick Johnson. Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu are the only safeties I’d take over Eric Berry.
Second year man, Justin Houston, and cornerbacks, Brandon Flowers and Stanford Routt, round out a group that may be the league’s best defense this season.
Bottom Line: If there’s one “surprise” team capable of cracking the 12-win mark, it is the Chiefs. Their season finale with Denver may decide it all.
Key Games: Weed 4 vs. San Diego, Week 17 @Denver
3. San Diego: 8-8
For as long as I have been doing these preseason articles, the mantra for San Diego has remained the same: They are the one of the most talented teams in the NFL. If they play their best, nobody can beat them. Well, not anymore. San Diego’s defense is shaky and their offense is becoming increasingly one-dimensional. Their best is third best—not that they could play it in the first place.
Bottom Line: The rest of the division has caught up to San Diego. Still, a few surprise wins will be all it takes to win the West.
Key Games: Week 3 vs. Atlanta, Week 13 vs. Cincinnati
4. Oakland: 5-11
Darren McFadden is an outstanding running back, but can he stay healthy long enough to make a lasting impact? Carson will have ample time to learn the playbook, but does he or his receiving core have the consistency? Linebacker Rolando McClain is likely headed for the Pro Bowl, but will he be able to make enough improvements to take Oakland out of the defensive basement?
Bottom Line: Oakland will rarely play a game that, at least at the outlook, seems overly daunting. They just don’t have the talent to compete. At best, they finish 8-8 once again.
Key Games: Week 8 @Kansas City, Week 15 vs. Kansas City