DENVER (CBS4) – The Denver Broncos can tell you how the West was won — they’ve been the victors of the AFC West for three straight seasons.
Currently, the Broncos are riding back-to-back 13-3 campaigns, each time earning the AFC’s No. 1 seed. And in 2011, Tim Tebow led the blue an orange to a division title, too.
This season has been the most successful for the team in myriad ways. Peyton Manning has enjoyed the greatest season for a quarterback in the history of the NFL and the offense has reaped the benefits, scoring more points (606) than any other squad, ever.
On top of that, Denver advanced further in the playoffs, after having lost in the Division round the previous two seasons.
During a recent press conference, Manning told reporters: “There’s no question that we’ve come a long way in two years that I’ve been here.”
But, while the Broncos have improved, so has the rest of the AFC West.
The Kansas City Chiefs are closest behind the Broncos, and there’s no questioning the effect both head coach Andy Reid and quarterback Alex Smith had on the team in 2013. With the addition of the offensive-minded coach and a play-making QB, the Chiefs improved from 2-14 in 2012 to 11-5 and made the playoffs this season. Their league-worst offense two seasons ago put up more than twice as many points this year (211-430) and was sixth-best overall in scoring.
Of course, the gem of Kansas City’s offense is running back Jamaal Charles, who is a threat to run all over opponents both on the ground and through the air. Not only did Charles run for over 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns, but he was also the team’s leading receiver with 70 catches and another seven TDs.
And really, the Chiefs strength this year was on the defensive side of the ball, forcing 15 fumbles and 21 interceptions. Their +18 turnover differential was second-best and many of their best players — Eric Berry, Brandon Flowers and Justin Houston — are still in their mid-20s. It wouldn’t be a stretch to expect improvements on both sides of the ball for KC in 2014.
In San Diego, we saw some gains this season as well, even if they were more marginal than the Chiefs. The Chargers improved from 7-9 in 2012 to 9-7 this season, making the playoffs as the sixth seed and even defeating the Cincinnati Bengals 27-10 before losing to Denver in the division round.
Part of the reason was their increase in offensive effectiveness, which can certainly be credited to former Broncos coordinator Mike McCoy. Philip Rivers enjoyed what was arguably his best season as a professional passer, tying a career-high passer rating of 105.5, and being more efficient as McCoy limited opportunities for turnovers.
Beyond Rivers, the Chargers feature a beast at the running back position with Ryan Mathews, who ran for a career-high 1,255 yards and six scores. And rookie receiver Keenan Allen looks to be an absolute stud. He burned the Broncos secondary multiple times late in their playoff matchup. Mathews and Allen should only get better next season, meaning the AFC West could see many barn-burners in 2014.
Finally, even the Oakland Raiders should improve next season; at 4-12, they can’t get much worse. Terrelle Pryor started the most games (nine) for the Raiders this season; could next year be the dual-threat man’s time to shine? And when Darren McFadden went down with yet another injury, Rashad Jennings emerged as a strong runner with 733 yards and six touchdowns in eight starts.
What it all means is this: while the Broncos are currently riding a Rocky Mountain high, their reign over the AFC West could come to an end next year if they’re not exceptionally focused (or if some key players retire).
Rich Kurtzman is a Denver native, Colorado State University alumnus, sports nerd, athletics enthusiast, and competition junkie. Currently writing for a multitude of websites while working on books, one on the history of the Denver Broncos and Mile High Stadium. Rich is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. His work can be found on Examiner.com.