The New Parents’ Guide to the 2021 NFL Season – AFC West

Denver Broncos

The problem with writing any sort of season preview in any sport is that eventually, at least one player whom you publicly expected great things of is going to get injured in the preseason, thus missing some or all of the coming season after you’ve already spoken on it. Last year, I predicted that the Broncos would take The Leap~! and go all the way to 2nd place in the division, with a fancy Wild Card to show for it. And then, either the day I wrote this prediction or the day I published it, I forget which, Von Miller tore his ACL to end his season before it started. I didn’t mention Miller by name in last year’s preview, but trust me, his presence was taken for granted.

Not that Miller would or could have dragged the Broncos to Wild Card with his presence; Drew Lock would’ve kept the 1978 Steelers out of the playoffs, so I was wrong about that, too. To fix their protracted quarterback struggle (maybe), the Broncos traded for Teddy Bridgewater and also promoted John Elway upstairs, then hired Vikings’ Assistant GM George Paton to be in charge of the roster. Because when I think of teams that have deftly navigated a lengthy quarterback problem, I think of the fucking Vikings. Jesus Tap Dancing Christ.

I love Teddy Bridgewater more than I love cake – and I love me some cake – but after being forced to watch more of last year’s Panthers than I would’ve liked, I must concede that whatever potential he may have had to become a true franchise quarterback was squelched when he suffered that horrific injury. Maybe he can game manager this offense to 9 or so wins, but that’s not a guarantee, and it’s probably not enough to get even the 7-seed in the AFC, which has become the deeper conference seemingly overnight, and by quite a lot. Again, life isn’t fair and neither is football.

Max Points: 5

Predicted Finish: 4th

Kansas City Chiefs

I really don’t have any interesting predictions to forward regarding the Chiefs. Even if they can’t keep pace at the tippy-top of the conference, the division is still theirs for the taking, barring complete disaster. Mahomes would need to be out for a good six to eight weeks before I’d even start worrying.

So instead, I’m going to get up on my soapbox to preach the virtues of good pass protection. Pass protection is important! We all saw the Super Bowl, in which the Bucs’ completely neutralized the best quarterback in football with a mere four-man rush. This was made possible because the Chiefs’ already dicey line was decimated with opt-opts and injuries, and marched into the big game with a bunch of backups in the trenches. In choosing to trade with the Ravens for Orlando Brown and prioritize their line, the Chiefs are once again demonstrating their wisdom.

One of Football Outsiders’ operating premises is that “Pass protection is more dependent on the quarterback himself than people realize.” I take their point, but I utterly fail to see how this means that a quarterback, even a great quarterback, will be able to succeed with lesser pass protection. To interpret this point to mean that a good enough quarterback will be able to succeed regardless of the protection in front of him stretches the wisdom of this point light years past its breaking point; this last Super Bowl demonstrated this as bluntly as possible. Protect your quarterback!

Max Points: 16

Predicted Finish: 1st

Las Vegas Raiders

Remember last week, when I got all up on the Dolphins’ case for blowing their clear shot at a Wild Card? The Raiders have done the exact same thing twice in the previous two seasons. Both years the Raiders got me thinking that Gruden’s offense was surprisingly effective and maybe they could sneak their way into the playoffs, and both years, their playoff hopes were effectively non-existent by mid-December.

That’s two strikes in my book, and this isn’t baseball. I am done taking these guys seriously, even if they’ll look decent at times. If you somehow need more evidence that the Gruden experiment has failed and will continue to fail, I need point you no further than the hilarious news that the team recently contacted the Bears in attempt to get Khalil Mack back via trade. That’s hilarious, but also, oof.

Max Points: 7

Predicted Finish: 3rd

Los Angeles Chargers

The Chargers have become such a popular pick to make the playoffs that I have become deeply suspicious of their actual chances. Obviously, this popularity is due solely to Justin Herbert’s admittedly quite impressive rookie season, but it is precisely because of Herbert’s promising performance that I find myself unable to form a cogent opinion on the team as a whole. Part of this is that the sheer Herbert-ness of all Chargers related discourse has made it hard to remember who else is on the team, which has in turn made it hard to ascertain whether the rest of this team is any good. I guess they still have Joey Bosa and Keenan Allen and Bryan Bulaga and Mike Williams and, as of the time I type this, Derwin James has yet to have any muscles or bones explode horribly. That seems like a decent enough core roster, but then again the Chargers almost always seem to have a decent enough core roster. It hasn’t saved them from shockingly regular late-game catastrophes, even when that core stays healthy.

The Chargers are an ideal New Parents’ Guide team, because what you believe about their chances this year seems to depend entirely about which actual facts about the team you choose to extrapolate from, and which you choose to discard. Will Herbert improve in his second year? I don’t know, what do you think? Will he finish top-5 in DVOA under pressure, or will he experience totally normal regression to the mean? Will he improve when not under pressure, or will he remain about average in that regard? Will his revamped offensive line provide a huge boost, or will it be less effective than advertised? Will he stay healthy throughout the season, or will some training staff quack accidentally puncture one of his lungs five minutes before kickoff?

I’ve digested all of the takes I care to stomach regarding Herbert, and I am left feeling that all of them are reading tea leaves, even the ones well-supported with evidence. Either Herbert will do well as a sophomore, or he will not. Who knows? Complicating matters is the installation of new head coach Brandon Staley. Staley’s work as defensive coordinator of the Rams last year was nothing short of miraculous; that whole squad was Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, and a bunch of randos. Granted, Donald and Ramsay are worth a lot on their own, but they can’t split up the other nine spots by themselves. To the extent Staley is a known quantity, his resume is quite impressive. But he was a coordinator for only one year, and plenty of great DCs have struggled as head coaches. For all my concerns about the guy, I suspect Herbert is pretty good and will be alright. I have no idea if Staley will be a good head coach or not, and I have so little of an idea that I’m unwilling to guess.

Thus, I have no idea what to make of the Chargers as a whole. I could see them winning 10+ games and pushing the Chiefs for the divisional crown; I could also see them ending up flaming out like the 2019 Browns, another team that got a lot of hype before playing a single meaningful down. I don’t know if that’s likely, but thinking about the Chargers has forced me to confront the reality of football predictions: I don’t know much of anything. Sports predictions are a dumb and futile exercise, and I’m too tired from baby wrangling to care to summon a voice authoritative enough to deflect from this truth.

Therefore, I’m going to say the Chargers will be decent but will fall short of the most optimistic predictions, then make a real playoff push in 2022. Does that work? No? Tough shit, that’s what I’m going with.

Max Points: 9

Predicted Finish: 2nd

AFC South / NFC South / AFC East / NFC East / NFC West / AFC North / NFC North

10 thoughts on “The New Parents’ Guide to the 2021 NFL Season – AFC West

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