Last year, 8-8 was good enough to tie for the AFC West championship.
This year, it may very well be good enough to win it outright...by three games.
The San Diego Chargers' biggest off-season acquisition was Dallas Cowboys reserve linebacker Kevin Burnett. Running back LaDainian Tomlinson is facing durability questions, and his backup is about the size (and speed, it must be said) of an animated Mexican mouse. (And not this one, either.)
With all this, they still stand head and shoulders above the rest of the division. The other teams in the West seem to be actively ramming their heads against a brick wall, wondering why it doesn't open.
The Kansas City Chiefs traded for a potential quarterback of the future, then proceeded to make another trade that makes a talented young QB that much better. Unfortunately, it's not Matt Cassel, it's Matt Ryan of Atlanta who gets to throw to Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez. The second-worst defense in the NFL gets a pair of inside linebackers to bolster the new 3-4...unfortunately, Zach Thomas and Mike Vrabel are a collective 119 years old. God love 'em, they're trying, but it's like a guy with no ears wondering why his glasses keep falling off.
The Oakland Raiders miss a prime opportunity to trade down in the draft and still get the guy they want. Instead, they choose instead to draft said guy 15 spots too high, just so Al Davis can try once more to prove he's the smartest guy in the room. Keeping Nnamdi Asomugha and adding defensive end Greg Ellis makes their Top-10 pass defense even scarier for now. However, if the rumors of Ellis being a replacement rather than a complement for Derrick Burgess are true, it's another case of one step up and at least one step back.
And all this brings us to the Denver Broncos, the team that only needed to give up 40 fewer points to the Chargers in Week 17 to win this sad, God-forsaken division. (Gee, is that all?) To pull the franchise out of its rut, longtime owner Pat Bowlen decides it's time to move on from his team's all-time winningest coach and bring in a Patriots assistant who was born the same year that Mike Shanahan got his first coaching gig.
Josh McDaniels came into town from a winning organization and was hoping to bring a piece of it with him, that piece being the aforementioned quarterback, Matt Cassel. The partnership may have continued to bring high dividends, as Cassel thrived under McDaniels' guidance and managed not to wilt in the spotlight of his first starting job since high school.
McDaniels' desire to coach Cassel again was perfectly understandable, but it showed that he possessed very little understanding of the combustible elements that make up the average (read: not New England) NFL locker room. Jay Cutler reacted like a wife who's just caught her husband with his hand up another woman's skirt and immediately called the lawyers...or agents, in this case.
A few weeks, and hours of ESPN footage later, Cutler was off to Chicago in exchange for one of my people, Purdue alumnus Kyle Orton, and three draft picks. With this domino falling, it stood to reason that the other high-profile drama queen on the Denver offense would soon have something to say, and now, Brandon Marshall has decided to say it.
Marshall wants out because he's not being given a new contract a year before his current deal expires. Reading between the lines tells us that Brandon's scared to death that Orton won't be able to get him the ball as frequently as Cutler did, and knows that a dip in production will cost him a lot of money next year. It's a perfectly sound strategy, but him demanding a trade now is hardly the way to go about it.
The NFL is in a climate where owners are scared to death of signing long-term contracts, especially fat ones, for fear of being caught short when the salary cap disappears after next season.
Anquan Boldin can't get one in Arizona, mainly because they already re-upped Larry Fitzgerald. Subsequently, he also wanted a trade, but couldn't get one of those, either. Understand that Boldin is a guy who comes with none of the off-field drama of Brandon Marshall. Doesn't get DUI's, doesn't beat up his lady friends, doesn't beat up his television. In a league where a solid citizen and productive player like Anquan Boldin can't get a deal made, why exactly is Brandon Marshall convinced he'll be highly demanded?
The offense was supposed to be the saving grace for the Broncos this season, but Kyle Orton and Eddie Royal, solid players though they may be, do represent a bit of a step down from Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall. The defense isn't scaring anyone anymore, not even Champ Bailey.
If the Chiefs and Raiders are stubbing their toes, the Broncos appear to be in the midst of a double-leg amputation. Not since that iceberg got a little too friendly with the Titanic has such a seemingly stable craft taken on so much water so quickly. Owner Pat Bowlen would be forgiven for walking around with the shell-shocked expression of a man who just wanted a cigarette, only to watch his house explode from a gas leak.
San Diego's not a team that looks like a world-beater in the upcoming NFL season. Even so, in this year's AFC West, it appears that just being able to not beat themselves will very easily get them to the playoffs.