2017 NFL season preview: AFC West could have three playoff teams
The Kansas City Chiefs won a tiebreaker for the AFC East title after the Oakland Raiders matched their 12-4 record. Those two teams should contend again, but may have company in the postseason race in the form of the Los Angeles Chargers.
Oakland were on track to win the division until quarterback Derek Carr broke his leg in the penultimate game. The Raiders lost the regular-season finale to the Denver Broncos while the Chiefs beat the Chargers to claim the division crown.
With a healthy Carr back, the Raiders have some unfinished business. The Raiders must hold off the Chiefs and Chargers for the division title, but will also try to unseat the Patriots as AFC champions.
Player to watch: Melvin Gordon, RB, Chargers -- Gordon started to look like the player the Chargers had hoped he would be last season before suffering a hip injury late in the year. That blow resulted in Gordon falling just three rushing yards shy of 1,000 for the campaign. He will be determined to surpass that mark this season and, if he does, a balanced Chargers offense led by quarterback Philip Rivers could reap huge benefits.
Impact rookie: Kareem Hunt, RB, Chiefs -- The Chiefs did not expect Hunt to be their starting running back this year, but that is the role he now has after a season-ending injury to Spencer Ware. Hunt, a third-round pick from Toledo, will be the feature back in the offense, though he will be spelled by veterans Charcandrick West and C.J. Spiller.
Coach on the hot seat: None -- The Broncos and Chargers have first-year coaches in Vance Joseph and Anthony Lynn. Andy Reid is coming off a division title for the Chiefs and Raiders coach Jack Del Rio was given a four-year contract extension earlier this year.
Falling: Broncos -- Denver still have a top-notch defense, but quarterbacks Paxton Lynch and Trevor Siemian failed to impress in preseason. Siemian won the starting job, even before Lynch suffered a shoulder injury that will keep him out for several weeks. The Broncos have not finished below .500 since 2010, but are in danger of having a losing record this season.
Rising: Chargers -- The Chargers have in recent years been plagued by the injury bug, which has already bitten their top two draft picks, Mike Williams and Forrest Lamp. But the Bolts still improved their roster and could return to the playoffs for the first time since 2013 and just the second time since 2009.
Circle this game on the schedule: Raiders at Chargers, Week 17, Dec. 31 -- The Chargers might need this to get into the postseason. If the Raiders have the division wrapped up by the regular-season finale, that could benefit the Chargers.
Predicted order of finish:
Oakland 12-4 (No. 2 seed, AFC championship)
Kansas City 11-5 (No. 5 seed, AFC divisional round)
Los Angeles 9-7 (No. 6 seed, AFC wild-card round)