Pressure rises in AFC West

Posted May 02, 2012 @ 3:50 p.m.
Posted By Eli Kaberon
Quiz time — Name the only division in the NFL where all four starting quarterbacks have led teams to division titles at some point during their career.

(Cue the Jeopardy music)

Need a hint? None of the four signalcallers currently plays for the team that drafted them.

Give up yet? It’s not the headline-grabbing NFC East, where the presence of rookie Robert Griffin III atop the Redskins' depth chart eliminates their chances. It definitely isn’t the AFC East, where there’s one future Hall of Famer, one division-winning backup and a bunch of also-rans. The NFC South has a group of great passers, but despite each having passing seasons of 3,500-plus yards to their credit, neither Cam Newton of the Panthers nor the Bucs’ Josh Freeman has sniffed a division title.

Nope, the correct answer is the AFC West. In recent years, all four teams have seen major overhauls, especially at the most important position in the sport. A division that, in 2008, had starters like JaMarcus Russell and Tyler Thigpen is now the home to four division-championship-winning QBs. It’s what makes the division one of the NFL’s toughest to predict, with every team having a legitimate argument to be the preseason favorite. It’s also why the pressure on all four quarterbacks is at an all-time high entering the season.

The newest — not to mention best and most-feared — addition to the division is Peyton Manning, who has won eight division titles in his career. Those all came with the Colts, and they all came before he underwent four neck operations and missed the entire 2011 season. Now with the Broncos, there are questions if he can return to the elite form he has shown for so many years, given his time away from the game, his age (36) and the fact that he must adjust to a new team and offensive system.
Denver enters the season as the reigning division champs, and with the addition of Manning, the expectations are that the Broncos will do a lot better than 8-8 in 2012. Nearing the end of his career, the pressure on Manning is to win and win quickly. He’s not just looking for another division title; with his brother winning a second Super Bowl last season, the only thing on Manning’s mind is adding another championship ring to his jewelry vault.

Another QB with the pressure to not only reach the playoffs, but also advance far, is the longest-tenured member the AFC West fraternity, Philip Rivers of the Chargers. Set to enter his ninth professional season, Rivers himself is no stranger to division titles, having won four in a row from 2006-09. The problem is that since then, he and the Bolts have been shut out of the postseason, despite having what many think is the most talent in the division.
Whether it was key players going down with injuries (not Rivers — he has started 96 consecutive games), special-teams breakdowns or just sloppy play, San Diego hasn’t won important games down the stretch the past two seasons, keeping them from playing in the postseason. Plenty of blame went Rivers’ way in 2011, when he turned the ball over 25 times. If he duplicates that performance, the heat on Rivers will rival the temperature at the San Diego Zoo next August.  

Carson Palmer faces a different type of pressure than Manning and Rivers. Though the goal is to just win, baby, the Raiders don’t have the same playoffs-or-bust expectations the Broncos and Chargers do in 2012. Instead, the load on Palmer’s shoulders is to show he’s still an upper-echelon quarterback and worthy of the tremendous price the team shelled out for him last October. The Raiders gave up a first-round pick in ‘12 and a conditional second-rounder in ‘13 (it becomes a first-round pick if the Raiders advance to the AFC championship game) to the Bengals in exchange for Palmer — who had been holding out — in a move that was supposed to push the Silver and Black toward the playoffs.
Instead, the QB showed his rust last season, averaging an interception every 20.5 passes and winning only four of the nine games he started. Now, with a full offseason to prepare and time away from the game no longer an excuse, the former No. 1 overall pick would like to return to his form of ’05 and ’09, when he directed the Bengals to division titles.
At age 32, Palmer has a few years left before he calls it a career. Though given the way the Raiders are rebuilding their team, there’s no telling how much longer they’d want him under center if he’s not producing. Simply put, this might be Palmer’s last chance to be a clear-cut starter in the NFL.  

Despite their different pressures this season, Manning, Rivers and Palmer do have a lot in common. All three are former top-four picks that came into the NFL with a lot of hype and acclaim. Each has lived up to those accolades for the most part, and despite their uncertain long-term futures, each is clearly the starter for their respective teams for 2012.

Matt Cassel, on the other hand, isn’t so lucky. The Chiefs' signalcaller led the Chiefs to first place in the AFC West in 2010, yet faces the most pressure for his job of his peers in the division. Cassel is standing at his NFL crossroads. In 54 career starts, Cassel has proven he is worthy of a first-string job with a 28-26 record. He hasn’t proven, however, that he’s an elite player who will lead his team to a Super Bowl. With a talented roster around him, many in Kansas City believe it will be Cassel’s right arm that leads (or fails to lead) the Chiefs to the promised land.
He has shown he can be successful previously, throwing 21 touchdowns for a 10-win Patriots team in ‘08 and 27 TDs for the division-winning Chiefs in ‘10. He also has been bad, throwing a combined 25 interceptions and 26 touchdowns for K.C. in ‘09 and ‘11, when the team posted an 11-21 record. If the good Cassel emerges again, the Chiefs have the talent to overtake the Broncos as the class of the West. If the bad Cassel is under center, there’s no guarantee he will even finish the season as the starter.

The pressure on quarterbacks in the AFC West is usually provided by defenders like Elvis Dumervil, Tamba Hali, Shaun Phillips and Richard Seymour. This season, the pressure will be about legitimizing careers, taking the next step and winning more than just a division championship. Manning, Rivers, Palmer and Cassel have shown they can lead a team to the playoffs. In 2012, to win the toughest division in football, they all will have to show something more.
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