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AFC West Spin cycle: Week Four

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By PFW staff

Order seemed restored in the AFC West after two divisional games in Week Four saw the Chargers and Broncos roll past the Chiefs and Raiders, respectively. Oakland and Kansas City couldn’t get on a roll after big wins in Week Three while San Diego and Denver bounced back from tough losses. 

BRONCOS

What we learned: For those who needed a reminder, Peyton Manning is just fine. The Broncos wanted to get off to a fast start in this one after back-to-back games in which they dug themselves too big a hole. Ten first-quarter points helped, but an explosion in the third quarter (three touchdowns) sealed it. Manning had his best game yet, throwing for 338 yards and three touchdowns while completing 78.9 percent of his passes. The run defense returned to the form we saw the first two weeks, holding Darren McFadden to 34 rushing yards.

What’s in store next: Manning gets to face his old friend, Tom Brady, and the Broncos can get revenge for last year’s playoff exit. The Patriots blew Denver out of the divisional round last January, with Brady throwing six touchdowns. It’s a different Denver secondary, but it may be a more dynamic Patriots offense with a very effective rushing attack. The Broncos’ run defense will need to continue what it’s been doing to make the Pats one-dimensional, and then it’s on the secondary. This is one of those games that would be a hallmark win for the new-look Broncos, and they could use big games from pass rushers Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil.

What the heck? Talk about making the best of your opportunities — RB Willis McGahee was on the field for 36 offensive snaps, or 46 percent of the time Denver had the ball. In those 36 snaps, he had 19 carries for 112 yards (5.9-yard average) and one touchdown, and caught all six passes thrown his way for 23 yards. 

— Kevin Fishbain

CHIEFS

What we learned: Something has to change. Despite the season-sparing victory in Week Three at New Orleans, the Chiefs took a step backwards with their Week Four home loss to the Chargers that featured six K.C. turnovers. On offense, QB Matt Cassel struggled, the revamped offensive line was pushed back and Jamaal Charles mixed in two painful fumbles amid his big plays. Defensively, the secondary was mostly a mess trying to defend the Chargers’ vertical attack and the front seven couldn’t provide consistent tackling or pressure. It’s a formula that has fundamental problems right now, and it remains to be seen how long the team will stick with the status quo on several fronts.

What’s in store next: Romeo Crennel will apparently stick with Cassel despite his struggles for the next game against the Ravens on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium. “He still can do some good things,” Crennel said. “The second half, we tried to rally a little bit and we were able to move the ball down the field. We had a spark of life there in the third quarter, and he was the one that helped that spark.” Crennel made the point, fairly, that he could have replaced Charles after his two fumbles but kept him in to work through his problems. That’s fine, though, for a running back with game-changing ability (review the Saints tape in case you had forgotten). But it’s quite another story for Cassel, who is more of a functional game manager, and when he has been asked to crank it up and keep pace with a leaky defense in shootout type of games, Cassel’s level of performance has wavered dramatically, as it did Sunday.

What the heck? Mistakes, mental and physical, are killing the Chiefs. They had been relatively disciplined in the penalty department up to Sunday, having committed only 12 (an NFL-best). But nine penalties were killer in the loss to the Chargers. It set the tone on the first drive of the game, as struggling S Eric Berry was called for two pass-interference calls (for 28 yards) that led to first-down conversions and resulted in a touchdown for the Chargers. On the subsequent drive, Cassel was picked deep in his own territory; a Chargers field goal made it 10-0. Charles’ fumble at his own 6-yard line two plays later gave the ball back to San Diego, and they quickly made it 17-0. The Chiefs had only run four offensive plays at that point and gained one first down on their third drive before punting, eventually seeing the lead grow to 20-0. By that point, they were cooked. Allowing teams to dominate first halves has killed the 1-3 Chiefs, and self-inflicted mistakes have been a big cause for that.

— Eric Edholm

RAIDERS

What we learned: The Raiders’ first two losses of the season were not a mirage. Oakland had a chance to prove it should be considered a legitimate threat in the AFC West on Sunday, but instead the team made it very clear that it is not in the same class as the Broncos. Coming off a win over the Steelers, the Raiders unraveled after a solid first half vs. Denver, getting outscored 27-0 in the second half of their 37-6 loss. An offense that held its own in a 34-31 shootout victory over Pittsburgh last week produced only two field goals Sunday.

What’s in store next: Oakland has a bye in Week Five. They obviously have plenty of issues to address during their time off, and they will need to put it to good use if they want to give themselves a decent chance of bouncing back. Their next game is Oct. 14 at the Georgia Dome, where the Raiders will face the Falcons, who have yet to lose a game this season.

What the heck? The whole second half was a nightmare for the Raiders, but we probably will not see many teams have a worse quarter of football than the Raiders had in third quarter Sunday. They did not produce a single first down on offense, putting together four three-and-out drives of nine, minus-four, six and minus-six yards. The Raiders’ defense gave up a touchdown on all three Denver drives during the quarter. Special teams was not immune to the meltdown either — P Shane Lechler had a punt deflected, which gave Denver 1st-and-10 and Oakland’s 18-yard line after Lechler’s kick traveled two yards before being downed. Post-halftime struggles have been an issue for the Raiders all season. They have been outscored 55-7 during the third quarter through four games. It makes us wonder what head coach Dennis Allen and his staff are doing during the intermission.

— Dan Parr

CHARGERS

What we learned: If anything, this game reinforced how good the Falcons are, since Atlanta walloped San Diego last week. The Chargers’ front seven looked as strong as it did in the first two weeks, notching two sacks, six QB hits and forcing four fumbles. San Diego forced six turnovers and took advantage of the short field, putting this game away early. On offense, Ryan Mathews was on the field for only 21 snaps (more on that later) but led the team with 82 total yards on 14 carries and two receptions. The Chargers also finally got WR Eddie Royal involved — he caught a touchdown and had a team-high five targets.

What’s in store next: The Chargers have an opportunity to improve to 4-1 as they take on the Saints on national TV Sunday night. San Diego’s secondary will need to put on a much better performance than it did in Week Three against Matt Ryan and the Falcons, and they have to know the Saints are motivated to get their first win. The Chargers haven’t needed to win a shootout this season, yet, but this may be a critical game for Philip Rivers to move the ball.

What the heck? GM A.J. Smith and head coach Norv Turner were not bluffing this week when discussing Mathews’ fumbling problems — the third-year back fumbled for the 11th time in his career last week and it was a crucial one near the goal line. He didn’t start, deferring to Jackie Battle, and it was Battle who got the carries near the goal line. Mathews was on the field for 33 percent of snaps, Battle for 43 percent. Don’t expect that ratio going forward — Mathews is still the offense’s key playmaker and Turner wanted him to be a bellcow, but Battle being the guy near the goal line may continue to be the strategy, until the team has confidence in Mathews’ ball security. 

— Kevin Fishbain

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