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AFC West Spin cycle: Denver stays hot, clinches division

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By PFW staff

It's only Week 13, but the AFC West has been won. The Broncos clinched the division with their win over the Buccaneers, while the Chargers and Raiders both lost their respective games. The Chiefs topped the Panthers on an emotional day at Arrowhead Stadium.

BRONCOS

What we learned: Denver got off to a bit of a slow start, but hit its stride in the second half en route to clinching the AFC West title. Credit the Broncos’ defense, which held the Buccaneers without a point through the second and third quarters after Tampa’s offense looked good in the first quarter. The secondary gave up a few big plays, but the Broncos’ defense did what it’s built to do — stop the run, then harass the opposing passer after Peyton Manning gives them a big lead, and we saw that with Von Miller’s pick-six. Manning had another three-touchdown game, throwing two to Demaryius Thomas, who is putting together a Pro Bowl season with the Hall of Famer throwing to him. Knowshon Moreno remained the main back, getting 24 touches this week. The O-line had a great effort after some hiccups the past two weeks — the Bucs did not record a single QB hit of Manning.

What’s in store next: The Broncos have a quick turnaround and travel to Oakland to play on Thursday night. The Raiders have been terrible this season, especially in the past month, though it’s always hard to be the road team on Thursday night. Manning should have a field day against Oakland’s secondary, which has struggled all season long. A healthy Darren McFadden would present a nice test for the Broncos’ run defense.

What the heck? Whenever Trindon Holliday breaks a big return, one has to wonder why the Texans let him go, and how smart the Broncos were to snag him. Holliday had a 45-yard punt return — though, it went for naught, as Manning threw a pick ending the Broncos’ drive. Holliday already has both a punt-return and kickoff-return touchdown and is yet another great in-season veteran signing.

Kevin Fishbain

CHIEFS

What we learned: Amid tragedy and confusion, a football team can go to work and play with pride. The Chiefs had little to play for on the field, but they channeled their emotions from the horrific murder-suicide involving former teammate Jovan Belcher and the mother of his child. The Chiefs won their second game of the season in a fashion they have seen little of this season: With efficient offense, no turnovers and a spirited, tough defense that bandied up when it had to most. It was an odd, emotional day at Arrowhead.

What’s in store next: The Chiefs have to find a way to keep their emotions moving forward with what appears to be a suddenly tough game at Cleveland. The Browns have played excellent defense in winning two in a row (and 4-of-7 games) and have been in every game since Week Six. It will be a return for QB Brady Quinn and head coach Romeo Crennel, the two emotional leaders in the wake of tragedy this weekend, to their old stomping grounds with the Browns.

What the heck? Was this game Quinn’s best ever? It might have been. If you consider the graceful way he led his team into battle, played on the field (19-of-23 passing, two TDs) and he handled his postgame press conference, it might have been Quinn’s finest hour. He likely won’t be a serious candidate for the starting job next season, but Crennel is starting to look smart for inserting Quinn for what appears to be characteristics we might have overlooked on Quinn’s dossier: his poise, intelligence and leadership. The way he handled himself this weekend is a model for any player in the NFL.

Eric Edholm

RAIDERS

What we learned: The 3-9 Raiders, who are officially eliminated from playoff contention for the 10th straight season, are not even measuring up to other teams listed toward the bottom of the standings. Their losing streak was extended to five games on Sunday when rookie Browns QB Brandon Weeden threw for a career-high 364 yards in Oakland. This was the first game during their losing streak that they lost to a team that is not in the playoff picture. Cleveland, 4-8, snapped a 12-game road losing streak, and the speculation about whether Dennis Allen will be one-and-done as Raiders head coach continues. Owner Mark Davis is not seeing the progress he wants.

What’s in store next: Oakland has a short week to prepare for one of the league’s hottest teams. The Raiders will host the AFC West-champion Broncos, who still have something to play for — they want to secure a first-round bye in the playoffs. Denver pounded Oakland, 37-6, when the two teams met in Week Four. The Raiders will be preparing this week without Allen — he left to be with his ailing father after Sunday’s game and will rejoin the team on Wednesday.

What the heck? At this point, why not let QB Terrelle Pryor play and see if he can provide the team with some kind of spark? Pryor was active for the first time this season Sunday, but he did not play in the game. Starting QB Carson Palmer threw for a lot of yards (351) and the team’s only two touchdowns of the game, but one of those TDs was in garbage time and he also threw a bad pass that was picked off in the fourth quarter when the Raiders were trailing by only three points.

Dan Parr

CHARGERS

What we learned: Norv Turner’s offense continues to disappoint in what is likely his final season in San Diego, and the Chargers lost another game that they could have rallied to win late. Even without LBs Jarret Johnson and Donald Butler, the Chargers’ defense played well, picking off Andy Dalton twice and recovering a fumble. With two chances to either take the lead back from the Bengals in the fourth quarter, or tie, Philip Rivers turned it over twice, a scene we’ve seen so often this season. The game ended on an interception in the endzone by Rivers, his league-leading eighth fourth-quarter pick. Turner’s fate seems sealed, but Rivers has done little to make many confident that he’s still the answer. The run game was completely ineffective — Ryan Mathews had 26 rushing yards — and the banged-up O-line gave up four sacks. The 4-8 Chargers have lost four in a row, and this was the fifth game this season in which San Deigo didn’t score a point in the fourth quarter.  It was also the Chargers’ third consecutive loss by one score or less, and fifth of the campaign.

What’s in store next: It’s time for the Chargers to play the spoiler's role, facing the Steelers in Week 14. Pittsburgh is fighting for a playoff spot. Meanwhile, San Diego is playing for pride at this point, and a chance to win out for a .500 record. The Steelers’ defensive front should cause problems for the Chargers’ O-line, which has been brutal all season long.

What the heck? Rivers did have the hot hand, with back-to-back completions getting the Chargers to the Bengals’ 17-yard line with 1:11 to go, but why not try to run a draw play, or some kind of simple screen or over-the-middle pass? The Chargers had two timeouts, and plenty of time to make that kind of play. Instead, Rivers threw three incomplete passes in a row — none of the three passes was really close — and then the game-ending interception. Granted, the Chargers couldn’t run the ball all day, but they didn’t need to throw to the endzone each play. It was yet another fourth-quarter folly for the reeling Chargers.

Kevin Fishbain                                             

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