AFC West preview

Philip Rivers could be without two of his most potent offensive weapons from years past, but the Chargers are still considered a contender for the AFC championship with him under center. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

1. San Diego

The Chargers once again could be Super Bowl contenders behind a dynamic offense led by quarterback Philip Rivers, but the release of RB LaDanian Tomlinson and possible loss of WR Vincent Jackson could have a major impact.

Rivers, who threw for 4,254 yards and 28 touchdowns last season, again is the most vital component for the Chargers, and how he performs without Jackson will be the key to the team’s season. Jackson (1,167 yards, nine touchdowns) is holding out and threatening to skip the whole season, putting more pressure on TE Antonio Gates and WR Malcom Floyd. Rookie RB Ryan Mathews will step in for Tomlinson and pair with Darren Sproles.

The effectiveness of a once-powerful Chargers defense will be worth watching. Linebacker Shawne Merriman (Douglass High) has not produced since ‘07, and the line no longer has Jamal Williams (Carroll) to clog up the middle.

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2. Denver

Last season, the Broncos sprinted to a 6-0 start behind new coach Josh McDaniels and quarterback Kyle Orton, only to fold in the second half of the season.

Orton passed for 3,802 yards and 21 touchdowns but this year will not have Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall, who was traded to the Miami Dolphins, or Tony Scheffler, who was shipped to Detroit. In Marshall’s stead, the Broncos will need production from Eddie Royal (Westfield High) and first round draft pick Demaryius Thomas. Running back Knowshon Moreno ran for 947 yards last season and likely will see the bulk of the carries in his second year.

Denver overhauled its defensive front this offseason, focusing on the front line in the hope of improving a unit that ranked 26th against the rush. A possible season-ending pectoral injury to Elvis Dumervil is damaging, but linebacker D.J. Williams could thrive this season.

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3. Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs may be among the NFL’s biggest mysteries heading into the 2010 season. They continue to rebuild around several talented young players whose growth will determine whether the team improves.

That starts with quarterback Matt Cassel, who GM Scott Pioli and Coach Todd Haley brought over from New England after a strong season replacing the injured Tom Brady. But Cassel struggled to replicate that performance last season. Cassel’s ability to play effectively is vital for an offense that will likely lean heavily on a running back tandem of veteran Thomas Jones (1,402 yards, 14 touchdowns in 2009) and Jamaal Charles (1,120 yards, seven touchdowns).

Defensively there is more uncertainty, with rookie safety Eric Berry drafted to help a unit that ranked 30th in the league last season. Demorrio Williams (117 tackles) and Tamba Hali (62 tackles, 8.5 sacks) lead the front seven.

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4. Oakland

The Raiders likely will continue to struggle in 2010 as they attempt to build a roster that has seen its share of first-round failures in recent seasons.

The acquisition of former Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell is a big improvement over bust JaMarcus Russell, who was released, but the Raiders will need more production in the run game from RBs Michael Bush and Darren McFadden, another first-round draft pick who has failed to live up to expectations.

Campbell’s game is built for the long ball, and with a number of speedy receivers, including Darrius Heyward-Bey (McDonogh High) and Jacoby Ford, the Raiders might air it out.

The Raiders ranked near the bottom of the league defensively in 2009, but retained defensive lineman Richard Seymour and took linebacker Rolando McClain in the first round.

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