The Pro Football Notebook

November 30, 2010 7:34 AM

The Heated AFC West Race

KCSanDiego.jpgI've had the San Diego Chargers penciled in to win the AFC West ever since I started doing playoff projections a couple weeks ago, making them the first 4-5 team I ever considered a lock to be in the playoffs. Now they're 6-5 and seem to be getting better every week, the complete dismantling of Indianapolis they displayed for a Sunday Night audience being the latest example. So why am I having doubts now? It's nothing the Chargers are doing. It's what Kansas City did on Sunday. Two weeks ago the Chiefs were routed in Denver and my first thought was that the fade was underway. They routed Arizona at home, a good bounceback win that I felt they deserved credit for...but it was still Arizona. Now KC hammers a team that was also in first place, albeit in the NFC West and on the road. The Chiefs are still a game up on the Bolts with five to go and are playing like a legitimate division championship club.

This is the biggest race in football right now, because the runner-ups in the Patriots-Jets and Steelers-Ravens races hold inside track to the two wild-cards. So it's likely going to end up winner-take-all in the AFC West. The schedule coming down the stretch really looks good for San Diego--their decisive time is coming up these next two weeks, with home games against Oakland and KC. After that it's another home game with San Francisco. They close on the road the last two weeks...but it's against Cincinnati and Denver. Where are the Chargers going to lose one? Kansas City hosts Denver next week, before going west for their showdown in San Diego and another road game in St. Louis against the improving Rams. Winnable home games against Tennessee and Oakland end the season.

Kansas City's loss to Denver looms very large right now, because it means San Diego holds the superior division record, the first tiebreaker in the event the Chargers win their head-to-head game with the Chiefs in two weeks. This also assumes San Diego wins their other divisional games, so it's not a guarantee the Bolts take any tiebreaker. But it does mean they control their own destiny. And as well as Kansas City is playing it puts them behind the eight-ball--they either have to win on the road against their rival or get unlikely help from another quarter. The positive is that if they upset the Chargers, this race is all but over. But while I believe in the Chiefs as a football team, I think the hill is still too high to climb.

Here's current updated projections...

NFC East: Philadelphia
NFC North: Green Bay
NFC South: Atlanta
NFC West: St. Louis
Wild-Cards: New Orleans & NY Giants.

Byes: (1) Atlanta & (2) Green Bay
1st Round Matchups: (6)NY Giants at (3)Philadelphia, (5)New Orleans at (4)St. Louis

AFC East: New England
AFC North: Baltimore
AFC South: Indianapolis
AFC West: San Diego
Wild-Cards: NY Jets & Pittsburgh

Byes: (1) New England & (2) Baltimore
1st Round Matchups: (6)Pittsburgh at (3) San Diego, (5)NY Jets at (4)Indianapolis

It's mostly the same as last week, with some internal shuffling on seeds. I'm not quite ready to commit to the Bears, although that win over Philadelphia caught my attention. The showdowns coming up this week, New England-NY Jets and Baltimore-Pittsburgh leading the list, will shake out the race at the top.

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Dan Flaherty is the editor of the Sports Notebook Family, published through the Real Clear Sports Blog Network, offering daily commentary in college football , game analysis in the NFL. and coverage of college basketball. He is the author of The Last New Year's, a book that revisits the historic high points of college football's New Year's Day bowl games.

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