How the AFC West Became the NFL’s Most All In Division (2022)

NFL teams have spent the past six months reshaping their rosters and now, finally, the 2022 regular season is nearly upon us. But which teams have truly pushed all their pieces to the middle of the table and are ready to make a serious run to Super Bowl LVII? Welcome to The Ringer’s All In Week, where we’ll examine the quarterback moves, team-building philosophies, and gambles that teams have made to compete for a championship and determine what it truly means to be all in.

There’s new signage on the wall inside the main meeting room at Broncos headquarters. Twenty-one letters. Six words. The Team. The Ball. The West.

Denver hasn’t been shy about its Super Bowl aspirations since trading for Russell Wilson back in March, but including “The West” on its literal vision board is far more telling about the franchise’s immediate goals. Before the Broncos can even dream about Lombardi, they need to contend with Mahomes, Herbert, and Carr to be competitive in the NFL’s toughest division.

“It’s going to be a bloodbath,” said Broncos left tackle Garett Bolles of the AFC West, “but that’s what you look forward to. You want to come out of a division like this and go into the playoffs, because you know you’re battle tested and ready to roll. I can tell you this, one of these teams in the AFC West will probably win the Super Bowl because of the caliber of teams we have here. I’m not saying the rest of the league isn’t great, I’m just saying our division is, from top to bottom, stacked at all positions and all aspects of the game.”

(Video) Why This Is The Most Loaded Division in NFL History! (How To Properly Rank Them)

The Broncos might be all in on Wilson—indeed, Denver ranks second on The Ringer’s All In-dex—but they’re hardly alone. The AFC West is, by far, the most all in division in the NFL, with the Chargers (seventh) and Raiders (eighth) joining the Broncos in the top 10 of our rankings. The Chiefs rank significantly lower at no. 24, but that’s a function of (a) the security that comes with a six-year reign as division champions; (b) the Tyreek Hill trade, which bolstered their draft chest; and (c) a two-year-old contract for Mahomes that, while massive, looks like a relative bargain now as inflation hits the rest of the quarterback market. (Three quarterbacks have a higher average salary than Mahomes, and eight passers have more money fully guaranteed in their deals.)


The Chiefs are 20-4 in the AFC West since Mahomes took over as the starter in 2018, and are 31-5 since 2016. They’ve defeated the Broncos 13 straight times (Denver’s last win in the series was in Week 2 of the 2015 season, when Peyton Manning was still the quarterback) and have won eight of their past nine games against the Raiders (and outscored the Raiders 89-23 in two games last year). Only the Chargers have proved to be remotely competitive with Kansas City, splitting their season series each of the past two seasons, and yet the Chargers still finished third in the division last year. Mahomes is, without question, King of the West.

So the Chargers, Raiders, and Broncos had no choice but to spend this year, highlighted by a combination of big-name trades and big-money extensions. It’s like the division’s GMs decided at the same time they couldn’t allow the Chiefs to build a divisional dynasty in the West the way the Patriots did in the AFC East for most of two decades. The Patriots won 16 of 17 AFC East titles between 2003 and 2019; the only season they did not claim the division title was 2008, when Tom Brady missed most of the season with a torn ACL.

Sure, New England’s AFC East rivals could argue they tried to compete, but the truth is they just stunk at it. If you’re going to try to take down the best quarterback–head coach duo of all time, you’re going to need better options than Mark Sanchez or Ryan Tannehill or journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick (who played for all three non-Patriots AFC East teams) or, God forbid, J.P. Losman or E.J. Manuel. Bill Belichick and Brady deserve the bulk of the credit for the Patriots’ sustained success, but the rest of the division’s decade-plus of futility deserves at least an honorable mention.

(Video) How the AFC West became the most NFL division

This brings us back to the AFC West. Earlier this year, Broncos GM George Paton told me it felt like he was in an arms race with his division rivals. His team’s trade for Wilson was almost immediately followed by the Chargers’ trade for Khalil Mack and the Raiders’ blockbuster for Davante Adams. And within the first few days of free agency opening in March, the Chargers added the top available cornerback in J.C. Jackson and the Raiders signed veteran pass rusher Chandler Jones. It was a dizzying display of wheeling and dealing, and by the time the Chiefs made the stunning decision to trade away Hill on March 23, the landscape of the division had changed completely. The rest of the AFC West was officially all in to chase down the Chiefs.

The Broncos, Chargers, and Raiders are all in, albeit in different ways. The commonality is they’re all doing it to catch—and maybe, if it works out, pass—the Chiefs. Let’s look at the three AFC West challengers, how they went all in, and why.

Denver Broncos: All the Way In

Denver’s moves were born out of desperation, and a lack of relevance not just in the NFL, but in its own division, since Manning retired after the Broncos won Super Bowl 50. The Broncos have cycled through a rotation of mediocre quarterbacks and head coaches ever since—Nathaniel Hackett is the Broncos’ third head coach since 2017—and kicker Brandon McManus is the only remaining Broncos player who has ever beaten the Chiefs. The Broncos have won just two total division games in the past two years, both against the Chargers. It was time for Paton, who replaced John Elway in 2021, to do something different. The Wilson trade seemingly came out of nowhere; Paton had kept his pursuit of Wilson secret while speculation was rampant that the Broncos would make a hard run at Aaron Rodgers.

(Video) The Chiefs are no longer the NFL's Top Dog: AFC West Breakdown

The cost to acquire Wilson was significant: five draft picks (two first-rounders, two second-rounders, and a fifth), plus three players (tight end Noah Fant, defensive tackle Shelby Harris, and quarterback Drew Lock), but it was a bargain compared to the cost of continued irrelevancy. The Wilson trade pushed the Broncos nearly to the top of the All In-dex (and the Broncos will likely remain near the top in 2023 if they give Wilson a new contract that’s in line with other top QB deals, somewhere in the range of $50 million per year).

The Broncos are betting big on their new 33-year-old quarterback and hoping the rest of the roster is good enough that simply adding a proven, high-end starting quarterback will enable them to close the gap with the rest of the division. The risk is that even if Wilson is a significant upgrade from Lock and Teddy Bridgewater, he still might be only the third-best quarterback in the division. Finishing third in a loaded AFC West might still be enough to make the playoffs this season, but Paton didn’t push all of his chips into the middle just to have to face the Bills or the Chiefs in the wild-card round.

Las Vegas Raiders: Big Moves, but Big Questions Remain

The Raiders’ all-in plan involved spending big on Davante Adams to give Derek Carr one of the most intriguing receiving groups in the NFL: a true elite no. 1 in Adams, a dynamic slot receiver in Hunter Renfrow, and tight end Darren Waller, who had back-to-back 1,110-yard receiving seasons in 2019 and 2020 when he was healthy. (Waller had just 55 catches and two touchdowns in 11 games last season.)

The rub here is that while the other three teams in the division seemingly have long-term commitment to their quarterbacks—we’ll boldly assume that the Chargers and Broncos will sign Herbert and Wilson to extensions in the not-too-distant future—the Raiders are only loosely committed to Carr. He signed a three-year extension earlier this year, but the Raiders could cut him in February before his 2023 salary and his 2024 bonus become guaranteed. So, maybe Carr will wow new head coach Josh McDaniels this year and the Raiders offense will take off as Carr and Adams rekindle their collegiate connection. Or maybe McDaniels will decide Carr isn’t his guy and start looking for a different quarterback in the draft, free agency (hey, Tom Brady could be available once again!), or via trade.

(Video) ESPN breaks down AFC Division Winners for the 2022 NFL season: Which team will win AFC West???

The addition of Adams should make the Raiders offense more explosive and should help Carr make his case to stick around long term, but the question for the Raiders is whether they have done enough defensively to compete with the AFC West’s elite offenses, particularly the Chiefs’. The Raiders have beaten the Chiefs just once in the Mahomes era (a 40-32 win in 2020), and have given up at least 28 points to Kansas City each time they’ve played since 2018. That includes allowing the Chiefs to score 41 and 48 points in two games last season. The Raiders replaced defensive coordinator Gus Bradley with Patrick Graham, who was most recently defensive coordinator of the Giants and overlapped with McDaniels on Belichick’s staff in New England from 2012 to 2015. Jones, with his 107.5 career sacks, was the big addition this offseason, and paired with Maxx Crosby, who signed a four-year extension earlier this year, the Raiders should have their best pass rush since Khalil Mack was traded away in 2018. But outside of those two pass rushers, the Raiders haven’t spent big on defense, and it shows in the All In-dex, where they rank 21st in spending.

Los Angeles Chargers: Spending Big to Help Justin Herbert

The Chargers, meanwhile, are the only team in the division with a starting quarterback still on a rookie contract, which has given GM Tom Telesco freedom to go all in to another degree than his peers. The Chargers haven’t had to give up major draft assets for a quarterback like the Broncos did, or look outside for a receiver, like the Raiders did. Instead, Telesco chose to re-sign former first-round receiver Mike Williams this spring, and now the Chargers have two homegrown receivers (along with Keenan Allen) making an average salary of about $20 million per year. They have used first-round picks on offensive linemen in back-to-back drafts (left tackle Rashawn Slater in 2021 and right guard Zion Johnson in 2022), selections that have allowed them to spend their money elsewhere. And boy, are they.

After signing safety Derwin James Jr. to a new contract last week that will make him the league’s highest-paid safety, the Chargers are now the no. 1 in spending, according to the All In-dex’s accounting. The Chargers are paying at or near the top of the market for James, pass rusher Joey Bosa, and Jackson, and yet it doesn’t feel like irresponsible spending. Even the trade for Mack, which cost just a 2022 second-round pick and a 2023 sixth, seems like decent value for an aging but potentially still elite defender.

The Chargers look like a team that knows what it has in Herbert—an ascending elite talent—and knew they needed a better and more complete team around him. Catching the Chiefs seems like an attainable goal. The Chargers have beaten the Chiefs once in each of the past two seasons, and nearly swept Kansas City last season—losing the second game 34-28 in overtime.

(Video) Arms race in the West! Division rivals have caught up to the Chiefs? | AFC West '22 Division Preview

All of these moves around the division have not gone unnoticed in Kansas City. Earlier this month, Chiefs GM Brett Veach spoke to The Ringer’s Kevin Clark about how the dynamics in the West have changed; other teams have resources to spend in ways the Chiefs did not. (Kansas City has Mahomes, tight end Travis Kelce, and defensive tackle Chris Jones on big deals, and traded Hill away rather than signing him to a massive receiver contract. They replaced him with JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who cost less than $8 million against the Chiefs’ salary cap this year combined.) Veach acknowledged that the Chiefs “have a target on our back” after reigning for so long. Indeed, the rest of the West is taking aim, and showing us through their trades, spending, and inspirational signage.

FAQs

Who has the most AFC West titles? ›

AFC West
ConferenceAmerican Football Conference
No. of teams4
CountryUnited States
Most recent champion(s)Kansas City Chiefs (14th title)
Most titlesDenver Broncos (15 titles) Las Vegas Raiders (15 titles) Los Angeles Chargers (15 titles)
3 more rows

Who is predicted to win the AFC West? ›

AFC West Projections: Chiefs favored, but Chargers, Broncos, Raiders in the mix. The AFC West is this year's “Division of Death”. Yes, the Chiefs are still the favorite after winning the division for the past six years, but the rest of the division is right there.

Who leads the AFC West? ›

Standings
AFC WESTWPF
Las Vegas Raiders Raiders491
Denver Broncos Broncos255
Kansas City Chiefs Chiefs255
Los Angeles Chargers Chargers050

How many teams are in the AFC West? ›

The AFC West is a division of the National Football League's American Football Conference, currently comprising of four members: Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Las Vegas Raiders and Los Angeles Chargers.

Who is predicted to win the Super Bowl 2022? ›

Betting Lines

The Buffalo Bills (+650, or 13-2 at BetMGM) are the favorites to win the Super Bowl this season. They are followed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+750), Kansas City Chiefs (+900) and the Los Angeles Rams (+1100). These teams are, obviously, the best in the NFL.

Who will go to Super Bowl 2022? ›

Super Bowl 2022. Here's how to follow Super Bowl LVI (56) between the Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, February 13, 2022 at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, CA.

Who's going to the Super Bowl 2022 bracket? ›

Rams time, live stream, TV, NFL playoffs results, bracket. The Super Bowl is finally here after one of the most thrilling postseasons in NFL history. It'll all come down to the Los Angeles Rams against the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium in California.

Who has won the AFC the most? ›

Which team has won the most AFC Championship Games? The New England Patriots have far and away the most AFC Championship Game victories with 11. Nine of those wins came from 2001 to 2019, when Tom Brady was the team's starting quarterback.

How many AFC West titles has Denver won? ›

They have won eight AFC Championships (1977, 1986, 1987, 1989, 1997, 1998, 2013, 2015), and three Super Bowl championships (1997 (XXXII), 1998 (XXXIII), 2015 (50)), and share the NFL record for most Super Bowl losses (5 — tied with the New England Patriots).

How many years in a row have the Chiefs won the AFC West? ›

Kansas City continued its historic streak of success within the AFC West division last season, winning its sixth consecutive AFC West title, becoming the only team in division history to ever win the division six times in a row.

Who has won the AFC South the most? ›

Indianapolis Colts

Videos

1. AFC West Betting Preview | NFL Win Totals & Predictions
(The Action Network)
2. Recap Of The CRAZIEST NFL Free Agency Ever! 🤯 The AFC West Is The Best Division In Football! 🏈
(Makeshift Project)
3. 2022 NFL AFC West Predictions! HOw Far Can Wilson Take Broncos? Justin Herbert Takes Another Step?
(Sports U Podcast)
4. Is 2022 AFC West the NFL’s Best Division?
(Speak Plainly Sports)
5. NFL Divisions Explained! American Football Basics
(Ian Haskell)
6. AFC West: Best Division in Football? Chiefs replacement for Tyreek Hill? and more | Roster Reset
(Around the NFL Podcast)

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