- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 26, 2007

DENVER BRONCOS

Last season: 9-7, third place.

Coach: Mike Shanahan (139-86, 131-74 with Broncos), 13th season.

Story line: Is raw QB Jay Cutler ready to lead a playoff run?

Power game: Champ Bailey and Dre Bly are a sublime pair of corners. Travis Henry should be the latest 1,000-yard runner behind an always solid line. Wideout Javon Walker is the deep threat the Broncos had been lacking.

Achilles’ heel: The D-line is a weird mix of too old and too young. Four-time Pro Bowl linebacker Al Wilson will be missed. Did the 2-5 finish that ended a three-year playoff run rattle their confidence?

On the hot seat: Shanahan. Cutler has started only five games, and if he falters the coach will look bad for dumping veteran QB Jake Plummer.

Bottom line: Shanahan has one playoff victory since John Elway retired in 1999 after back-to-back titles. That shouldn’t change this winter.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

Last season: 9-7, second place.

Coach: Herm Edwards (50-49, 9-7 with Chiefs), second season.

Story line: Did they make mistake by giving up on QB Trent Green?

Power game: A year ago, Green, guard Will Shields, tight end Tony Gonzalez and running back Larry Johnson were cited here. Shields retired. Green was traded for a fourth-round draft pick. Johnson held out for most of August and is out of shape. Only Gonzalez remains in the same condition.

Achilles’ heel: Jared Allen, the most proven pass-rusher, is suspended the first four weeks. With Damon Huard and perhaps Brodie Croyle at QB, the offense is Johnson, Gonzalez and hope. Corners Ty Law (33) and Patrick Surtain (31) and top linebacker Donnie Edwards (34) are aging.

On the hot seat: GM Carl Peterson. The Chiefs are 120-88 the past 13 years under four coaches but 0-5 in the playoffs. At some point, maybe it’s the GM’s talent, not the coach.

Bottom line: Even if Johnson gets back in sync and Huard or Croyle is decent, the Chiefs aren’t a serious Super Bowl contender.

OAKLAND RAIDERS

Last season: 2-14, fourth place.

Coach: Lane Kiffin, first season.

Story line: Can Kiffin really coach or can he just not say no to owner Al Davis?

Power game: Defensive end Derrick Burgess (11) and tackle Warren Sapp (10) combined for 21 sacks for the third-ranked defense. No other line had two men in double digits. Corner Nnamdi Asomugha and punter Shane Lechler are excellent.

Achilles’ heel: The offense, which averaged a puny 10.5 points last year, will be led by QB Daunte Culpepper, dumped by two teams in 2006-07, until top pick JaMarcus Russell matures.

On the hot seat: Culpepper. This should be the last shot for a QB who lit up the NFL in 2004 but who has had nothing but trouble since.

Bottom line: Kiffin, 32, is the fourth coach in six years for a team that’s 15-50 since 2002. Expect a similar winning percentage in 2007.

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS

Last season: 14-2, first place.

Coach: Norv Turner (59-83-1), 10th season (first with Chargers).

Story line: Is nice guy Norv the coach to put the Bolts over the top?

Power game: Running back LaDainian Tomlinson topped himself with a record 28 rushing TDs and 2,323 yards from scrimmage in 2006. Linebackers Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips combined for 28½ sacks. QB Philip Rivers had a excellent first year as a starter. Tight end Antonio Gates is top-notch.

Achilles’ heel: The receivers and secondary remain questionable.

On the hot seat: Turner. Those who watched him and Marty Schottenheimer in Washington can’t believe the Chargers replaced the latter with the former. Norv had better win their first playoff game in 13 years.

Bottom line: The Chargers remain the class of the division and could win it all if they get off the playoff schneid.

PREDICTED FINISH 1. Chargers

2. Broncos

3. Chiefs

4. Raiders

MVP candidate: Running back LaDainian Tomlinson, Chargers

Best coach: Mike Shanahan, Broncos

Top newcomer: Cornerback Dre Bly, Broncos

Most missed: Linebacker Al Wilson, Broncos

Top rookie: Defensive end Jarvis Moss, Broncos

Best stadium: Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City

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