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San Diego needs better health and more big plays on defense. Shawne Merriman was a prime victim of the uncapped season, which prevented him from becoming a free agent. He needs to play up to his nickname, “Lights Out.”

Kansas City Chiefs

In any other division, the Chargers would be vulnerable. Not here, where the Chiefs likely are the second-best team, yet might not reach .500.

The second year of the Scott Pioli-Todd Haley regime already looks improved with Thomas Jones ready to combine with Jamaal Charles in a formidable running game. Charles had 1,120 yards rushing last year, nearly 300 less than Jones, who nevertheless was released by the Jets. If an uncertain offensive line jells at all, the Chiefs will chew up the yards, allowing QB Matt Cassel more options in the passing game. For now, only WR Dwayne Bowe scares anyone, and he’s far too inconsistent.

While KC should prosper running the ball, its defense must find a way to stop the run. It’s time for Glenn Dorsey, Tamba Hali and several other younger defenders to step up. Top pick Eric Berry will boost the secondary; how much depends on if the Chiefs unleash any sort of pass rush. They had only 22 sacks in 2009 and yielded 45.

Oakland Raiders

This could be the year that the Raiders finish the season with fewer than 10 losses, something they haven’t managed in any season since winning the AFC title in 2002.

Then again, coach Tom Cable could be gone by October if Oakland stumbles early. Such are the whims of owner Al Davis, who believes his squad finally has the talent to compete. Davis already is comparing new QB Jason Campbell to Jim Plunkett, who merely won two Super Bowls for the franchise _ back when “Commitment to Excellence” hadn’t disappeared down the Black Hole.

Still, there are plenty of weaknesses, particularly the defense’s inability to stop the run; mediocre special teams coverages despite an excellent punter and placekicker; weak pass protection; and below average receivers. Oakland needs big production from CB Nnamdi Asomugha, DL Richard Seymour, TE Zach Miller, RBs Michael Bush and Darren McFadden, and Campbell.

So maybe this isn’t the year.

Denver Broncos

It seems so long ago that the Broncos were 6-0, but it was only last October, when new coach Josh McDaniels got them off winging. Ever since, it’s been a spiral in which they fell to 8-8, didn’t make the playoffs, and now appear destined to keep plummeting in 2010.

All-Pro Elvis Dumervil, the league’s top sackmaster, signed a new contract, then tore his pectoral muscle and might miss the season. He simply is Denver’s most important player, leaving the pass rush and entire defense in flux, relying on several newcomers (LB Akin Ayodele, DLs Justin Bannan, Jarvis Green and Jamal Williams). At least CB Champ Bailey and S Brian Dawkins still are on hand.

Brandon Marshall is not. The cinch for 100 receptions a year now is a Dolphins wideout, placing an extra burden on WR Eddie Royal and RB Knowshon Moreno to boost the offense. The most interesting story line in Denver figures to be how Tim Tebow is used.


Story Continues →