- The Washington Times - Friday, October 4, 2002

Once football's wild, wild West was an AFL show. Oakland's Daryle Lamonica, Kansas City's Len Dawson, San Diego's John Hadl and even Denver's Steve Tensi filled the skies with AFL footballs.

Although Denver's Brian Griese (53 attempts), Oakland's Rich Gannon (39) and Kansas City's Trent Green (34) all put their arms to old-AFL-style tests last weekend, what's really striking about the AFC West this season is its strength. The division boasts the NFL's only undefeated teams in San Diego (4-0) and Oakland (3-0) and would have had a third if Baltimore hadn't stunned Denver (3-1) on Monday.

And last-place Kansas City (2-2) is on pace to score 568 points, 12 more than the NFL record by Minnesota in 1998.

All told, the AFC West is 12-3 heading into Sunday's first division game when the Chargers visit the Broncos. This from a division (including Seattle until this year) that hasn't collectively finished over .500 since 1998 and produced only one wild-card team the 2000 Broncos during the past four seasons.

San Diego's turnabout under Marty Schottenheimer has been accomplished with the former Cleveland, Kansas City and Washington coach's trademarks: a stout defense the Chargers have allowed the NFL's fewest points and the AFC's fewest yards and a conservative, run-based offense the Chargers lead the league in rushing and are last in passing. In fact, only 25 of quarterback Drew Brees' 57 completions have gone to wideouts.

The Raiders, who reached the AFC Championship game in 2000 and the divisional round last season, are more classic AFL perhaps reflecting the fact that many of their stars are just about old enough to remember the late, lamented league. Only New England is passing for more yards, and no team is scoring more than Oakland, whose offensive weapons include quarterback Rich Gannon (36) and receivers Tim Brown (36) and Jerry Rice (who turns 40 a week from Sunday). In last week's 52-25 pasting of Tennessee, Brown passed Andre Reed for third place in career catches (954), trailing only Rice (1,384) and Cris Carter (1,093).

"We try and go out and perform at a very high level and be efficient each week," Gannon said. "We are playing with a lot of confidence, and we feel like we have a diverse enough package where we can move in and out of personnel groupings and formations and really create a lot of extra work for defenses."

The Broncos were shell-shocked in falling behind the Ravens 31-3 at halftime, but earlier Denver had looked solid in winning consecutive hard-fought contests with St. Louis, San Francisco and Buffalo. The three-headed backfield of rookie Clinton Portis, Mike Anderson and Olandis Gary has provided the NFL's eighth-ranked ground game, while coordinator Ray Rhodes' defense was No.1 at stopping the run. That standing will be severely tested Sunday by Chargers halfback LaDainian Tomlinson.

But if there's a true AFL throwback in the division, it's Kansas City, whose 35.5 points per game are second to Oakland's 37.7 while the Chiefs' defense is giving up an AFC-high average of 32.3 points. Although halfback Priest Holmes is proving that his rushing and total yards titles of 2001 are no fluke, Green is firing away. Only the Patriots' Tom Brady has more touchdown passes than the 10 by Green, who also has been picked off five times.

The Chiefs beat Cleveland 40-39 in Week 1 when the Browns' Dwayne Rudd lost his head, lost their home opener 23-16 to Jacksonville, scored two late touchdowns to force overtime in a 41-38 loss at New England and then shocked Miami's usually stiff defense with a 48-30 triumph last week as Green threw for five scores.

No York, No York That's no, as in scoring. After the Jets managed only a pathetic 13 points in their past three games all losses coach Herman Edwards benched 38-year-old Vinny Testaverde and will give third-year quarterback Chad Pennington his first start Sunday against the Chiefs. If not for Chad Morton's pair of kickoff return scores in the opening 37-31 overtime victory at Buffalo, the Jets would stand winless after going 10-6 last year.

The Giants are 2-2, but their offense also is sputtering at least when it matters. No NFC team is scoring less. The Giants managed 16 points the past two weeks, and their offense has found the end zone just three times this season. On Sunday, New York meets a Dallas defense that shut down St. Louis' formerly high-octane attack.

QB roulette Cincinnati is going with a third quarterback Jon Kitna in three weeks and neither change has been injury-related. But the Bengals are just one of four teams (along with the Jets, Steelers and Redskins) switching starters this week and one of eight teams that will have started at least two quarterbacks in their first five games. Only 15 teams changed quarterbacks even once last season.

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