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AFC West Preview: Chargers will bolt away from the also-rans / Division rating 13.0

1. San Diego Chargers

(17.0)

Offense: RB LaDainian Tomlinson's definition of an off year was 1,110 yards and 11 TDs. To keep L.T. fresher, backup Darren Sproles will get more touches. QB Philip Rivers coming off career year that earned him a rich new contract. He'll earn his money throwing to a deep receiving corps led by TE Antonio Gates and WR Vincent Jackson. Offensive line among NFL's best. Rating: 4.5.

Defense: OLB Shawne Merriman, a dominant pass rusher, is back from knee injury. But arrest on battery and false imprisonment charges puts availability in question. With Merriman entering contract year, Chargers drafted pass-rushing OLB Larry English. CBs Antonio Cromartie and Quentin Jammer should rebound from underachieving seasons. Chargers are tough to run on with massive NT Jamal Williams consuming blockers. Rating: 4.0.

Special teams: In K Nate Kaeding and P Mike Scifres, Chargers have strong kicking game. Their hang time helps coverage teams. Sproles is a dangerous return specialist. Rating: 4.5.

Coaching: Norv Turner's teams have been slow starters, but they always get hot at right time. Rating: 4.0.

On the spot: Tomlinson. Was last season an aberration or a sign of decline?

Prediction: Should wrap up division before Thanksgiving. Record: 11-5.

***

2. Oakland Raiders

(12.5)

Offense: RB Darren McFadden is poised for breakout year. Backups Justin Fargas and Michael Bush can also post big numbers. Raiders had NFL's worst passing attack because of a lack of adequate receivers for strong-armed QB JaMarcus Russell. WR Darrius Heyward-Bey was drafted seventh overall, but isn't ready to be a primary target. Rating: 2.5.

Defense: Elite CB Nnamdi Asomugha and LBs Kirk Morrison and Thomas Howard can play for anyone in league. Raiders traded for Patriots DE/DT Richard Seymour to upgrade run "D." DE Greg Ellis and former UB star Trevor Scott must provide pass rush.Rating: 3.0.

Special teams: P Shane Lechler and K Sebastian Janikowski have huge legs. Big-play return man Johnnie Lee Higgins had three touchdowns in '08. Rating: 4.5.

Coaching: Tom Cable had interim label removed after strong finish last year, but can he get a consistent effort from this bunch? Rating: 2.5.

On the spot: Russell. Needs to justify No. 1 overall selection in '07.

Prediction: Says a lot about division if they're second-best team. Record: 6-10.

***

3. Denver Broncos

(12.5)

Offense: QB Kyle Orton is no Jay Cutler, but might be adequate if top WR Brandon Marshall behaves himself. WR Eddie Royal (91 catches as a rookie) becomes main target if Marshall gets traded. Rookie RB Knowshon Moreno could flourish behind an O-line anchored by Pro Bowl LT Ryan Clady. Rating: 4.0.

Defense: There's talent here with MLB D.J. Williams, CB Champ Bailey, FS Brian Dawkins and rookie OLB Robert Ayers, a first-round pick. But Broncos need more to improve a sieve-like unit. Rating: 2.5.

Special teams: Rookie CB Alphonso Smith was outstanding return man and blocked five kicks in college. Grand Island native Brett Kern was NFL's fifth-rated punter in '08. K Matt Prater has strong leg, but is inconsistent. Rating: 3.5.

Coaching: First-time head coach Josh McDaniels, 33, has shown his inexperience managing personalities. He did hire good D-coordinator in Mike Nolan, a former head coach. Rating: 2.5.

On the spot: McDaniels. After alienating Cutler and Marshall, heat is on McDaniels to show he's not in over his head.

Prediction: Returning Broncos to glory will take time. Record: 5-11.

***

4. Kansas City Chiefs

(10.0)

Offense: Chiefs think they have future star in QB Matt Cassel, acquired in trade from New England. WR Dwayne Bowe is a nice weapon, but trading future Hall of Fame TE Tony Gonzalez won't help pass game. RB Larry Johnson has been on decline since back-to-back 1,700-yard seasons in 2005-06. Second-year RB Jamaal Charles could take over if Johnson continues to fade. Rating: 2.5.

Defense: ILB Derrick Johnson, DE/OLB Tamba Hali, first-round DE Tyson Jackson are part of youthful front seven adjusting to new 3-4 scheme. CBs Brandon Flowers and Brandon Carr started as rookies last season, but still have much to learn. Rating: 2.5.

Special teams: Besides P Dustin Colquitt, this unit was lousy last season. Rookie K Ryan Succop has to prove himself. Charles or sixth-round pick Quinten Lawrence must be answer on returns. Rating: 2.5.

Coaching: First-year head man Todd Haley can run an offense. Whether he can guide an entire team remains to be seen. Rating: 2.5.

On the spot: Cassell. Is he the real deal or one-year wonder?

Prediction: This rebuilding job will take time. Record: 2-14.

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