Jussel: The good and bad of preseason for AFC West

With the end to the National Football League preseason mercifully in sight, it’s time for review and preview.

Let’s start with perspective from the new kid on the block, Peyton Manning, advertising spokesman for Buick and, oh yes, quarterback of the Denver Broncos: It’s all about the division, Manning said Sunday night after a sparkling 10-for-12, two-touchdown performance in less than a quarter of action against the San Francisco 49ers.

Manning, of course, was talking about the AFC West and the relative import of winning such.

Let’s take a tour of the good and bad of preseason, starting with the Broncos.

The good news has been the resurrection of Manning. He improved in each of his three starts and wants to play again Thursday night against the Cardinals. How often does a veteran say he wants to play in Preseason Game 4?

He admits he isn’t 100 percent after four neck surgeries but even at his current level makes the Broncos a genuine offensive threat.

And, oh yes, as you might have noticed, if you are in a fantasy football league, you might want to draft wide receiver Eric Decker.

More good news: The Broncos’ first-team defensive unit has been impressive. Champ is still Champ, Elvis and Von are healthy, and Ty Warren makes a difference. All of which leads us to ...

... The bad news that starts whenever this first unit takes a breather. Let’s hope the first-team guys stay healthy, because the defensive reserves have been outscored 40-0 in the past two games.

More bad news is the brutal opening stretch: Pittsburgh; at Atlanta; Houston; Oakland; at New England; at San Diego; New Orleans; and at Cincinnati. If you’re counting, that’s six playoff teams from last year in eight games, with AFC West foes Oakland and San Diego the only two not in the playoffs last season.

Let’s check out the good news/bad news if you are a Chargers fan.

First, good news would be that Phillip Rivers is still among the league’s best QBs. Tight end Antonio Gates is healthy. The defense has played well in preseason, giving up only 43 points in going 3-0. Another bright spot is the opening schedule for the Bolts, which includes only three playoff teams, including Denver, in its first eight games.

Now for the bad: Starting running back Ryan Mathews is out with a collarbone fracture; the offensive line is a beat-up mess with perennial Pro Bowl center Nick Hartwick, left tackle Jared Gaither and left guard Tyronne Green all missing much of the preseason (the Chargers have averaged only two yards per rushing attempt in preseason); and wide receiving standout Vincent Jackson now is a member of the Tampa Bay Bucs.

Good news for former Denver defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, who is trying to put things right in his first year as head coach at Oakland, includes the fact most everyone is healthy, with kicker Sebastian Janikowski the most notable player on the injured list with a pulled groin muscle. He will be fine by regular season. The Raiders are also nasty up front defensively, led by Richard Seymour, and put a big hurting on Lions quarterback Matt Stafford last weekend.

Bad news for Raider fans would include a defensive backfield that is being rebuilt and the continued maddening performance of quarterback Carson Palmer, who has thrown for more than 400 yards in short stints in three games, but he also has thrown four interceptions. The rushing game will be fine with a healthy Darren McFadden, but when he goes down, which he always does, the Raiders will sorely miss his buddy Michael Bush, now with the Bears.

Our check on Kansas City shows a 44-14 hammering at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks last weekend after a 31-17 loss to the hapless St. Louis Rams. They opened with a 27-17 win over the Cardinals, not a lot to crow about.

But, they do have a healthy Jamaal Charles and a happy Peyton Hillis to make for a super running back combination and Dexter McCluster, who has been catching screen after screen from Matt Cassel. They also have Tony Moeaki back at tight end and outstanding big wideouts in Dwayne Bowe and Jon Baldwin to help move the ball.

Which brings us to their problem area, the defensive side.

The Rams scored two touchdowns on the Chiefs’ first unit two weeks ago, and Seattle’s Russell Wilson, who starred against Denver’s reserves two weeks ago, solidified his job as a starter by ripping through the Chiefs starters last weekend.

Kansas City has problems defensively up front and in a revamped secondary and just lost star pass rusher Tamba Hali to a one-game suspension for a substance-abuse violation.

Add a difficult starting stretch that rivals Denver’s — Atlanta, at Buffalo, at New Orleans, San Diego and Baltimore in the first five games — and it adds up to trouble for the Chiefs early.

Rick Jussel is a former Daily Sentinel sports editor (think Dark Ages) and journalism teacher at Grand Junction High School, who belongs in the Armchair Quarterback Hall of Fame, if only there was one.


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