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Why the Chiefs’ reign atop the AFC West could be over by Week 9

The battle for supremacy in the AFC West is one of the most anticipated division battles in recent NFL history. The incumbent champion Kansas City Chiefs have held the title for six years now, but the Denver Broncos, Las Vegas Raiders and Los Angeles Chargers did everything they could to close the gap this offseason.

The Chiefs still have the shortest odds on Tipico Sportsbook to claim the throne at +155, but the Chargers (+240) and Broncos (+260) aren’t far behind, and the Raiders have the shortest odds of any projected fourth-place team at +600. In such a deep division, the team that gets off to the best start will have an edge in winning the title. Thursday’s schedule release revealed the Broncos and Chargers as the teams with the best chances to do that.

ChiefsRaidersChargersBroncos
Wk 1at ARIat LACvs LVat SEA
Wk 2vs LACvs ARIat KCvs HOU
Wk 3at INDat TENvs JAXvs SF
Wk 4at TBvs DENat HOUat LV
Wk 5vs LVat KCat CLEvs IND
Wk 6vs BUFBYEvs DENat LAC
Wk 7at SFvs HOUvs SEAvs NYJ
Wk 8BYEat NOBYEvs JAX
Wk 9vs TENat JAXat ATLBYE
Opponent 2021 Win %62.50%49.30%42.60%41.20%

Kansas City has the toughest early-season schedule based on opponent winning percentages from last year. They won’t play a team that had a losing record until Week 10. By comparison, the Broncos will have played four in that span, including in each of the first two weeks of the season. The Chargers will have played six. Even the Raiders get three such games. If the Chiefs aren’t somehow able to stay afloat in that time, they could easily be out of the division race halfway through the season. Overall, they have the fifth toughest schedule in the NFL.

This doesn’t mean Kansas City can’t or won’t still make the playoffs. For my money, three teams are coming out of this division. But the idea of momentum in football is simply a team finding its identity and being able to consistently impose it against other teams week to week. Going into a season without Tyreek Hill for the first time in the Patrick Mahomes era, the Chiefs may be searching for that offensive identity more than ever. And they’ll have to do it against teams that make it a little harder than others.

The Broncos, on the other hand, get a bit of a grace period while they integrate a new coach and quarterback. They open the season against the Seahawks and Texans, meaning they could potentially grow that chemistry and momentum while still winning. The Chargers could very well be 6-2 after eight games thanks to a five-game stretch where they play the Jaguars, Texans, Browns and Seahawks.

The Chiefs are still the Chiefs, so the teams on their schedule are looking at them as a tough game too. And Week 2 against the Chargers will tell us a lot about the direction of this division. But by Week 9, the Chiefs will have played on the road against the Bucs, 49ers, Cardinals and Colts, and at home against the Bills, Titans, Chargers and Raiders. If they come out of that stretch with a winning record – very possible for a perennial Super Bowl contender – they’ll be better for it down the stretch of the season. But if not, the second half of the season won’t be a matter of trying to win the division for Kansas City, it’ll be about getting a Wild Card berth.

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