Each August, Out Of Bounds breaks down the impending National Football League season with a special four-part preview, providing analysis, projections and statistics for all 32 teams. We begin this week with the AFC and NFC West, and look at the defending Super Bowl champions (the Seattle Seahawks), the Super Bowl runner-ups (the Denver Broncos) and the six other clubs that will look to dethrone the conference champs. Popular sportsbook Bovada provides the over/under win totals for each team, and I've included my totals as well.
Are you ready for some football?
Denver Broncos: Future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning made his third Super Bowl appearance last year, but just like in 2009, he came up short, as the Broncos were steamrolled by the Seahawks 43-8 at MetLife Stadium. It was a devastating loss for the 17-year veteran in what was an otherwise remarkable season, as Manning tossed for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns (both NFL records). The Broncos will look to get back on the horse (no pun intended) and represent the AFC in the Big Game once more, and with superb free-agent additions like cornerback Aqib Talib, safety T.J. Ward and defensive end DeMarcus Ware, I'm expecting them to get right back there. (Bovada: 11.5 wins; GM: 13)
Kansas City Chiefs: New head coach Andy Reid brought the Chiefs from irrelevancy in 2012 (2-14) to immediate contenders last year (11-5), transforming star running back Jamaal Charles into a versatile weapon and turning a decent defense into arguably the AFC's best. Under Reid, QB Alex Smith—who at one time was considered a draft bust—had his best season to date, throwing for more than 20 touchdowns for the first time in his career and even rushing for nearly 500 yards. This year, Kansas City will need Smith to elevate the play of his receivers, as Charles not only led the team in rushing, but in receiving as well. (Bovada: 8 wins; GM: 10)
San Diego Chargers: The Chargers are essentially the Dallas Cowboys of the AFC, as they constantly hover around .500 but can never take that next big step. They did, however, make it to the divisional round last year, giving Denver a run for their money in the playoffs and losing by just a single touchdown. QB Philip Rivers won the Comeback Player of the Year award and completed nearly 70 percent of his passes, and with a shaky defense, San Diego will need Rivers to turn in another great season in order to compete this year. (Bovada: 8 wins; GM: 8 )
Oakland Raiders: Oakland hasn’t finished above .500 since they lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl XXXVII, and with Matt Schaub as their new QB, few targets on offense and a defense that allowed the most points in the AFC last year, don't expect them to turn it around this season. (Bovada: 5 wins; GM: 5)
Seattle Seahawks: With a shutdown secondary, dangerous pass rush and very talented offense, the Seattle Seahawks went on a remarkable run in 2013 and won Super Bowl XLVIII in February. The Seahawks stepped up as a team when it mattered most last season, and with 25-year-old dual-threat QB Russell Wilson—who's making less than $1 million for the next two years—explosive CB Richard Sherman and a slew of other superb, young players, the Seahawks might very well win it again this year. Their lone issue this offseason has been the holdout from four-time Pro Bowl running back Marshawn Lynch—a staple in this run-heavy offense—though he finally reported to camp last week after racking up nearly half a million in fines. (Bovada: 11 wins; GM: 10)
San Francisco 49ers: By blending together a ground-and-pound offense and aggressive front seven on defense, the 49ers control the clock, force turnovers and make very few mistakes. Dynamic 26-year-old QB Colin Kaepernick is set to have a breakout season, with the Niners possibly looking to throw more to lessen the load on 31-year-old bruiser Frank Gore, who, despite rushing for 1,000-plus yards in seven of his nine NFL seasons, averaged a career-low 4.1 yards per carry in 2013. With outstanding head coach Jim Harbaugh seeking his fourth consecutive NFC Championship Game appearance, the Niners could certainly knock off Seattle and win the whole shebang. (Bovada: 10.5 wins; GM: 11)
St. Louis Rams: The Rams have been stockpiling draft picks the last few years, selecting a few playmakers on offense and building up one of the league's top defenses, but the biggest question mark is still QB Sam Bradford, who just can't stay on the field. Coming off a torn ACL, Bradford will have trouble escaping the pocket and running for his life against ferocious teams like San Francisco and Seattle. If the 26-year-old QB is unable to stay healthy, his time in St. Louis may quickly come to an end. (Bovada: 7.5 wins; GM: 9)
Arizona Cardinals: Under new head coach Bruce Arians, QB Carson Palmer threw for a career-high 4,274 yards and completed 63.3 percent of his passes (his highest completion percentage since 2007), though he did toss a career-high 22 interceptions as well. Despite a hit-or-miss Palmer and a below-average running game, the Cardinals have a chance to make some noise, especially with standout receivers (Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, Ted Ginn) and a phenomenal secondary (Patrick Peterson, Antonio Cromartie, Tyrann Mathieu). (Bovada: 7.5 wins; GM: 7)