By Nate Winkler                                                                                        
Cold, Hard Football Facts Gridiron Goat-Roper

The AFC West may be the tightest division in football again in 2012 just as it was a season ago. Tightest, not best.

Last season a single victory was the difference between first and last place, by far the least of the eight divisions in the NFL. All indications are that it will come down to the wire again as the upcoming season unfolds.

 

2011 NFL DIVISON TOP TO BOTTOM W-L DISPARITY
DIVISION1ST PLACEW-LLAST PLACEW-LDIFF.
AFC WESTDENVER BRONCOS8-8KANSAS CITY CHIEFS7-9       1     
NFC EASTN.Y. GIANTS9-7WASHINGTON REDSKINS5-11       4
AFC EASTNEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS13-3BUFFALO BILLS6-10       7

AFC NORTH

BALTIMORE RAVENS12-4CLEVELAND  BROWNS4-12       8
AFC SOUTHHOUSTON TEXANS10-6INDIANAPOLIS COLTS2-14       8
NFC SOUTHNEW ORLEANS SAINTS13-3TAMPA BAY BUCANNEERS4-12       9
NFC WESTSAN FRANCISCO 49ERS13-3ST. LOUIS RAMS2-14       9
NFC NORTHGREEN BAY PACKERS15-1MINNESOTA VIKINGS3-13       12

The Denver Broncos won the three-way split at the top of the AFC West with a .500 record. Also finishing at 8-8 were the Oakland Raiders, who were in contention late in the season for the first time since Saddam Hussein was still in charge of Iraq.

The San Diego Chargers were also .500 and have missed the playoffs for two consecutive seasons after winning the division every one of the previous four (2006-2009).

Kansas City brought up the rear at 7-9 after coming out of nowhere and winning the West in 2010. All four have realistic scenarios in which they could either win the division or wind up in the cellar in the upcoming season.

Taking a look at how the AFC West teams have fared against their 14 common opponents over the last 10 seasons should give us some insight into how they may actually wind up when the final whistle blows in Week 17 next January.

The teams in the AFC West have played each other twice a year (6 games) since re-alignment was instituted beginning in 2002 and the division went from five teams to four.

They also rotate between playing every team from another division in each conference every year (8 games), with this seasons draw being the AFC North (Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Cleveland) and the NFC South (New Orleans, Atlanta, Carolina, Tampa Bay).

This formula comprises 14 of the 16 games on the schedule, with the other two coming based on each teams place in the final standings.

Although strength of schedule statistics can often be misleading, the fact is 5 out of the 8 teams in the AFC North/NFC South made the playoffs last season. Assuming that the teams of the AFC West split their games at 3-3 each like they did last year, the team that fares the best in it's cross division games will have the inside track to the division title.

If we go back 10 years to that 2002 season and take a look at the records of each AFC West team against their cross-divisional opponents we find some interesting facts:

AFC WEST W-L VS 2012 DIVISION DRAW OPPONENTS
TEAMVS AFC NORTHATSVS NFC SOUTHATSTOTAL (ATS)
DENVER BRONCOS14-7(9-12)6-2(2-5-1)20-9 (11-17-1)
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS9-11(11-9)1-7(2-6) 10-18 (13-15)
OAKLAND RAIDERS8-11(8-11)3-6(3-6)11-17 (11-17)
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS10-108-124-4(5-3)14-14 (13-15)
  • The Denver Broncos are head and shoulders above their division foes against the AFC North and NFC South with a .690 winning percentage in 29 games, but are just .379 against the spread.
  • Kansas City has the lowest winning percentage at .357 but the Chiefs are a relatively good bet in those games as they're tied atop the division at .464 against the spread.
  • If you're going to take Oakland you might as well take the points and the money line. The Raiders have covered exactly the same amount of times they've won against these cross-division opponents.
  • The Chargers have held their ground outside of the division at a perfectly average .500 while not costing too many San Diegans their mortgages as they cover almost as often as they win.

If we take it a step further and factor in the 60 regular season games apiece that have been played within the AFC West, another team emerges as a clear-cut favorite. The Chargers have been the cream of the division for the last decade, winning the West in five of the last 10 seasons and dominating their division rivals along the way.

AFC WEST VS 2012 COMMON OPPONENTS 2002-2011
TEAMVS AFC WESTATSTOTAL VS COMMON OPPONENTS (ATS)
DENVER BRONCOS32-28(26-30-4)52-37 (37-47-5)
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS29-31(28-31-1)39-49 (41-46-1)
OAKLAND RAIDERS21-39(30-30)32-56 (41-47)
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS38-22(32-25-3)52-36 (45-40-3)
  • The Chargers have an impressive .633 winning percentage against AFC West foes in the last 10 seasons and are tied with the Broncos with 52 wins apiece against all common opponents in one less game played. 
  • Both the Chiefs and the Raiders have been sub .500 teams within the division as well as overall against commons. Oakland's fans are hoping to forget the  .350 winning percentage within the division now that control of the team has been pryed from Al Davis' cold, dead hands. 
  • Denver is the only team with winning records against all three divisions and have the same amount of wins (52) as San Diego. but a slighty lower winning percentage (.584) than the Chargers (.591) due to the one game difference.

A lot have things have changed within the AFC West in the last 10 years. Every team in the division has had at least two head coaches and only one player, San Diego's Quentin Jammer, was on his current team's roster back at the start of the 2002 season. (Okay, so were Oakland's Sebastian Janikowski and Shane Lechler, but everyone knows kickers don't really count.)

History has a tendancy to repeat itself, especially over longer periods of time. If that holds true to form in the 2012 NFL season, the Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers will find themselves fighting it out for the division title.

The Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders certainly have green "up" arrows next to their names and a lot to be excited about, but with tough draws against unfriendly divisions, they'll each have to wait until next year to claw their way back to the top.