A wild fourth-quarter in Houston that saw 40 total points scored looked to have sealed the fate for the rest of the AFC West. Kansas City had defeated the Texans 42-34, and moved to 5-0 on the season. Victories over New England and Philadelphia highlighted a strong start for Alex Smith and the high-powered Chiefs offense. Elsewhere in the division, the Broncos had zero answers at quarterback, the Raiders were using EJ Manuel, and the Chargers were 0-4.
Oh, how far we have come.
Three teams are now separated by one game atop the AFC West. Losers of five of their last six, the Chiefs are gasping for air as their offense has gone silent since the start of November. Anointed early as the league's most potent attack, Smith and the rest of his crew have struggled mightily. Rookie running back Kareem Hunt is averaging just 55 yards from scrimmage over the last three losses (154 scrimmage yards per game over first five games). Hunt also hasn't scored since Week 3. Teams have been keying on the rushing attack, forcing Smith to beat them through the air. It hasn't worked in the Chiefs' favor.
It's been a far fall since the start of the season, but Kansas City's regression has reopened the race for the division title.
The Chargers are trending in the opposite direction of KC, having won five of their last seven. Philip Rivers is coming off possibly his best game ever (434 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions), and Keenan Allen has broken out over the last two weeks (23 receptions, 331 yards combined). Aiding Anthony Lynn's team has been a vaunted defense led by the star pass rushing tandem of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. The Chargers have quickly become a team nobody wants to see in the playoffs.
A few hundred miles north are the underachieving Oakland Raiders also sitting at 5-6. Coming into the season with high expectations, Jack Del Rio's club faltered in October with losses to the Broncos, Ravens, Chargers, and Bills. Their offense hasn't been nearly good enough (with or without Derek Carr) to make up for the holes on the other end. It took them 12 weeks to record an interception, and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack hasn't been quite the same playmaker he was last season. A 21-14 victory over Paxton Lynch and Trevor Siemian is nothing to write home about, but it has kept their dreams of two consecutive playoff appearances alive.
Had the Broncos won on Sunday, this race could have been even crazier with all four teams within two games of the division lead. However, Denver seems to be done with the 2017 season. After shuffling through three mediocre quarterbacks, their defense hasn't been any better - allowing 206 points over their recent seven-game losing streak.
Paxton Lynch in full tears on the sideline. They really represent the Broncos fans' emotions this season after 2-0. pic.twitter.com/khdoL1Ex0u
— Andrew Jerell Jones (@sluggahjells) November 26, 2017
Now it's a three team race with each club within one game of each other. To help make sense of which team might come out of this division, we ranked each of them on three factors that we believe will play the biggest roles in their final record: the team's upcoming schedule, the level of their overall roster, and their QB play.
Each team has to play each other one more time with five games left to go. The Chiefs get both of those division games at home, as well as match-ups against the Jets, Dolphins and Broncos. Arrowhead is a tough place to play in, and none of their other future opponents are playing particularly well.
The Chargers will get a (likely) cakewalk in Week 13 against the win-less Browns, but will be doing quite a bit of traveling from here on out (Los Angeles to Kansas City to New York back to LA in a four-week span).
Oakland might have the only guaranteed loss of any team when they have to travel to Philly to take on the mighty Eagles. They lost winnable games to start the year, and now face one of the toughest stretches of their schedule.
Most Talented Roster
After Week 5 there was a belief that the Chiefs may have the most talented roster in the entire NFL -- much less the AFC West. Losing five of six changes things. The Chargers now look far more balanced on both sides of the ball, and have all of their top contributors healthy (for once). Oakland's defense has some notable names, but is one of the league's worst groups overall.
Smith owned the first half of the season, and Rivers has come on as of late, but Carr is the steadiest performer of the trio. With Patrick Mahomes waiting in the wings, Smith has tossed picks in each of the last three games. Rivers can be volatile, and he's relied heavily on the production of Keenan Allen this year.
Even with the struggles at receiver for Oakland, Carr is putting up similar numbers to last year with an even higher completion percentage and yard per attempt average. If the game's on the line, Carr is your best bet.
For those keeping score at home, this exercise gave us an even tie across the board. Of course, there's one more factor that will play a major part down the stretch, and that's momentum.
The Chargers have a lot of momentum, and the other two teams simply don't.
Kansas City's fall has them thinking about benching a former MVP front-runner. The Raiders can't stop a nose bleed, and they might be without top receivers Michael Crabtree (fighting) and Amari Cooper (concussion) for the next couple of weeks.
LA on the other hand has recent victories over the Cowboys and Bills, and have played a trio of playoff teams (Patriots, Eagles, and Jaguars) very close. They've proven they can compete with the top squads, and are just a couple of missed kicks away from being in complete control of this division. Rivers and Allen are meshing well, and the defense looks legitimate. Although they're spotting the Chiefs a game lead, the Chargers should be your favorite to come out of the tumultuous AFC West.
Sources: Kelvin Kuo/USA TODAY Sports, Orlando Ramirez/USA TODAY Sports, Twitter/sluggahjells