Do you realize a team with a healthy Peyton Manning under center has won a division title every year since 2003 but one (2008 Colts)? Sportsbooks expect more of the same this year as Manning's Broncos are heavy favorites on NFL odds in the AFC West.
1. Denver Broncos (-260 on NFL odds to win)
It seems like forever ago that Denver won the first of three straight division titles in 2011 with just an 8-8 record and someone named Tim Tebow as the starting quarterback. Since Manning arrived in the Mile High City, the division has really never been in doubt as the Broncos have gone 13-3 the past two years.
The big question surrounding Denver is Manning's health at age 38. Amazingly, he has played every game, usually every snap, since debuting as a rookie in 1998 except for that missed 2011 season. Remember, he had serious neck surgery then so there's always the potential for a career-ending hit. However, Manning's release is so quick that he isn't hit very often. Not every defense can make Manning look average like the Seahawks did in the Super Bowl so it's not like other clubs can copy what Seattle did.
There's no reason why Denver's offense shouldn't be the NFL's best again, although I highly doubt that offense and Manning operate at a record-setting pace. The loss of Eric Decker hurts, but Emmanuel Sanders is a solid enough replacement. Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman will replace the departed Knowshon Moreno. Manning also gets back his Pro Bowl left tackle, Ryan Clady, from injury. The defense looks vastly better with T.J. Ward, Aqib Talib and DeMarcus Ware. And there may not be a better home-field advantage than Denver has.
2. San Diego Chargers (+600 on NFL odds to win)
The Bolts were a moderate surprise last season under first-year coach Mike McCoy, Manning's former offensive coordinator in Denver. McCoy and San Diego offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt rejuvenated Philip Rivers' career in a big way as he was probably the AFC's second-best QB last year other than Manning. The loss of Whisenhunt, who took the Titans head coaching job, could hurt. The Chargers didn't do much in free agency other than adding Donald Brown to back up running back Ryan Mathews. The defense was one of the worst against the pass last year and I'm surprised the Chargers didn't address the secondary in free agency. They did take TCU cornerback Jason Verett with their first-round draft pick. The Bolts are probably going to have to outscore a lot of people this year.
3. Kansas City Chiefs (+600 on NFL odds to win)
Usually four teams who made the playoffs one season fail to the next and one club that looks like it may take a huge step back is Kansas City. The Chiefs seemed energized for about the first half of 2013 under new coach Andy Reid. They were the last team to lose a game. Kansas City then lost five of its final seven and blew a 28-point third-quarter lead in Indianapolis in the wild-card round. Kansas City definitely lost more talent (Branden Albert, Dexter McCluster, Tyson Jackson to name three) than it added in free agency. Alex Smith doesn't have many weapons around him other than excellent running back Jamaal Charles and receiver Dwayne Bowe, who is quite overrated. The Chiefs better win their opener at home against Tennessee -- they are 6-point favorites on NFL odds -- or they could start 0-6.
4. Oakland Raiders (+3000 on NFL odds to win)
The Raiders are still trying to climb out of the mess left by the last few years of Al Davis running the team. Oakland is looking for its first winning season since 2002. It's not coming this year. There's not a franchise-type skill position player on the roster, but the Raiders did seem to do well in the draft with Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack and Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr. Expect this team to be in play for the No. 1 overall pick next season and for Coach Dennis Allen to be working elsewhere by then. He really was in a no-win situation when he took the job.
Free NFL picks: Assuming Manning stays upright, the Broncos should have this division wrapped up by the end of November. The Chargers might compete for a wild-card spot.