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NFL Preview 2019: Biggest question for AFC West teams as training camp nears

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NFL Preview 2019: Biggest question for AFC West teams as training camp nears

The AFC West promises to be chock-full of excitement and intrigue during the upcoming 2019 season.

Reigning NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs look to repeat as division champs, while the Chargers hope to knock them off and give Philip Rivers a home game or two come playoff time.

You can't forget about Jon Gruden's Raiders, who have the offensive firepower to be a threat on any given Sunday. The Denver Broncos brought in Joe Flacco, so that's ... something?

None of AFC West hopefuls are without their warts, though, so let's take a look at the biggest question facing each team as we head toward September.

Oakland Raiders

With all the talk surrounding the offense, can the defense be decent?
Antonio Brown, Tyrell Williams, Josh Jacobs, Hunter Renfrow. You've heard all the names.

On paper, the Raiders should put up a lot of points this season. Unfortunately, the Raiders' defense was abysmal in 2018, and if it doesn't improve this season the Raiders won't be able to leave Oakland on a high note. 

The Raiders haven't finished better than 20th in points allowed since 2006, and they gave up an NFL-worst 29.2 per game last season.

In comes a host of new names, from Clelin Ferrell and Johnathan Abram to Vontaze Burfict and Lamarcus Joyner, looking to help Paul Guenther do what he did in Cincinnati and build a top-10 defense.

If the Silver and Black can get good contributions from the rookies, improved health in the secondary and some semblance of a pass rush, they just might make 2019 interesting.

Kansas City Chiefs

What will Patrick Mahomes do for an encore, especially if Tyreek Hill isn't around?

We still have no idea if the NFL will punish Tyreek Hill for the child abuse scandal that has dragged on throughout the offseason. With the NFL, it's impossible to tell when a decision will be made. But if Hill is suspended or if the Chiefs decide he should no longer represent their organization, that would be a massive loss for Kansas City and the reigning NFL MVP. Yes, the Chiefs drafted Mecole Hardman out of Georgia and still have Travis Kelce and Sammy Watkins, but the loss of Kareem Hunt -- who was released toward the end of last season -- and Hill would be hard for Andy Reid and Co. to regroup from.

If Hill enters the season on the team, there's every reason to expect Mahomes and KC to put up massive offensive numbers yet again.

Los Angeles Chargers

Can the Chargers maximize final years of Philip Rivers?

We're going to ignore Melvin Gordon's holdout because, unlike Le'Veon Bell a year ago, Gordon gains nothing by sitting out for an entire season. If the Wisconsin product chose to sit for the entire season, he would just have to play the fifth and final year of his rookie contract next season. So, I'm going to bet he's going to play.

On to the more pressing issue for the Chargers: time. Philip Rivers now is 37 years old and has been one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL over the past 10 seasons. But not everyone is Tom Brady, and eventually, Father Time will come for Rivers.

The Chargers have put a solid team around him, but were thoroughly steamrolled by Brady and the Patriots in the AFC Divisional Round last year.

Heading into 2019, the Chargers once again are loaded with talent, especially if Gordon comes around. But they will need to figure out who will fill Tyrell Williams's role after he left for the Raiders in free agency, and they'll have to hope their linebacking corps can stay healthier than it was a season ago. There's also a question surrounding their offensive line, which fell off toward the end of 2018. Can 2017 first-round pick Forrest Lamp win a starting spot and live up to his promise?

The Bolts are loaded with talent but have some questions to answer, and are running out of years with Rivers playing at a high level to answer them.

[RELATED: Which AFC West rookie will have biggest impact in 2019-20?]

Denver Broncos

Is Joe Flacco still elite a starter?

Other than falling headfirst into Peyton Manning and a Super Bowl title, John Elway has been abysmal at finding quality signal-callers in the Mile High City.

Case Keenum wasn't the answer, so Elway decided to deal for the once-elite, always-elite Super Bowl champion Joe Flacco.

Flacco looked washed a season ago when he threw for just 2,496 yards and 12 touchdowns before going down with a right hip injury and subsequently losing his job to rookie Lamar Jackson.

The 34-year-old Flacco now will have to look over at second-round draft pick Drew Lock. While the Missouri product doesn't figure to overtake the veteran this season, if the Broncos struggle and fall out of the playoff discussion early, it wouldn't be surprising to see Lock take over.

D.J. Swearinger ready to bring immediate aid to Raiders' ailing secondary

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D.J. Swearinger ready to bring immediate aid to Raiders' ailing secondary

Yes, the Raiders are 5-4. Yes, the playoffs are a realistic possibility.

But issues abound in Oakland.

Jon Gruden's gritty club has fought through a rash of injuries, a five-game road trip, the suspension of Vontaze Burfict and Antonio Brown's decision to go AWOL to be in the thick of the playoff hunt in November. But the Silver and Black's secondary is running on emergency power after Karl Joseph suffered a season-ending injury on the final play of the Raiders' Week 10 win over the Chargers.

With Joseph out for the season, that means the Raiders are missing both of their starting safeties -- Johnathan Abram has been out since Week 1 -- as well as their starting middle linebacker and two defensive ends. Gruden is trying to patch the defense together as the Raiders prepare for a playoff run.

D.J. Swearinger is the latest member of the duct tape brigade. The Raiders signed the veteran safety Saturday, and hope he can slide in immediately and give them some relief in the backend. 

It's hard for players to come in cold off the street and learn a new system, but Swearinger played in a similar scheme in Arizona, so he isn't worried about the learning curve. 

"It's not a new system for me because Arizona ran the exact same system," Swearinger said Monday. "Just got to get the different terminology, which is sort of the similar terminology in Arizona --- almost identical -- with a few coverages so it's not a hard transition for me. I'm going to fit right in, do my studying and make it happen."

Swearinger played in four games for the Cardinals this season before being released. The 28-year-old veteran safety has played for four teams prior to the Raiders, including two stints with the Cardinals, notching 14 interceptions and 40 passes defensed in his seven-year NFL career.

He's versatile, experienced and likes to hit. Most of all he's hungry and ready to seize the moment, both for himself and the Raiders.

"It's a great opportunity, man," Swearinger said. "I'm happy to be here. Happy to be with a coach like coach Gruden. I know what he means to football, know what he brings to the table. I'm excited to be here, they are doing some great stuff here. I'm ready to add whatever I can to help this team win and win a championship."

With both their starting safeties done for the season, the Raiders are in the unfortunate position of having to rely on a guy that's been in the building for only couple days. Swearinger has the talent, and the Raiders need him to be at his best right away.

"I like Swearinger," Gruden said Monday. "He played for my brother in Washington. I was a broadcaster at one point, I spent a lot of time in South Carolina with my friend [Steve] Spurrier, so I know a little bit about Swearinger. I think he's a good player, he just has to put it all together. That's what he needs to do. He's got to start that process today. We need the very best of Swearinger."

[RELATED: Ferrell arrives with statement game in Raiders' TNF win]

He's spent the last month waiting for an opportunity, viewing this tough Raiders team from afar.

"They got grit and it starts with the head coach," Swearinger said of his new team. "I love the head coach, I've always loved coach Gruden. From way back in college, from him doing Monday nights. I know what he brings to football and I know playing for a coach like that we're going to bring it every time we step on the field. He expects that. The guys in the locker room ... there are some young guys but they are talented and they want to go to work and you can help but come in and get with the coach."

The Raiders will face an 0-9 Bengals team Sunday in Week 11, a vertically challenged team that should present limited problems for a new safety getting his feet wet in silver and black. Swearinger prides himself on being a physical safety with underrated cover skills. He's tough, emotional and hard working.

Gruden and the Raiders need all of that to translate into winning football in the backend of the Raiders' secondary. The playoffs might depend on it.

Raiders fans can dare to dream of Jon Gruden leading team to playoffs

Raiders fans can dare to dream of Jon Gruden leading team to playoffs

ALAMEDA – Go ahead. Say it, then dare to dream.

You won’t turn to stone. You won’t get laughed out of your local sports pub. Your friends won’t mock false logic.

Playoffs. Playoffs. Playoffs.

The Raiders have a real chance to make the postseason for the second time since 2002. There’s zero guarantee they’ll get there, but the landscape is favorable to a playoff push.

Head coach Jon Gruden isn’t dangling that carrot and would prefer the “P” word stay out of the Raiders vocabulary right now.

“I don’t even think they know that right now,” Gruden said after Thursday night’s victory over the LA Chargers. “We have a long season left to play.”

That’s a plus for the Silver and Black, considering the Raiders would not be a playoff team if the season ended tonight. They are ever so close.

The Chiefs lost Sunday, considerably tightening the AFC West race. The Raiders are just a half-game back of their longtime rivals, with a head-to-head matchup set for Dec. 1.

The Raiders don’t need help. They control their own path to the playoffs through the division. Assuming, of course, they win out. There’s no chance in holy heck that happens. The Raiders win too many tight games. One or two or three are bound to go against them as the schedule winds down.

They’re currently the AFC’s seventh seed, losing a tiebreaker Pittsburgh while sitting a game behind Buffalo in the wild-card standings.

There are several teams hovering around .500 who believe they can snag a postseason spot. The Raiders are one, with the resilience and fortitude required to weather stressful periods. They are 4-1 in games decided by one possession, with game-winning drives in the fourth quarter to beat Detroit and the Chargers in a five-day span.

That has kept the season going strong despite unfavorable scheduling. The Raiders embarked on a five-game road trip – there was a home game played in London during that run – against all legitimate playoff contenders. They came out of it 2-3, with a home split prior to that making them 3-4 to start a three-game home stretch.

“When you're playing games in November that mean something, and you get a home crowd that's like that, this is exactly what we talked about coming off of our 1,800-day road trip, right?” quarterback Derek Carr said. “That we're going to come home and play games that matter.”

The Raiders already have won two of them. Now they’re a 10.5-point favorite against the winless Bengals on Sunday, with the floundering Jets beyond that. The Raiders realistically could be 7-4 heading into that Chiefs showdown, which would not be a must-win. The Raiders have a few tough games on the schedule, including the Chiefs and home games against Tennessee and Jacksonville in the Oakland regular-season home finale.

A contrarian’s view could say two things: 1. Winning nail biters is no way to live, and 2. The Raiders defense has weathered too much attrition to remain competitive.

[RELATED: Ferrell arrives with statement game vs. Chargers]

The Raiders have lost Johnathan Abram (injury), Vontaze Burfict (suspension), Gareon Conley (trade) and Karl Joseph (injury) from the original starting lineup. Backups Marquel Lee (injury) and Arden Key (injury) are also down for the count, though Lee’s coming back.

Can they survive such losses, or will it eventually catch up to them?

Time will tell on that front. We know for sure that the Raiders season will be intriguing, with the very real prospect that Gruden could lead this team to the playoffs.