The Kansas City Chiefs are a team on the rise, which is encouraging considering they’re already reigning division champions.

One year after slaying the San Diego Chargers to take home the AFC West title for the first time since 2003, the Chiefs are primed to make another playoff run. They didn’t lose anyone of consequence in the offseason and added some potential key contributors in Steve Breaston, Jonathan Baldwin, Kelly Gregg and Jared Gaither.

The 12th-ranked offense will be better with Breaston, Baldwin and Gaither, but there are still concerns about Matt Cassel and his ability to perform consistently. The Chiefs’ franchise quarterback was fantastic while stepping in for an injured Tom Brady in 2008 with the Patriots, horrible in his first year with KC in 2009, and up-and-down in 2010.

Now he’s trying to get used to new quarterback coach Jim Zorn and a re-tooled group of receivers. If the transition is anything like Cassel’s transition from New England in ’09, the Chiefs’ world-class running game could become collateral damage.

But no pressure, Matt…

2010 in a nutshell: They shock the heavyweight Chargers in Week 1 to grab an early division lead and never give it up, edging San Diego by a game to win the AFC West. Their Cinderella season dies when they’re crushed by the Ravens on wild-card weekend.

Three predictions for 2011:

1. Jamaal Charles will lead the league in rushing: Charles was the league’s second-leading rusher despite carrying the ball only 14.3 times per game in 2010. This year, he’s expected to get a larger share of the backfield work with Thomas Jones beginning to fade at the age of 33. This is a run-oriented offense that is also relatively effective through the air (despite having a 30th-ranked passing game in 2010). If guys like Breaston and youngsters Tony Moeaki, Dexter McCluster and Jonathan Baldwin can step up, there won’t be as much pressure on Charles, who is one of the league’s most dangerous offensive players at the age of 23.

2. Jared Gaither will help the offense a lot: Gaither’s signing could go down as one of the best moves of the 2011 offseason. There are concerns about the monster-sized tackle’s back, and his attitude irked the Ravens, but if he’s driven to do some mauling, he’ll do some mauling. If healthy, Gaither’s a much more dominant player than Branden Albert. If he can be ready to start at left tackle and Albert can move to the right side, the Chiefs will have upgraded the offensive line significantly. That’s good news for Cassel and Charles.

3. Eric Berry will emerge as a superstar: The Chiefs need to do two things better this year on defense — stop the run and force more turnovers. The offseason acquisition of Kelly Gregg should help bolster the run D, but KC didn’t really do anything in free agency to get more turnover-forcers on defense. Maybe that’s because they know that Berry, who was their No. 5 overall pick in the 2010 draft, is about to become an elite player before his 23rd birthday. Berry, who had two sacks, four picks and a touchdown in a spectacular rookie campaign, will also benefit from the continued emergence of Brandon Flowers, who at 25 is becoming one of the league’s most complete cornerbacks.

The final word(s): The Chargers still have more talent, but the extremely young Chiefs have less to lose and a great mentality. They’ll battle San Diego for the division crown to the very end.

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