A division that not long ago was an easy path to the playoffs for the San Diego Chargers has seen three different winners in the last three seasons. The Denver Broncos made what might be the biggest offseason free agent acquisition in NFL history, and the Oakland Raiders will get to enjoy their first full season with their new quarterback. Meanwhile, the Kansas City Chiefs appear poised to regain their division-winning form from 2010 following an offseason to recover from several crippling injuries.

The oddsmakers seem to think that Peyton Manning’s neck (which is held together with chewing gum) will be fine, and he’ll be able to help Denver repeat as division champs.

Denver may be installed as a slight favorite, but turning those odds into percentages shows that San Diego is right alongside Denver and this is a two-horse race with Kansas City’s chances standing at about 1 in 4.At first glance this seems to be the toughest division to predict due to the many changing faces, and each team seemingly has a shot at coming out of the pile with the division crown. Upon closer inspection, this division may provide the best value of them all, with the safest play installed at fairly long odds. The Kansas City Chiefs are only one season removed from winning the AFC West, but the shine coming off of Manning’s surgically repaired neck is allowing them to quietly go about their business without targets on their backs.

The Chiefs hired Todd Haley in 2009. On paper, that first season was a write-off for Haley and the Chiefs as they finished 4-12, but he laid the ground work for the following season, improving the team’s work ethic, and publicly calling out players like star receiver Dwayne Bowe for their lack of effort. Kansas City then improved to 10-6 in 2010, winning the division for the first time since 2003.

Early injuries last year to Eric Berry, Tony Moeaki, and Jamaal Charles were crushing, along with the loss of Matt Cassel in Week 10. Haley’s intensity wore thin with the players, and they all but quit on him by the time the team relieved him of his duties as head coach in December. Then the Chiefs rallied around new head coach Romeo Crennel, notably handing the Green Bay Packers their lone loss of the 2011 regular season. Under Crennel, they finished with a 2-1 record after Haley’s departure, with that lone loss coming in overtime.

Crennel now gets a chance to begin the season as the head coach of the team that was whipped into shape by Haley and wants to prove that they’re better than their 7-9 record from a year ago. On top of that, Romeo will continue to put his stamp on a defensive unit that will get star safety Eric Berry back.

Crennel brought in Brian Daboll to run the offense. Daboll has a history with new Chiefs running back Peyton Hillis, as they were together in Cleveland for Hillis’ breakout 2010 season. Hillis will share the ball-carrying duties with Jamaal Charles, another returning Chief who had a breakout 2010 season. Charles tore his ACL early in the 2011 season, and if preseason is any indication, it looks like he’s just about back to the form that saw him rack up 1,935 total yards two years ago. Together they’ll form an impressive 1-2 punch out of the backfield, while Bowe and an improving Jon Baldwin will stretch the field, and Cassel will return to his caretaker role.

In Denver, after a year of Tebowing their way to an 8-8 record and the division crown, the Broncos are full of optimism after the addition of Manning. The concern with a Manning-led offense is the ability of his supporting cast to adapt to the changes he likes to make at the line of scrimmage, and the nuances to his offensive system. Surprisingly, through the team’s early preseason games, it appears that the players around him have adapted very quickly to his style of play, but the problem may lie with Manning himself.

The quarterback had trouble keeping the ball out of the hands of defenders, and while he looked comfortable in the pocket, he certainly wasn’t the Manning of old. Before you think it’s just rust that has slowed Manning, remember that he had a career QB rating of 97.7 in the RCA Dome and Lucas Oil Stadium, while that rating dropped to 88.5 when he played outdoors. Denver will play 15 of their 16 games outdoors this season, and Pey Pey will also be playing his first NFL season without Tom Moore as his offensive coordinator. While Manning tries to figure out life after Indy, the Broncos will be without the boost at quarterback that the team is expecting and they’ll spend more time fighting to get to .500 than trying to win the division.

San Diego once used this division as a platform to launch themselves into the playoffs, but their glory days are behind them, and Norv Turner’s seat is heating up. The Chargers finished 8-8 in 2011 after finishing 9-7 the year before. They let Vincent Jackson go, and replaced him with Robert Meachem.

Meachem is no V-Jack, and Vincent Brown fractured his ankle in the team’s second preseason game, but Philip Rivers has shown an ability to overcome a lack of quality pass-catchers and still put up great numbers. The team’s backfield situation is looking a little hazy with reports indicating that Ryan Mathews could be out for the first couple of weeks of the season. That leaves an aging Ronnie Brown in line to take over the starting running back duties, and believe me when I say that Brown is lucky to still be clinging to an NFL gig.

The issue for the Chargers that they failed to address in the offseason is one that will haunt them all season: the offensive line.  The team’s pass-protection stunk in the early part of last season and they did nothing to address it. The Chargers didn’t improve on their roster from last season, and there’s no reason to believe they’ll be any better this year. Turner’s act is getting old in San Diego, and he may be looking for a job next year.

The Oakland Raiders may be worth a look as well despite being the consensus fourth-place finisher according to the oddsmakers. Oakland made an in-season move to add quarterback Carson Palmer last year, so he didn’t get to go through training camp with this group and was basically learning on the fly. Even still, the chemistry he showed with his young receivers gives the team some hope for this season.

The most unfortunate part of the Raiders’ 2011 season that they lost star running back Darren McFadden before Palmer took a snap under center. With that duo in place to begin the season, the Raiders have a chance to be really dynamic offensively. If they can establish a running game with McFadden, then Palmer will be able to stretch the field with the group of speedsters on the Raiders’ WR depth chart (Darrius Heyward-Bey, Denarius Moore, and Jacoby Ford).

On the defensive side, expect new defensive coordinator Jason Tarver to show opposing offenses some creative looks after his years of coaching linebackers, while Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly man the interior line. Overall, the Raiders are still a work in progress, and an injury to the fragile McFadden would all but end their chances of winning the division. But this is a team that has the talent and the upside to put together a strong 2012.

Here’s how I see the AFC West breaking down:
1.    Kansas City (9-7) – Seven wins last year without key players; improved coaching situation.
2.    Denver (8-8) – No cushy dome for Peyton to play in; defense overachieved in 2011.
3.    San Diego (8-8) – Simply no reason to believe they’ll be any better than last year.
4.    Oakland (7-9) – The talent is there, but they may be a season away from competing.

Looking at the odds to win the division, it’s tough to want to back either the Broncos, who will go through some growing pains as they transition to a Manning-led offense, or the Chargers, who have seemingly only taken steps backwards with poor personnel decisions after a year of .500 football.

That leaves the Chiefs and Raiders. The Chiefs seem poised for a bounce back year after injuries and coaching troubles decimated their 2011 season. They provide great value with odds as long as +350 on Sportsbook.com and Bet365, and seem worthy of a big play. The Raiders are worth a good long look at +620 on Pinnacle, although they might be a year away, and their value goes out the window if McFadden gets hurt.