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AFC West


Newness prevails in this division. A new quarterback works for a new head coach in Denver, another new signal-caller finally calls his own plays in San Diego and rookies try to flesh out the offense in Kansas City and the defense at Seattle, a new division entry. But the race will be the same old story: the Oakland Raiders will romp to the title for the sixth year in succession, and unless Kenny Stabler forgets how to throw spirals, or Freddie Biletnikoff forgets how to catch them, the Raiders should be in New Orleans next January to defend their Super Bowl championship.

Oakland has its familiar arsenal of superb weapons—Stabler's bomb-and-batter offense, an intimidating defense featuring Jack Tatum, George Atkinson and Phil Villapiano, and skilled special teams. Still another Raider strength is Coach John Madden, who says he will not tolerate that trademark of champions—complacency. In his eight seasons, Madden has wrenched quality performances from his players as consistently as he has motivated some of the NFL's most celebrated head cases. His genius, however, has gone largely unnoticed, flamboyant owner Al Davis getting most of the ink. Madden's considerable bulk, his redheaded rages at game officials and a sideline wardrobe best described as the hamper look have overshadowed his scholarly approach to the game and his stunning accomplishments. In point of fact, the Raiders have won almost three-fourths of all the games they have played under Madden, and his NFL career record (91-28-7) makes him a cinch to become the first NFL coach to win 100 games in fewer than 10 seasons.

On the field, no Raider epitomizes Madden's "Don't worry about it" philosophy more than Stabler, the team leader, who handles pressure as if his heart pumps Freon instead of blood. The NFL passing champion, Stabler throws so accurately (66.7%) that fans have forgotten he is a lefty.

Stabler's passing will again be the Raiders' most devastating weapon. Sprinter Cliff Branch, the NFL leader in touchdown receptions last season with 12, specializes in the long ball, and Tight End Dave Casper, another All-Pro, works the medium-range stuff along with Biletnikoff, the Super Bowl MVP who gets open for vital third-down catches when everyone in the ball park knows that Stabler will be throwing his way. Among them, Branch, Casper and Biletnikoff caught 142 passes for 29 touchdowns last year. Incidentally, the Raiders have no Tarkenton-style short-pass diagrams in their playbook.

Short on guile and long on power, Oakland's rushing attack is less dramatic. However, Mark van Eeghen rushed for 1,012 yards last season, and Clarence Davis ravaged the Vikings for 137 yards in the Super Bowl, so rivals can't concentrate on pass defense. Stabler's usual attack point on the ground is behind the left-side blocking of Guard Gene Upshaw and Tackle Art Shell, names that the Vikings won't soon forget.

The biggest adjustment of the Raiders' Super season came after their fourth exhibition game when a calamitous series of defensive-line injuries dictated full-time use of the 3-4 Orange defense rather than the standard 4-3. For reasons dealing with the mastering of new techniques, the Orange was green in the early going and statistically unimpressive at season's end, but why argue with a 16-1 record? This year the 3-4 has been in effect from the start, and with John Matuszak and Dave Rowe settled in up front with Otis Sistrunk, the execution will be improved.

Also punishing. The fines and the flap that followed the George Atkinson-Lynn Swann incident didn't diminish the ferocity of Raider tackling. Free Safety Tatum is one of the most aggressive hitters in the NFL, as is Linebacker Villapiano, who says, "When you play for Oakland, you play to win and you play tough. It's not something the coaches teach or talk about. It's just there. It's an attitude: you are going to hit people and you are going to smash them if you are an Oakland Raider."

This philosophy will cost the Raiders the customary chunks of penalty yardage; indeed, Oakland's main weakness may well prove to be its penchant for penalties.

Displaced by Roger Staubach in Dallas and disgraced by shoddy support in New York, Craig Morton now toils as the 26th Denver Bronco quarterback in 18 seasons, and may well be the surprise player of 1977.

If so, it will surprise the rest of the nation more than it will rock the Rockies. After all, Morton's 13-year career has hardly been spectacular, and Denver, a franchise that has had but three winning seasons, reacts to success in peculiar fashion. Last year the Broncos followed up the finest season in their history (9-5) with an open player rebellion that cost John Ralston his jobs as head coach and general manager. As good as their record was, the Broncos again fell short of the playoffs—and Ralston, as part of his hardsell positive thinking, had guaranteed that the Broncos would make them. Enter Red Miller, who as New England's offensive coordinator last season greased Ralston's skids with a game plan that hammered the Broncs for 38 points and killed their wild-card hopes.

Miller's biggest job will be the toughening of an offensive line that yielded 48 sacks. Guard Steve Schindler, the No. 1 draft choice, reminds Miller of the Patriots' John Hannah when Hannah was a rookie, and second-year man Tom Glassic has settled in at the other guard, but the line is far from playoff caliber. Morton, a pocket passer with no scrambling ability, is ineffective without good protection, as was proved in New York.

Otis Armstrong, fresh from his second 1,000-yard season, leads Denver's running attack, and he will get help from Rob Lytle, the promising rookie from Michigan. But ball control has never been a Bronco strength. "What I want to develop here," Miller says, "is the idea we can control the football when we have to. I desperately want that, and I guarantee we'll have it."

If they do, the Broncos' solid defense should be even better. It already has been improved by the return of End Lyle Alzado, the tough pass rusher who sat out last season with injuries, and by the acquisition of Free Safety Bernard Jackson from Cincinnati. Denver's other strong points include Placekicker Jim Turner, who ranks fifth in NFL career scoring, and Rick Upchurch, who tied an NFL record by returning four punts for touchdowns last season.

As always, Denver is short on quality backup personnel, and if Morton is not the solution to the quarterback problem that has haunted the Broncos since their inception, it could be a Rocky Mountain low once again.

The San Diego Chargers may well be at once the most spectacular and the most puzzling team in the NFL. On the one hand, the Chargers have the potential for a dynamic, big-play offense. On the other, there is considerable doubt that Coach Tommy Prothro can inspire his team beyond mediocrity. "Prothro couldn't motivate Dale Carnegie," one Charger assistant whispered last season. Maybe not, but to Prothro's credit, he has brought decency, dignity and many fine athletes to a franchise once woefully short in all three categories.

Chief among Prothro's new acquisitions are Quarterback James Harris and receiver/return specialist Johnny Rodgers, a 1973 No. 1 draft choice who joins the club after four years in Canada. Harris, who will operate behind a strong young line bolstered by top draft choice Bob Rush at center, has boosted team morale and seems the answer to the leadership vacuum created by the departure of Dan Fouts, his temporarily retired predecessor. Rodgers works with dependable Charlie Joiner at wide receiver and teams on punt returns with 1976 No. 1 pick Joe Washington, who missed all last season after knee surgery. Defensively, the Chargers will simply hope that they can keep the opposition in the 20s each game.

The Chargers should be fun to watch this season, but if Prothro fails to inspire them, another so-so record will cost him his vantage point on the sidelines.

The Kansas City Chiefs and the Seattle Seahawks will stage a dogfight to escape the division cellar. The Chiefs have the most brutal schedule in the NFL, and the draft did little to improve their gravest weakness, a defense that ranked 27th—next to last—and yielded an average of 204.4 yards rushing per game. Offensively, Mike Livingston is a productive, if not Stablerian, quarterback and Tony Reed, a rookie running back from Colorado, should make Chief fans forget that Woody Green is out for the year with a knee injury.

Seattle moves into the NFL's tougher conference and will pay dearly for having the NFL's worst defense. Jack Patera needs instant maturity from a host of youngsters if he expects to match last season's two victories—two more than expansion-brother Tampa Bay—but the Seahawks' passing attack, directed by left-handed Quarterback Jim Zorn, should give the Kingdome some cheerful moments. Of course, the fans in Seattle would really have had something to cheer about if Tony Dorsett had been willing to play for the Seahawks.