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One make-or-break stretch for each team in the QB-rich AFC West

The AFC West offseason arms race has raged for months already.

The Denver Broncos traded for quarterback Russell Wilson. The Las Vegas Raiders added All-Pro wide receiver Davante Adams and are pairing him with former Fresno State teammate and quarterback Derek Carr. The Los Angeles Chargers? They traded for Khalil Mack, signed cornerback J.C. Jackson and, more recently, added Kyle Van Noy in an effort to fortify a defense that too often let down quarterback Justin Herbert and company last year.

Oh, and don’t forget about the six-time defending champion Kansas City Chiefs. They traded away star wide receiver Tyreek Hill and lost Tyrann Mathieu to free agency, but restocked on the perimeter and roll into 2022 with Patrick Mahomes at the top of the class, even in a star-studded quarterback division.

"This is a crazy division right here. I thought the NFC East was hard, but this division is crazy," said Denver veteran cornerback Ronald Darby, who spent four years between Philadelphia and Washington before signing with the Broncos last year, earlier this week. "That’s what we’ve got to be prepared for, that’s what we’ve got to get ready for and we will. Look at our team. They can say the same thing.

"We’re all stacked."

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Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert throws a pass against the Denver Broncos at SoFi Stadium.

Who will prevail from the most talked-about division in football? And which of the teams – all of whom have playoff aspirations – will be watching from home come January?

Here’s one stretch on the newly released 2022 schedule for each team that will help settle the pecking order in the West.

Denver has the marquee Week 1 game, but – more importantly – a rugged closing stretch

Sure, plenty of attention in the coming weeks will center on the fact that Russell Wilson’s first game as the Broncos’ quarterback will be played in Seattle. Rightfully so, Lumen Field will be juiced that night.

Denver’s going to need all the juice it can muster to navigate December and January, too.

When the Broncos travel to Baltimore on Dec. 4, it will be the second straight East Coast trip for the team – they’re in Carolina the week before – and it will begin a closing stretch that is chock full of playoff contenders. After the Ravens, Weeks 14-18 feature Kansas City and Arizona in Denver, Christmas Day at the Rams, New Years Day at the Chiefs and a home closer against the Chargers.

The second turn through the division is the most critical and, if you want to distill further, it’s hard to imagine that the Broncos can realistically win the AFC West without beating the Chiefs and Chargers – one of the two at the minimum – to close the regular season. But it will be a long grind from December onward for Wilson and company.

The Kansas City Chiefs will do most of their holiday season shopping on the road

In fact, Patrick Mahomes and company open December with three straight road games. They go to Cincinnati on Dec. 4, Denver on Dec. 11 and then Houston on Dec. 18 before the short turnaround to a Saturday home game on Christmas Eve.

The AFC title game rematch and the divisional trip to the Broncos, of course, will get more attention than traveling to Houston, but the prospect of playing three straight away from Arrowhead makes the stretch a rugged one no matter who Kansas City closes it with.

There are flashier stretches of the slate for the Chiefs – that Week 4 trip to Tampa Bay, for example – but if they want to win the division for a seventh straight season, they’re going to have to do the dirty work on the road in December before closing with Seattle and Denver at home and at Las Vegas.

The Josh McDaniels era in Las Vegas begins with a bang – and Raiders fans hope not a thud

It’s a good thing Raiders quarterback Derek Carr and All-Pro wide receiver Davante Adams have all that experience from back in the Fresno State days to lean on as they get reacquainted as teammates, because they’re going to need to hit the ground running.

Las Vegas plays its first trip through the divisional opponents in the first five weeks – at the Chargers to open, Denver at home in Week 4 and at Kansas City in Week 5 – which would be tough enough. But the other two teams in that stretch before a Week 6 bye are Arizona at home and Tennessee on the road. Not exactly a walk in the park. Las Vegas has a bye on the earliest possible weekend, but we’ll have learned quite a bit about them by the time it arrives.

The Los Angeles Chargers will enjoy a bye week and then say goodbye to the comforts of home

Following a Week 7 rest, Justin Herbert and company hit the road four times in five weeks. It starts off with the dreaded East Coast road trip and a date at Atlanta with kickoff slated for 10 a.m. Pacific time. Then LA goes to San Francisco, hosts Kansas City and goes back on the road to Arizona and the Raiders back-to-back. The mileage on the back end of the stint isn’t arduous, but the games will be critical, especially against the divisional rivals in the Chiefs and Raiders.

Last year, all the Chargers needed on the final week of the year was a tie or a win against the Raiders but ultimately fell, 35-32, in overtime. If they’re going to make the playoffs this year – whether it includes final-week drama or not – they’ll likely have to avoid a repeat of 2021 when they lost three of their final four. Before that, though, Los Angeles will have to navigate a travel-heavy stretch of the road in good shape.