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September 01, 2003|Lonnie White | Times Staff Writer

In order of predicted finish

**

WEST DIVISION

DENVER BRONCOS

Coach: Mike Shanahan, ninth season.

Last season's record: 9-7.

Key additions: QB Jake Plummer, DT Daryl Gardener, OT Ed Ellis, SS Nick Ferguson.

Key losses: QB Brian Griese, DT Chester McGlockton, CB Tyrone Poole, RB Olandis Gary, DE Keith Washington, CB Denard Walker.

Outlook: Now that Griese is spending time injured in Miami instead of Denver, the Broncos will have to find someone new to blame if they fail to make the playoffs. Clinton Portis is explosive both running and catching the ball, and Plummer's big-play ability should fit in well with Shanahan's offense. The Broncos lost five of their final eight games last season mainly because they couldn't stop anyone, so they made some changes. Bringing in Gardener should help but the Broncos need him to stay healthy. Denver also needs a big season from end Trevor Pryce.

Bottom line: Larry Coyer replaces Ray Rhodes as defensive coordinator and his aggressive style will help linebackers Al Wilson and John Mobley, two of the best tacklers in the league. But the extra blitzing will put pressure on Denver's inexperienced secondary and this will be a problem once playoff time rolls around.

Prediction: 10-6.

*

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

Coach: Dick Vermeil, third season.

Last season's record: 8-8.

Key additions: P Jason Baker, LB Shawn Barber, DE Vonnie Holliday, CB Dexter McCleon.

Key losses: CB Ray Crockett, DE Duane Clemens, P Dan Stryzinski.

Outlook: After failing to make the playoffs in his first two seasons coaching the Chiefs, Vermeil has his team ready to make some noise. With arguably the best offensive line in the NFL, Kansas City will ride the talents of all-everything back Priest Holmes and quarterback Trent Green. Holmes, who scored 24 touchdowns last season, has not shown any effects from a season-ending hip injury. Green is coming off his best season. Tight end Tony Gonzalez heads the strong receiving corps, which includes Eddie Kennison, Johnnie Morton and Marc Boerigter. The Chiefs still need depth on the defensive line, but they have quality players in Eric Hicks and Holliday.

Bottom line: If the Chiefs can get consistent play from cornerbacks Eric Warfield, William Bartee and McCleon, along with a better pass rush, they should end Vermeil's playoff drought. With Holmes, the Chiefs have the league's most versatile offense.

Prediction: 10-6.

*

OAKLAND RAIDERS

Coach: Bill Callahan, second season.

Last season's record: 11-5, lost to Tampa Bay in the Super Bowl.

Key additions: DT Dana Stubblefield, CB Anthony Parker, FB Cecil Martin.

Key losses: DT Sam Adams, FB Jon Ritchie, RB Terry Kirby.

Outlook: With their third consecutive AFC West title, the Raiders had a solid season but it ended with a blowout loss to Tampa Bay in the Super Bowl. Based on how teams have struggled in the seasons after a Super Bowl loss in recent years, that's not a good sign for the Raiders. The last losing team to return to the Super Bowl was Buffalo in 1994. On offense, everything revolves around 37-year-old Rich Gannon's precision passing, which should be helped with the emergence of receiver Jerry Porter. Having a healthy Charles Woodson at cornerback along with second-year cover man Phillip Buchanon, should help the defense.

Bottom line: The key will be the play of young players such as linebacker Eric Barton, tight end Doug Jolley, Porter and even rookie running back Justin Fargas. That may be all the Raiders need to remain the AFC's most dominant team.

Prediction: 8-8.

*

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS

Coach: Marty Schottenheimer, second season.

Last season's record: 8-8.

Key additions: WR David Boston, CB Sammy Davis, CB Drayton Florence, FB Lorenzo Neal, FS Kwamie Lassiter.

Key losses: LB Junior Seau, SS Rodney Harrison, WR Curtis Conway, FB Fred McCrary, CB Alex Molden.

Outlook: Even with Seau and Harrison in the lineup, the Chargers had one of the league's worst defenses last season. With that said, it's easy to understand why Schottenheimer is heading into this season with such a young defense, especially in the secondary. Rookie defensive backs Davis, Florence and Terrence Kiel will learn on the job. San Diego is hoping to control games with an offense directed by third-year quarterback Drew Brees. With running back LaDainian Tomlinson being the No. 1 target for defenses to stop, the Chargers are looking for Brees to take advantage with passes to Boston, who had two 1,000-yard receiving seasons with Arizona before signing with San Diego.

Bottom line: The Chargers may surprise some teams if defensive linemen Marcellus Wiley and Raylee Johnson can stay injury-free and the young secondary makes progress.

Prediction: 7-9.

**

NORTH DIVISION

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Coach: Bill Cowher, 12th season.

Last season's record: 10-5-1, lost to Tennessee in divisional playoffs.

Key additions: SS Troy Polamalu, TE Jay Riemersma, OT Todd Fordham, LB Clint Kriewaldt, LB Alonzo Jackson.

Key losses: QB Kordell Stewart, OT Wayne Gandy, SS Lee Flowers.

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