AFC West preview: Chargers and Raiders will again rely heavily on their quarterbacks

Derek Carr is the Raiders’ $25-million-per-year man and is worth every penny.

The star quarterback, who ascended from cautious second-round pick to masterful most-valuable-player candidate, is the centerpiece of a franchise on the rise.

When he went down with a broken leg on Christmas Eve, Carr’s value to the team came into precise focus.

The Raiders were done without him, losing to Denver at the end of the regular season with the AFC West hanging in the balance, then making a one-and-done appearance in the playoffs with a loss at Houston.

Not only did Carr throw 28 touchdown passes with only six interceptions, but also he led them to seven come-from-behind victories in the fourth quarter or overtime.

Now, hope springs anew as Carr — who signed a five-year, $125-million contract in the offseason that at the time made him the game’s highest-paid quarterback — is rehabilitated and back up to speed for a team laden with standouts on both sides of the ball.

Like Carr is to the Raiders, Philip Rivers is essential to the success of the Chargers. But Rivers is a vital component when it comes to marketing the franchise in Los Angeles too, as he’s the club’s most recognizable and respected player.

Rivers can reach a couple of milestones this season:

He needs 4,167 yards passing to become the seventh player in NFL history to reach 50,000 passing yards in his career. In 13 seasons, he has 45,833.

He has 3,811 completions and needs 189 to become the eighth player in history with at least 4,000.

Because Rivers is so important to the Chargers ingratiating themselves to their new market, the team asked he not attend the Hall of Fame induction of LaDainian Tomlinson, his old running back, so he could be on hand for a scrimmage against the Rams at StubHub Center.

That sparked speculative reports that there might be brewing tension between Rivers and new coach Anthony Lynn.

Rivers disputed that in an interview on XTRA 1360 Fox Sports Radio.

“It’s great,” Rivers said of his relationship with Lynn.

“It’s been awesome since Day 1. We sat and visited for a long time, way back before we even got close to talking about taking the practice field.

“And then, shoot, we visit daily, whether it’s on the practice field talking about our guys, talking about this or talking about schedules or talking about that. So it’s been great. I do think that that’s — what’s the term that’s gotten popular? — fake news.”

Kansas City doesn’t have as heralded a quarterback as Oakland or the Chargers, but the Chiefs have a steady option in Alex Smith.

He has been under center for 41 wins in the last four years and holds the highest passer rating in club history (92.2) during any four-year span.

Waiting in the wings is rookie first-round pick Patrick Mahomes, although he and Smith are entirely different quarterbacks. Whereas Smith is more traditional and conservative in his play, Mahomes is far less structured and is better playing outside a system and improvising.

Smith said, though, that the Chiefs’ quarterbacks have the same competitive nature.

“We keep score every day in everything we do. That’s kind of the culture,” he said. “I don’t care if we are playing cards, shooting darts or throwing at nets, or [in] seven-on-seven who throws the most touchdowns. Completion percentage every day. Those are things every single day that we compete at.”

There was plenty of competition in Denver too, before Trevor Siemian, last year’s starter, beat out Paxton Lynch, a first-round pick in 2016, for the top job.

“For me,” Lynch said before the decision was made, “it’s just another week of getting better and focusing on yourself and making yourself a better player day in and day out and making those guys around you play better.”

Here is a capsulized look at each team in the AFC West in predicted order of finish:

1 | OAKLAND

2016 | 12-4, 2nd in West

Last year in playoffs | 2016

Going all the way: Quarterback Derek Carr has recovered from the broken leg that torpedoed Oakland’s playoff hopes last season, and he looks excellent. He’s got stellar receivers in Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper, and tight end Jared Cook, and plays behind an elite line. In the backfield is Oakland native Marshawn Lynch, who figures to be more than a feel-good story. He’s still an ultra-tough runner. Although their defense is suspect, the Raiders have defensive player of the year Khalil Mack, who will cause major headaches for opposing offenses.

They’re doomed: The defense is the Achilles’ heel for this team, and last year was ranked 26th overall. The football world will be watching how Oakland fans respond to the fact that the Raiders are a lame duck team for two and possibly three seasons, as the franchise is building a stadium in Las Vegas that will open in 2020.

Now hear this: “Waking up early and having to go and do something physical in order to get my body back to playing ability was probably the hardest thing for me because I’m not a morning person. But after that was over, it was straight.” — Lynch.

2 | KANSAS CITY

2016 | 12-4, 1st in West

Last year in playoffs | 2016

Going all the way: Even though the Chiefs ranked 20th in total offense last season, they have a couple of game-breakers in tight end Travis Kelce and all-around big-play threat Tyreek Hill. Alex Smith is a steady hand at quarterback who has won a lot of games, and Patrick Mahomes will make it fascinating to watch the team’s future at that position. Kansas City has the ability to get hot and assemble long winning streaks.

They’re doomed: The AFC West always proves to be a tough, so there’s no coasting. The Chiefs have had warning-track power before, looking great in the regular season before gagging in the playoffs. This team was 26th in run defense last season, allowing 121.1 yards per game on the ground.

Now hear this: “It’s Alex’s job. That’s what it is. There’s no gray area with that.” — coach Andy Reid on the veteran Smith starting at quarterback, as opposed to Mahomes, the rookie first-round pick.

3 | DENVER

2016 | 9-7, 3rd in West

Last year in playoffs | 2015

Going all the way: The defense remains championship-caliber behind star linebacker Von Miller and that secondary. The team showed signs of being able to stop the run this summer, a real problem last year. The Broncos are hoping their offense springs to life under new coordinator Mike McCoy, the former San Diego coach who was the Broncos offensive coordinator for part of Peyton Manning’s time there.

They’re doomed: If they can’t stop the run and can’t run, the Broncos are going to be in big trouble. They’re investing a lot of hope in quarterback Trevor Siemian, who’s better than a lot of people think, but he’s still Trevor Siemian. They sank to the bottom of the league in rushing last year after C.J. Anderson got hurt. The team was 26th in red-zone efficiency. Basically, the reason they won games at all was because of their defense.

Now hear this: “We want one of them to take the reins and take over. That would be the ideal situation.” — John Elway, executive vice president and general manager, before QB Paxton Lynch suffered a shoulder injury.

4 | CHARGERS

2016 | 5-11, 4th in West

Last year in playoffs | 2013

Going all the way: As long as the Chargers have Philip Rivers, they have a chance. He’s an elite quarterback, and he’s got some solid skill position players around him, among them receiver Keenan Allen, running back Melvin Gordon, and tight ends Antonio Gates and Hunter Henry. They have some defensive standouts too in Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram and Jason Verrett.

They’re doomed: Although they need to win in hopes of capturing a bigger slice of the Los Angeles fan base, the Chargers haven’t had much success recently, going 9-23 over the last two seasons. They’ve had injury problems over the years, and already first-round pick Mike Williams (back) hasn’t gotten on the field, and second-round guard Forrest Lamp (knee) is out for the year.

Now hear this: “I hope to still be playing football in 2020, and certainly I hope I’m still playing here. So yeah, I hope to get to see that stadium then.” — Rivers, to Rich Eisen, on whether he’ll still be playing when the Inglewood stadium is completed.

sam.farmer@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesfarmer

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