Audibles: AFC West Week 1 preview

September, 5, 2008
9/05/08
4:00
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

Kansas City at New England, 1 p.m. ET

At first look, this isn't much of a contest. New England is the favorite and this is, by far, on paper, a huge mismatch and perhaps the least intriguing game of the opening weekend.

It certainly isn't easy duty for Kansas City. This is a team in a complete rebuilding mode, and it has 15 rookies on the roster, several who will start today. Besides two games against AFC West rival San Diego, this is perhaps the best team the young Chiefs will face.

And it just happens to be on opening day.

Can Kansas City hang with New England? It will be very tough even if Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is still ginger and rusty from his foot injury.

Here are three keys for the Chiefs in this game:

1. Start fast: If Kansas City is going to keep this game respectable, it has to score early and not let the game get out of control. If New England takes a two touchdown lead in the first quarter, it will be a long day for the visitors.

2. Control the clock: Sunday is the best time to introduce rookie Jamaal Charles to Kansas City's backfield. Kansas City needs to pair Charles with Larry Johnson and control the game on the ground. This way, New England's high-powered offense would be off the field and the Chiefs would be controlling the clock, which are two things they need for this monumental upset to happen.

3. Play flawless: Yes, that is a lot to ask, but the Chiefs cannot make any mistakes Sunday. None. Asking so many young players, especially quarterback Brodie Croyle, to play flawlessly may be unreasonable. But it is Kansas City's only chance.

Did you know? Kansas City tight end Tony Gonzalez had the best day of his career against the Patriots in 2000 when he gained a career-high 147 receiving yards.

Carolina at San Diego, 4:15 p.m. ET

All summer long, the Chargers have heard that they are embarking on what could be a Super Bowl season. All summer long, the Chargers have rebutted by saying that won't be possible if they repeat last year's slow start. San Diego started 2-2 before rebounding and ending up in the AFC Championship Game.

San Diego is very conscious of not stubbing its toe this week. But San Diego will have to play well to win. The Panthers are not a bad team and are capable of pulling off an upset.

San Diego is banged up on the offensive line and will likely not have star center Nick Hardwick and standout left tackle Marcus McNeill, who are injured. Tight end Antonio Gates will play for the first time since suffering a serious big toe injury on his left foot in the playoffs last year. San Diego has some issues, but it should find a way to start off the season with a win.

Here are three keys for San Diego in this game:

1. Run the ball: Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson is one of the best weapons in the game. San Diego needs to open the season by punishing the Panthers with its run game. Yes, the offensive line is missing a couple pieces, but the Chargers still have to establish a good run game.

2. Attack Jake Delhomme: Delhomme is an efficient quarterback, but he can be shaken. San Diego needs to pressure him all game and force him to make mistakes.

3. Strike fast: The Chargers need to show themselves they won't stumble out of gates this season. They must strike quickly. If San Diego can build a double-digit lead in the first half, they should cruise.

Did you know? San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers and Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers have a history. Rivers played at North Carolina State while Peppers played at North Carolina.

Denver at Oakland, 10:15 p.m. ET Monday

Three keys for Denver:

1. Jay Cutler: A lot is expected from Cutler this year, especially after his outstanding preseason. He needs to show he can be the best player on the field and he needs to do it Monday night. He will be missing his favorite target, Brandon Marshall, who is serving a one-game NFL suspension. But Cutler has other options. He needs to hit tight end Tony Scheffler and receiver Brandon Stokley often.

2. Stop the run: Denver was ranked 30th in the NFL in run defense last year. The Broncos were kept out of games last year because they couldn't stop the run. Denver's primary focus on defense this summer has been the run defense. Expect Denver to stack eight men in the box often as it tries to stop Oakland's terrific running back trio of Darren McFadden, Justin Fargas and Michael Bush.

3. Play well on special teams: I expect this to be a close game and good or bad play on special teams can play a major factor. Denver has a new look special teams featuring young kicker Matt Prater. If Denver doesn't make any mistakes and special teams, it could help it win this game.

Three keys for Oakland:

1. Run the ball: Expect Oakland to try to ram the ball down Denver's collective throat. The Raiders have an excellent run attack and Denver's run defense was not good last year. Raiders want to control this game on the ground.

2. Stop the run: Oakland's run defense was ranked 31st last year. Denver could always run the ball and it will try in this game. Cutler is expected to let it loose as well. Oakland has to step up and stop the run and make life tough on Cutler.

3. Feed off the fan energy: Oakland fans are always up for games against Denver. Mix in the fact that it is opening day and a Monday night game, and there will be a fever pitch in Oakland. The Raiders had to take advantage of the noise and jump on Denver and keep the fans in the game.

Did you know? This is Denver's fourth straight season opener on the road. It lost in Miami in 2005 and at St. Louis in 2006 before winning at Buffalo last year on opening day.

Bill Williamson | email

ESPN San Francisco 49ers reporter

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