Posted by Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson
There are two new head coaches in the AFC West (Josh McDaniels in Denver and Todd Haley in Kansas City) and Tom Cable takes over full-time duties for the Raiders. Coaching changes and transition are never trouble-free, and it doesn't make things any easier on these new head men that they got the unfortunate draw of having to play the rugged NFC East in their interconference matchups. Let's take an early look at some of the intriguing themes that should develop from these matchups and how they might impact the AFC West race.
1. Cross-country trips: Though it could have been worse, both the Chargers and Raiders will have cross-country flights before facing the New York Giants. At least neither team faces Philadelphia or Washington on the road. And though their trips aren't as far, the Chiefs do travel to Philadelphia in Week 3 and Washington in Week 6. Denver also travels to Washington (Week 10) and Philadelphia (Week 16). As it stands now, none of those games look to be favorable excursions for the teams in the AFC West.
2. The Raiders' pass protection vs. the Giants' and Cowboys' pass rush: New York's defensive line is loaded with great talent and depth. The Giants' ability to bring pressure from the linebacker position has also improved from a year ago. Meanwhile, Dallas led the league in sacks last season and there is no reason to believe there will be a drop-off in 2009. These are major problems for any passing attack, but especially for one as weak as the Raiders'. Oakland has a suspect offensive line and a starting quarterback who doesn't sense pressure well. Match that with a desire from the organization to use wide receiver speed to create a deep passing game and it sounds like a formula for many sacks.
3. Philip Rivers and the Chargers' passing game vs. the Cowboys' secondary: Led by DeMarcus Ware, the Cowboys are able to get after the quarterback, but they are very light at cornerback and safety. With pass-catchers such as Vincent Jackson, Chris Chambers and Antonio Gates, San Diego can throw on anyone. The Cowboys are going to be tested heavily on the back end in Week 14 when the Chargers come to town. The Cowboys may also have their hands full in the secondary from a depth perspective when they play Denver and Kansas City, teams that should opt for a high number of snaps out of the shotgun and with multiple-receiver sets.
4. Nnamdi Asomugha vs. the NFC East: While there are good cornerbacks in the NFC East, none of them is on par with Asomugha, who is far and away the best player at his position in the NFL. With Plaxico Burress and Terrell Owens no longer in the NFC East, the division doesn't have the star power at wide receiver it once did, so dictating who will draw coverage from Asomugha is not as easy to predict. The Raiders should be able to be quite aggressive with their coverage schemes with Asomugha, eliminating one option with very little assistance. The same may be true for Champ Bailey as well, and the Chargers also have a potentially suffocating pair of cover men in Quentin Jammer and Antonio Cromartie.
5. Shawne Merriman vs. Jason Peters: These are two of the elite players at their respective positions and they enter the 2009 season with plenty to prove. The Chargers' Merriman was sidelined for most of last year because of injury. He should rebound in a huge way as he looks for a massive new contract and to once again be considered a top player at his position. Peters also had a down year in 2008 and now, with a new team and a new contract, will try to show the Eagles that he was worth their investment. Keeping Donovan McNabb's blind side clean against the likes of Merriman will not be an easy chore. It should make for a classic one-on-one confrontation.
6. The Chargers' back-to-back games against the Giants and Eagles: The Chargers look to be the class of the AFC West, but they have a crucial seven-game stretch coming out of their Week 5 bye. San Diego has three division contests in a row before doing battle with the Giants and Eagles in Weeks 9 and 10. After those games, the Chargers have their final two division
contests. The road game against the Giants and the home game against the Eagles may get more national publicity as potential Super Bowl matchups, but the Chargers would be very wise to focus on the five division games.
7. The Chiefs vs. the murderers' row of NFC East teams: The Chiefs open the season at Baltimore and play host to the Raiders before playing four straight games against the NFC East. They cap it off with a home game against the Chargers before finally getting their bye week. That is a brutal stretch for a franchise that will be undergoing a fair amount of philosophical change with a new regime in place. Getting off to a fast start would go a long way to instilling confidence in these changes, but that will not be easy. A 1-6 record heading into their bye looks like a distinct possibility.
Who benefits most? The AFC West and its new coaches are going to have their hands full with the NFC East, the NFL's toughest division. San Diego can play with any team in the league, but the Raiders, Chiefs and Broncos are all at a distinct disadvantage in any venue against Washington, Dallas, New York and Philadelphia.