Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The road to respect for the NFC West runs through an interconference schedule featuring games against the AFC South.
A quick look at seven storylines underlying those 2009 matchups:
1. Bracing for Peyton Manning. The Cardinals allowed a league-high 36 touchdown passes last season. The 49ers are trying to break in an inexperienced free safety. The Rams lack an established starter at right cornerback. The Seahawks were the only team to allow more than 4,000 yards passing last season.
2. Setting the tone early. NFC West teams posted a combined 10-32 record outside the division last season. The Cardinals, though 3-7 against nondivision opponents, made an important statement against the Cowboys in Week 6. They can make a bigger one this season at home against the Colts in Week 3.
3. Grudge matches. The Rams made a business decision when deciding to release Torry Holt. They aren't finished with him yet. The Rams visit Holt's Jaguars in Week 6. Something tells me Holt might leave the Rams with another memory or two. Also worth monitoring: The Cardinals face former starting defensive end Antonio Smith, now with the Texans, in Week 5.
4. 2006 draft revisited. Quarterbacks Vince Young (Titans) and Matt Leinart (Cardinals) are entering their fourth NFL seasons behind Kerry Collins and Kurt Warner, respectively. Will either one be anywhere near the starting lineup when the Cardinals and Titans play in Week 12 at Tennessee?
5. Bombs away. NFC West teams allowed 44 pass plays of at least 40 yards last season. AFC South teams allowed the second-highest total (37). For comparison, AFC North teams allowed 18. Time for these secondaries to tighten up, or else. Reggie Wayne, Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin pose problems. Holt still might have something left. Young receivers Anthony Gonzalez, Donnie Avery and Michael Crabtree might also threaten.
6. Gandy redemption tour. Left tackle Mike Gandy generally played well for the Cardinals last season despite leg injuries. The Steelers' James Harrison exploited one-on-one matchups against him during the Super Bowl, however. Gandy faces potentially tough AFC South matchups against Mario Williams (Texans) and Dwight Freeney (Colts). Redemption time?
7. New coaching blood. Tony Dungy retired from the Colts. Mike Holmgren stepped away from the Seahawks. The Titans' Jeff Fisher and the Cardinals' Ken Whisenhunt are the only coaches from either division with a Super Bowl appearance on their head coaching résumés. Fisher and the Jaguars' Jack Del Rio have a combined 20.5 years as head coach of their curren
t teams. The other six coaches from these divisions have a combined 11.5 years in their current roles.
Who benefits most?
The Cardinals. They get the Colts at home early as Indianapolis breaks in new coaches in key positions. The coaching staffs in Arizona and San Francisco should also benefit from facing AFC South teams in rapid succession. The Cardinals face the Jaguars in Week 2, the Colts in Week 3 and the Texans in Week 5. Beginning in Week 7, the 49ers face the Texans, Colts and Titans in consecutive weeks. Watching video of AFC South teams against common opponents should help with familiarity.