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Friday, September 9, 2011
Final Word: NFC West

By Mike Sando

NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 1:

Michael Vick
The Rams must limit the big plays that come easy to Michael Vick and the Eagles.
Containing the Michael Vick experience: The St. Louis Rams have fielded one of the sounder defenses in the NFL. They allowed only five pass plays of 40-plus yards last season, one off the NFL low and 13 fewer than Houston's league-worst mark. The Rams will have to be at their best against a Philadelphia Eagles offense that has made the big play appear routine. With Vick at quarterback most of the way, the 2010 Eagles completed 15 pass plays covering at least 40 yards, most in the league. DeSean Jackson had eight of them and Jeremy Maclin had four.

World's tallest cornerback: Seahawks coach Pete Carroll emerged from the laboratory this offseason with something I cannot recall seeing at any level of football: a 6-foot-4 cornerback. Brandon Browner, late of the CFL, is expected to make his first NFL start against San Francisco. Seeing him lined up at corner takes some getting used to. Early in camp, teammates initially thought he was a safety and Carroll was testing out some weird new scheme. "When they said he was a corner, I thought maybe now they wanted to go with a 'created' player," receiver Ben Obomanu said. "I have a little cousin who plays NCAA and Madden football. He always creates these 6-7, 6-6 corners. I was like, 'Well, coach Carroll is trying something new.' But when I saw him play, I could see he has been playing corner a long time." Browner is a player to watch in Week 1.

Peterson, Washington and big returns: New rules for kickoffs will produce more touchbacks this season, but return specialists had to like what they saw in the regular-season opener between Green Bay and New Orleans on Thursday night. That game featured a 108-yard kickoff return and a 72-yard punt return, both for touchdowns. The NFC West has its share of big-play returners, with Cardinals rookie Patrick Peterson joining a group featuring Leon Washington, LaRod Stephens-Howling and Ted Ginn Jr. Those last three combined for six return touchdowns last season. Peterson returned an interception for a touchdown during preseason and nearly broke a long punt return.

Familiarity breeds contempt, or at least meaning: Turnover is such in the NFL that every game is a grudge match or extra meaningful for someone. Quintin Mikell's first game with St. Louis comes against his former team, Philadelphia. Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo, the Eagles' former defensive assistant, faces his old boss, Andy Reid, for the first time as a head coach. Derek Anderson's first game with Carolina, albeit as a backup, comes against his former team, Arizona. Cornerback Richard Marshall's first game with Arizona comes against his former team, Carolina. Same goes for new Cardinals tight end Jeff King. Surprising Seattle rookie receiver Doug Baldwin's first NFL game falls against his college coach, Jim Harbaugh, who did not sign him as an undrafted free agent. Bobby Engram's first game as an NFL assistant coach, for San Francisco, comes against his former team, Seattle. Oh, and I seem to recall hearing something about Carroll and Harbaugh facing off in college. Subplots proliferate. As Carroll noted, better have those boom mikes at the ready.

Bradford and the deep ball: The Rams intend to stress defenses with more downfield throws this season. They'll rely more on scheme and creativity than raw speed to set up these opportunities. Doubters will have to credit quarterback Sam Bradford and coordinator Josh McDaniels if the Rams can beat the Eagles' stacked secondary with downfield throws. Philadelphia gave up 54 pass plays of at least 20 yards last season, ninth-most in the league, but they've since added cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. The Rams managed only 36 such plays, third-fewest in the NFL.