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Friday, September 5, 2008
Audibles: NFC West Week 1 preview


Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Seahawks at Bills, 1 p.m. ET

An opening-week victory on the East Coast could send the Seahawks on their way to a memorable season. The team returns home for games against the 49ers and Rams. Beating the Bills would give Seattle a very good shot at a 3-0 start without injured receivers Bobby Engram and Deion Branch (Branch could return sooner).

Injuries at receiver can hamstring an offense. The Seahawks have overcome them before and they should be able to do it again.

West Coast offenses with veteran quarterbacks and savvy playcallers can overcome injuries to receivers, particularly when matched against zone-based defenses. Matt Hasselbeck and Mike Holmgren can do that for Seattle. Perhaps that is why the Seahawks seem to feel good about their offense even with Courtney Taylor, Logan Payne and Jordan Kent among the top four receivers for the short term.

Holmgren is pushing this team hard. He always rides the offense, but he has also challenged the defense to become more consistent away from Qwest Field. Playing the Bills in an early (10 a.m. PT) game at Buffalo presents a good test.

Cardinals at 49ers, 4:15 p.m. ET

The Cardinals strike me as the better team for the long haul, but the more I think about this matchup, the better chance I give the 49ers.

This is a very healthy 49ers team. Their defense is active and physical. Their offensive players are energized with Mike Martz as coordinator. Martz's teams have started fast. They've found ways to exploit mismatches for big plays. The 49ers' offensive line feels better about its run blocking after simplifying its schemes. Frank Gore will produce if Martz gets the ball to him.

The quarterbacks are wild cards in this game. Arizona's Kurt Warner will pile up stats against just about any defense, particularly with Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin at receiver. But he also turns over the ball more freely than just about any coach would prefer. The Cardinals are stressing that part of the game with him. If Warner gets careless on the road against an energized 49ers team, the Cardinals will have a hard time winning.

Not that we should necessarily feel great about the 49ers' quarterback. J.T. O'Sullivan is making his first regular-season start. Perhaps Martz is smarter than all the coaches and personnel executives who saw O'Sullivan as a fringe backup.

The Cardinals have simplified their defense since Ken Whisenhunt arrived as coach. That probably helps O'Sullivan in this matchup. The Cardinals like Antrel Rolle's prospects at safety, but Martz will probably find ways to exploit Rolle's inexperience at the position.

No outcome qualifies as an upset.

Rams at Eagles, 1 p.m. ET

The Rams drew a brutal opening-week matchup. While the Eagles have lost their last two home openers, both were against NFC East rivals. The Rams are an older team trying to start fresh with a new offensive coordinator and several new assistants.

A biceps injury sidelined Rams left tackle Orlando Pace late in the preseason. He is back in the lineup for the opener and the Rams need him to stay there. The offense will have a hard time recovering -- on the field and psychologically -- if serious injury strikes the former Pro Bowl lineman for a third consecutive season.

No one expects the Rams to win this game. If the Rams lose, the outcome becomes less important than how the team functions. A few things to watch:

The Rams' banged-up secondary will have a hard time stopping Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb even though Philadelphia's receivers won't scare defenses on talent alone. Like Hasselbeck in Seattle, McNabb is a veteran passer armed with a strong West Coast background and a savvy playcaller.