NFL Nation: Interconference matchups 09
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.
|Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images|
|Jaguars wide receiver Torry Holt, who spent 10 seasons with the Rams, will play against his former team in Week 6.|
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.
The AFC South's overall success in 2008 came in good part to its interconference matchups. They were a collective 11-5 against the NFC North with no team worse than 2-2.
What awaits the division when it faces the NFC West this season?
Last year doesn't give us too much information, but at this point in time it's hard to say anything but the matchups look favorable. In 2008 the NFC West was a collective 20 games under .500 while the AFC South was 12 games over.
Here are seven interesting storylines or factors that will come into play in AFC South against NFC West this season.
1. Slowing top receivers: Teams in the AFC South are built on the thinking that they have to be able to matchup with some pretty good receivers. Yes, Marvin Harrison is gone, but Indianapolis still has Reggie Wayne, and Anthony Gonzalez could evolve into a tough matchup. And the Colts, Titans and Jaguars know they have to try to slow the excellent Andre Johnson twice a season. Now the division also has to contend with Torry Holt. How does such defensive construction translate against a division featuring Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Isaac Bruce and rookie Michael Crabtree?
2. Super rushers in big-time matchups: Preparing for the AFC South means preparing for a big-time edge rusher off the right side. Houston's Mario Williams, Indy's Dwight Freeney and Tennessee's Kyle Vanden Bosch are relentless in their quarterback pursuit. Their matchups with Seattle's Walter Jones and San Francisco's Joe Staley should be something to see, and the ability or inability of Arizona's Mike Gandy and St. Louis' Alex Barron to slow them will be critical storylines in those games. And are AFC South left tackles assigned to stop those big rushers in two games a year -- Michael Roos, Tra Thomas/Eugene Monroe, Tony Ugoh and Duane Brown -- also equipped to handle Justin Smith, Chris Long and Bertrand Berry?
|Aaron Josefczyk/Icon SMI|
|The Colts' Peyton Manning could have big days against the NFC West's pass coverages.|
3. Unfamiliar defenses vs. Peyton Manning: No, rank against the pass isn't a tell-all stat. But St. Louis ranked 19th against the pass last year, and that was tops among NFC West teams. The Rams, 49ers (20th), Cardinals (22nd) and Seahawks (32nd) are going to have to show they're much better and can be resourceful if they have a chance to minimize the damage inflicted by Manning. Otherwise, he may well pick them apart.
4. Getting to know Jim Mora: Mora is the new coach of the Seahawks. None of the AFC South teams played against the Mora-coached Atlanta Falcons teams in the regular season while he coached that franchise from 2004-06. But Jeff Fisher's 1999 Titans lost to a San Francisco team that had Mora as its defensive coordinator. The Jaguars beat the Niners that same year on opening day, but don't have a player or coach left from that team, so aren't likely to find any help in it. Indy will have a little organizational recall of Mora's defense from a loss to the 49ers in 2001. The AFC South doesn't have a lot to go on, either, as it prepares to face three other coaches who have not been with their teams long. Fisher does know Mike Singletary -- they were teammates on the Bears.
5. How will two teams from the Eastern
time zone and two from the Central travel West: Including the playoffs, AFC South teams are 5-16 in games at Seattle, Arizona, San Francisco, San Diego and Oakland since realignment in 2002. That includes 0-7 for the Titans, whose playoff fate could come down their first trip to Qwest Field, a Jan. 3 regular-season finale.
6. Will the Cardinals draw in North Florida: Things are not looking good for the Jaguars in the ticket sales department, and a visit by St. Louis combines with home games against Kansas City, Buffalo and Miami outside the division to make for a less-than-stellar slate to market. But the defending NFC Champion Cardinals are in Jacksonville on Sept. 20. If the combination of the Jaguars' home opener and Kurt Warner, Fitzgerald and Boldin coming to town doesn't produce a buzz and a sellout, it won't bode well for what's ahead.
7. Battle of the rookie running backs: Colts president Bill Polian once passed on Ricky Williams in favor of Edgerrin James, and came out looking very smart. In April, with Knowshon Moreno long gone, Polian tabbed Donald Brown ahead of Beanie Wells. This season the Colts head to Arizona Week 3 and will use Brown against a team that took the back Polian passed on in the first round. The Cardinals preferred Brown to Wells as well. Here we get close looks at both the backs from late in the first round in a game pitting the teams many rate as the favorites in these two divisions.
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.
|G. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images|
|The Chargers need linebacker Shawne Merriman to return to form in 2009.|
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.
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
Though they'd never admit it, you have to know the NFC East teams have been looking forward to facing this division. The Chiefs will eventually be good because Scott Pioli helped Bill Belichick invent football, and Todd Haley's going to be an excellent head coach. But it won't happen for them this quickly. The Broncos aren't poised for a breakout season by any means -- and the Raiders are the Raiders. The biggest challenge will be the Chargers, and that's where I'll spend most of my time during this exciting summer feature. Here are seven things to watch as we prepare for this AFC West-NFC East showdown:
1. Wade Phillips gets a look at his old defense: The Cowboys' head coach helped Shawne Merriman have the best season of his career when he was the defensive coordinator in San Diego. In fact, the Chargers' defense hasn't been nearly as dominant since Phillips brought his version of the 3-4 to Dallas. The Chargers will play on the road against the Browns and then come to Dallas on Dec. 13. It will be a great opportunity to see Merriman and DeMarcus Ware on the same field. The Cowboys opted for Ware over Merriman, and at this point, it looks like they made the right decision.
|Ronald Martinez/Getty Images|
|When the Chargers visit the Cowboys in December, Wade Phillips will be facing a defense he helped build.|
2. Philip Rivers visits the Meadowlands: On Nov. 8, the Chargers will visit Giants Stadium. Obviously Rivers and Giants quarterback Eli Manning will always be linked because of the big trade in 2004. Chargers fans -- and AFC West blogger Bill Williamson -- are convinced that Rivers is a better quarterback than Manning. But Rivers doesn't have a ring, and he puts up a lot of big numbers against inferior teams in the AFC West. Manning and the Giants win this one.
3. Should be an interesting Thanksgiving between the two divisions: Can't wait to watch Cowboys owner Jerry Jones give his mentor, Al Davis, a tour of the new stadium. That velour sweatsuit that Davis pulls out from time to time should keep him toasty in a domed stadium that is a little on the coolish side. I'm actually intrigued to see whether Darrius Heyward-Bey has anything. He'll have some opportunities against a Cowboys secondary that doesn't have a lot of depth and could be banged up. The other matchup, the Giants at Denver, is a lot more interesting. The Broncos could be in full fade mode at this point, but Invesco Field is still a tough place to play at 8:20 p.m. ET on Thanksgiving night. Or at least I think it will be.
4. Another reason I love that Cowboys-Chargers matchup Dec. 13: Chargers coach Norv Turner thinks he should've been the successor to Bill Parcells in Dallas, although he's always very complimentary of Phillips. Turner would've been exactly what Tony Romo needs -- someone who won't accept the careless mistakes. I think Phillips and Turner will bring a little something extra to this game.
6. Eagles have a cross-country trip after an emotional game: The Eagles host the Cowboys in Week 9 and then fly across the country to play the Chargers in Week 10. It's the first part of a really tough stretch for Philly. I think it will be a great test for the Eagles, in part, because this is about the time the Chargers usually start putting things together.
7. Todd Haley will be waiting on the Cowboys: In Week 5, the Cowboys will make the trip to Arrowhead. I think Haley, the former pa
ssing game coordinator in Dallas, will take this one personally. He still knows a lot of people with the organization and he definitely has a tremendous grasp of the Cowboys' personnel. Potential loss for the Cowboys. I assure you Haley already has this one circled.
Who benefits most?
The Redskins have the best schedule against the AFC West. I like that they host the Chiefs and Broncos before they get into late November. The Skins make the trip to Oakland on Dec. 13, and that game doesn't scare me because the Raiders will be out of it. The Redskins finish the season with a cross-country trip to San Diego. Something tells me that game won't matter for the Chargers because they will have sewn up a playoff spot. And that would be a good thing for the Skins if they're actually still in the hunt.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
Pop quiz: Name the last National Football Conference team to beat the New England Patriots in the regular season?
If you said the Carolina Panthers, reward yourself by circling Dec. 13 on this year's calendar when the Panthers visit Gillette Stadium in a Week 14 duel.
Since a Sept. 18, 2005, loss to the host Panthers, the Patriots have treated the NFC like it's the Washington Nationals. New England has a 15-game nonconference winning streak. Still, last season's 4-0 romp through the NFC West could not secure New England a playoff berth.
The AFC East champion Miami Dolphins were 3-1 against the NFC West in 2008, and the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills were 2-2 in interconference play. For the Jets and Dolphins, those records were huge improvements over 0-for-4 marks versus the NFC East in 2007. The Bills were 1-3 in interconference play that season. What success can the Patriots and their AFC East brethren expect to have against the NFC South this fall? These factors might come into play:
|Rick Stewart/Getty Images|
|The Bills will play two of their interconference games without Marshawn Lynch.|
1. The Buffalo Bills are without Marshawn Lynch against two NFC South teams: The league suspended the Pro Bowl running back for the first three games of the season. The Bills play host to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 2 and the New Orleans Saints in Week 3. The Bills have underrated backup Fred Jackson and capable free-agent acquisition Dominic Rhodes to fill Lynch's void. How those reserves perform against defenses that were below average against the run last season will be crucial to whether the Bills can get off to a good start in the AFC East race.
2. AFC East secondaries matching up with Drew Brees: The Saints' bombardier will go up against four generally pedestrian pass defenses. Each AFC East team will have at least one new starting cornerback this season and could have a new starting safety, too. Every team brought in veteran cornerback help, with the Patriots signing a pair and drafting another in the second round. The Dolphins drafted two cornerbacks within the first 61 picks. That's plenty of anecdotal evidence AFC East secondaries weren't exactly elite.
3. Tom Brady versus Matt Ryan: They won't be on the field at the same time, but you better believe these two quarterback archetypes will be the main story line when Atlanta Falcons icon Ryan, the pride of Boston College, returns to New England in Week 3. In the days leading up to the game, we'll hear an awful lot of comparisons between the two. Ryan's future will be projected against Brady's resume. There will be more to this game than the quarterbacks, but what a compelling duel it could be.
4. New England's offensive line against Carolina's pass rush: We'll know long before Week 14 whether Brady's reconstructive knee surgery has made him skittish about pressure, but the Panthers have one of the NFL's most dangerous pass rushes, starring Julius Peppers. Even before Brady was hurt, he was known for hanging in the pocket for that extra beat and taking shots to deliver the ball. The Panthers recorded the ninth-most sacks in the league last season and drafted Florida State edge-rusher Everette Brown.
5. The Bills' dynamic passing attack against NFC South secondaries: Teams can't double cover Lee Evans anymore; not with Terrell Owens on the opposite side of the field. Aside from Tampa Bay, NFC South pass defenses were ordinary last year. The Buccaneers limited teams to fewer than 200 aerial yards a game and picked off 22 passes, but also surrendered 23 touchdown passes.
6. Coach Tony Sparano's Dolphins against Mike Smith's Falcons in Week 1: Two clubs under second-year coaches won't waste any time beginning their quests to prove they weren't playoff flukes last year. Former Dolphins offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey helped the Falcons amass the sixth-most yardage in the NFL, but he'll have to contend with Joey Porter, the return of Jason Taylor and a tweaked defensive backfield that added Gibril Wilson.
7. The Jets' running game versus the Falcons in December: Jets rookie head coach Rex Ryan declared his intention to have an all-weather offense (i.e. hand off and plow ahead) for those critical games late in the year. Thomas Jones, Leon Washington and Shonn Greene will have the chance to do some damage in Week 15 against Atlanta in the Meadowlands. In 2008, the Falcons yielded more than 2,000 rushing yards, an average of 4.9 yards per carry.
Who benefits most? There are some real scheduling groaners for the AFC East in here. The Patriots play the Buccaneers in London. The Dolphins play three exhibition games against NFC South teams. In the regular season, they meet two NFC South teams in a five-day stretch. The Jets play three NFC South teams in four weeks, with the exception being the Bills in Toronto on a Thursday night. So who gets the best shake on the interconference deal? How about the Bills? They play their first two games without Lynch, but at least they're home. They visit Carolina in Week 7 and Atlanta in Week 16.
The NFC South takes on the AFC East for its interconference games in 2009. With Tom Brady back in the fold and Terrell Owens now in Buffalo, these contests should be extremely entertaining -- not to mention excellent matchups from a strategy and personnel perspective.
Here is a taste of what is to come in these matchups.
1. The Saints' passing game vs. the Jets' revamped defense under Rex Ryan: A great way to combat a confusing 3-4 blitz scheme is to spread the field horizontally and force the upfield outside linebackers further away from the ball. This also generally allows the quarterback and pass protectors a little longer to diagnose which blitzers are coming and which defenders are dropping into coverage. Expect the Saints to employ a ton of three- and four-wide receiver sets while also challenging the depth of New York's secondary in sub package defenses. Saints coach Sean Payton surely will also try to get Reggie Bush isolated on one of the Jets' heavier linebackers in coverage. The chess match here should be superb.
2. The Saints' revamped secondary vs. Brady and the Patriots' passing game: New Orleans did an excellent job of bringing in a slew of talented defensive backs -- both young and old -- in an attempt to resolve what has been a problem area for far too long. But they will be tested in a huge way against Randy Moss, Wes Welker and of course Brady.
|G. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images|
|Carolina Panthers center Ryan Kalil will have his hands full with the AFC East's 3-4 defenses.|
4. Tampa's running game vs. a trio of stout 3-4 defenses: Obviously, this is similar to the post above, but Tampa Bay will be breaking in either a rookie quarterback or a suspect starter at the position. The Bucs are going to rely on their running game this year, and though Carolina's offensive line rightfully gets accolades for its ability to pave the way for the team's running backs, Tampa's line is on the rise. However, pivot man Jeff Faine is undersized and struggled with nose tackles while in the AFC North. Like Kalil, another undersized center, Faine is going to have his hands full.
5. Falcons QB Matt Ryan vs. Bill Belichick and Rex Ryan: Matt Ryan is a great quarterback in the making and is wise beyond his years in terms of reading defenses, his pocket presence, overall poise and abilities as an anticipatory thrower. But, dealing with these two defensive masterminds is a different story, and the second-year phenom has to be at his very best in these two difficult road matchups. These games will be an excellent barometer of where Ryan stands from a mental perspective.
6. NFC South defensive ends vs. the Bills' offensive tackles: The Bills' offensive tackles are weak in pass protection, and that will be painfully obvious against Carolina's Julius Peppers and Atlanta's John Abraham. Bucs DE Gaines Adams could be primed for a breakout season and could set the tone in Week 2. Fortunately for the Bills' edge protectors, the Saints might be without Will Smith and Charles Grant (suspension) for their Week 3 matchup.
Even though the NFC South is strong, matching up against the physical AFC East is not an easy chore. In particular, running the ball against three defenses that employ a 3-4 should be troublesome, particularly for Carolina and Tampa Bay. Also, going against these complex defenses could be very challenging for Matt Ryan and even more so for the Bucs' Josh Freeman. New Orleans could have some success challenging the secondary depth of Miami and New York and clearly the South's pass-rushers will be excited to take on Buffalo's very suspect offensive line. With two of the better divisions facing off against each other, it will prove to be very interesting.
Division matchups rightly carry pre-eminent importance in every team's schedule. But never underestimate the importance of the interconference schedule -- those four common AFC opponents each NFC North team finds on its schedule every season.
Last year, Chicago would have earned a playoff spot had it won its final game against the AFC South. Instead, the Bears lost 31-24 to Houston and fell short in the wild-card race. In 2007, Green Bay's division-winning 13-3 record included a 4-0 record against the AFC West. (Second-place Minnesota finished 2-2.)
The Black and Blue has a tough task ahead in 2009, taking on the division that housed two of the NFL's best teams last season in Pittsburgh and Baltimore. So let's take an early look at some of the themes that should develop this season against the (supposedly) rough-and-tumble AFC North and how they might impact the division race in these parts.
1. Detroit was 0-16 last season, but its new coach went 4-0 against the AFC North in his previous job. As the defensive coordinator in Tennessee, Jim Schwartz helped the Titans defeat Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cleveland and Cincinnati. Included in that run was a 31-14 late-December shellacking of the Steelers. Schwartz's new team is in a much different place than the Titans were last season, but it's a rare advantage to have seen all four interconference opponents the previous season. The Lions can use every edge they can find.
|Rich Gabrielson/Icon SMI|
|Minnesota's Adrian Peterson will have a bone to pick with Baltimore's Ray Lewis when they meet on Oct. 18.|
3. The AFC North boasts two of the game's best pass-rushing linebackers in Pittsburgh's James Harrison (16 sacks in 2008) and Baltimore's Terrell Suggs (eight). You never know exactly where outside linebackers will line up in a 3-4 defense, but I'm guessing they'll find their way toward the NFC North's host of young right tackles. Chicago (Chris Williams), Minnesota (Phil Loadholt) and Green Bay (Allen Barbre or T.J. Lang) are all expected to have new starters at the position -- and Detroit's Gosder Cherilus is entering his first full season as a starter. Defensive coordinators would be remiss not to test all four spots.
4. This season will be a referendum on whether Orlando Pace can still play left tackle in the NFL. During the free-agent period, Baltimore heavily courted Pace but wanted him to move to right tackle so that youngster Jared Gaither could continue his development on the left side. Pace, however, wanted to maintain his traditional position and ultimately signed with Chicago. The Ravens have installed rookie Michael Oher as their new right tackle and suddenly have a raw set of tackles. We'll soon find out if Pace can give the Bears a full year at left tackle, or whether the Ravens were right to hold firm on youth.
5. To the extent that practicing against a 3-4 defense helps in game preparation, Green Bay should have a clear advantage over its NFC North rivals. The Packers' offense spent all spring practicing against its 3-4 scheme and won't face that choppy in-season transition when preparing for the Steelers, Ravens and Browns. This is becoming less of an issue every year as more NFL teams return to the 3-4 -- the total is expected to be 13 in 2009 -- but familiarity can only help the Packers in this vein.
7. AFC North teams like to think of themselves the same way we do here in the Black and Blue, as hard-nosed, bad-weather running teams. Minnesota defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams are two of the best run-stoppers in the game, and there's a little stretch of the season where they would be particularly missed should their NFL suspensions kick in. (Such a scenario would require a prolonged but ultimately unsuccessful legal challenge to their NFL discipline.) The Vikings play Baltimore and Pittsburgh in consecutive October weeks (Oct. 18 against the Ravens and Oct. 25 at Pittsburgh). That makes for two old-fashioned football matchups -- if the Williams Wall is on the field.
Who benefits most?
In some ways, this schedule ensures that each NFC North team will be playing 10 divisional games this season. There are many similarities between the general styles of the Black and Blue and AFC North. Minnesota's defense should match the intensity of the physical offenses of Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Green Bay's offense shouldn't be surprised by the 3-4 defense, but its own defense won't have the advantage of surprise, either. It's too early to make specific predictions, but it's safe to say that whoever has the divisional advantage in the NFC North will also fare best against the AFC North.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
After going 7-8-1 against the deep NFC East in 2008, the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers should have a relatively easier interconference schedule this season against the NFC North.
But to turn a more manageable matchup on paper into reality on the football field, here are several keys for the AFC North:
1. Tame the Lions: No team wants to be the first to lose to the Detroit Lions, who went winless in 16 games last season. This is especially the case for the AFC North, which is expected to be very competitive. The Lions should be outmanned against every division team. The Steelers, Ravens, Browns and Bengals all could use an easy victory, because there won't be many on the 2009 schedule. Therefore, it's important for the AFC North to take advantage of its games against the lowly Lions.2. Baffle Jay Cutler:
|Byron Hetzler/US Presswire|
|Former Denver quarterback Jay Cutler, now with the Bears, will face tougher interconference matchups this season.|
3. Handle the "Williams Wall": The pending four-game suspension against Minnesota Vikings defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams was put on hold last week. But the Browns, who play host to Minnesota in the season opener, were the only team affected by the decision. The Vikings play Baltimore in Week 6, Pittsburgh in Week 7 and Cincinnati in Week 14. So the best-case scenario is at least three AFC North teams will have to deal with the "Williams Wall" regardless. Running directly at the Williamses hasn't worked in the past. Stretching players to test the perimeter might be the best approach.
4. Contain Adrian Peterson: While we're on the subject of the Vikings, stuffing tailback Adrian Peterson will be a major challenge for the AFC North. Because of the Vikings' struggles at quarterback, many opponents stacked eight in the box in the past and the dynamic Peterson still found a way to have big games. This will be more even difficult if/when quarterback Brett Favre comes out of retirement to join the Vikings, making the team more balanced with a vertical passing game.
5. Take advantage of Green Bay's defensive transition: The Green Bay Packers are trying to make the switch this season to a 3-4 defense, which is no easy task. Just ask the Browns. Cleveland has attempted to implement a successful 3-4 scheme since 2005 with mostly poor results. Green Bay could have similar struggles in the first year under new defensive coordinator Dom Capers, and it's a potential opening for the four teams in the AFC North. The Browns, Ravens and Steelers all play 3-4 defenses, as well. So in many ways, playing Green Bay will have the familiarity of playing a division opponent.
where the AFC North can set the tone against its NFC North counterparts. The Browns will play host to the Vikings in Week 1. In Week 2, the Steelers travel to play the Bears, and Cincinnati travels to Green Bay. These are three early, important games for six of the eight teams that will give one division an early advantage over the other.
7. Steal games on the road: It's natural to expect the AFC North to have the most success against the NFC North at home. But to truly win this year's interconference battle, it's going to take some teams in the AFC North winning on the road. Places like Lambeau Field and Soldier Field can be tough places to play, particularly late in the season when weather becomes an issue. But the division that takes more games on the road probably will come out on top.
Who benefits most?
Of the four AFC North teams, Pittsburgh stands to benefit most in these interconference matchups against the NFC North. Naturally, the Steelers are the largest target in the division as the reigning Super Bowl champions. But they also have the biggest disparity in strength of schedule -- going from the top-rated schedule last season to the No. 29-rated schedule this year. A major reason for this is the interconference switch from the NFC East to the NFC North, and Pittsburgh's talent level should give the Steelers the most favorable matchups.