The 2012 NFL regular season gets underway this week and not a moment too soon. We've been training hard all off-season just like the players and coaches, except instead of lifting weights, running with parachutes, and building in-depth scouting reports, our training regimen has consisted largely of drinking beer, grilling, smoking, and devouring a multitude of meats, and falling asleep with one hand on the remote and the other in our pants while watching re-runs of past Super Bowls and "Ancient Aliens".
The AFC West features one inter-conference game with Atlanta traveling to Kansas City, a playoff rematch from last January when Pittsburgh visits Denver, and one divisional matchup with San Diego traveling north to Oakland. As is a common theme in the NFL these days (and always), the storylines in the AFC West are all about the quarterback.
Here are five things to watch in Week 1. Also, for more CHFF goodness, check out my 2012 AFC West over/under projections.
1. Carson Stabler Palmer will quiet some doubters in a Wild West shootout against Phillip Fouts Rivers.
Palmer may in fact be washed up, but the San Diego Chargers have serious problems in their secondary. The Chargers finished 2011 with the 27th ranked Defensive Passer Rating (92.55) and the 28th ranked Defensive Real Passing Yards Per Attempt (7.02).
Quentin Jammer is a year older and a year slower, and Eric Weddle will continue to gamble because he knows he's the only game-changer in the defensive backfield. The additions of rookie Melvin Ingram and free-agent Jarrett Johnson to the front seven should help the Chargers' pass rush that saw their sack total drop from 47 in 2010 to 32 last season.
Palmer threw 16 INTs in his 10 games with the Siver & Black last year, but was learning a new offense and new receivers on the fly. The Raiders have a solid young group of blistering fast wideouts (Heyward-Bey, Moore, Ford) and a solid offensive line (15th ranked Offensive Hogs). Having Darren McFadden in the lineup for the first time in his Raiders career should open up the passing lanes for Palmer and it will translate to a productive, efficient performance.
This game will have the feel of an old "Air Coryell" shootout, because the Raiders won't be able to stop Phillip Rivers either. Only Rivers would consider a season in which he threw for 4,624 yards and 27 TDs a failure. I guess missing the playoffs for the second year in a row and coughing up 26 turnovers (20 INTs) can do that to you. Rivers will get 2012 off to a good start if his line, minus Jared Gaither and the retired Kris Deilman, can keep the pass rush off his back.
By the way, this is the second game of the Monday night double-header, scheduled to kickoff at 7:15 PDT. That's pretty sweet if you plan on catching the game after catching some waves in the Pacific Ocean, but if you happen to live in a more easterly time zone, it's so not cool, brah.
2. Peyton's first game as a Bronco is a tall order, but thank God for that altitude, huh?
The last time the Pittsburgh Steelers played a game that mattered was last January in Denver's opening round playoff victory. The Broncos stunned the hobbled Big Ben and the number one ranked defense with a miraculous overtime victory in what will be remembered as one of the greatest moments in Broncos' playoff history.
The Steelers finished 2011 in the top five in CHFF's Bendability (3rd), Defensive Real Passing Yards Per Attempt (1st), Defensive Real Quarterback Rating (3rd), Defensive Passer Rating, (4th), and Passer Rating Differential (5th). That was the regular season of course, where most games are played at or near sea-level.
In Denver, however, where the altitude is exactly a mile (5,280 feet) above sea-level, things are a little different. Steelers safety Ryan Clark, who suffers from Sickle Cell Trait, will once again not play due to fear of complications similar to those he suffered back in 2007, when he was hospitalized after the game. Clark has started 78 games at free safety in the last six seasons for the Steelers, and with the re-vamped Denver offense, his presence will be missed as much on Sunday night as it was during the playoff loss when Tim Tebow torched the Steelers secondary for 316 yards.
3. Atlanta has never won in Kansas City, but there's a first time for everything.
The Kansas City Chiefs enter 2012 with high hopes after going from first to worst in the AFC West last season and becoming the only team in the division to finish below .500 (7-9). The Chiefs are 40-24 all time at home in September and face an Altanta Falcons team that is 0-3 lifetime in Kansas City and just 3-7 all time when traveling to AFC stadiums in the first month of the season.
Matt Ryan won his only game against the Chiefs, a 38-14 victory coming at home in his rookie season of 2008. Ryan is on the cusp of becoming an elite NFL quarterback, as seen by his 4,177 passing yards (7.4 YPA), 29 TDs and just 12 INTs from a year ago. A decade or so ago that kind of season would have earned an MVP award. Last season it didn't even get Ryan into the Pro Bowl.
The Chiefs regain safety Eric Berry (ACL) to a secondary that posted the 8th best Defensive Real Quarterback Rating and 7th best Defensive Passer rating a season ago. It won't be enough to stop the NFL's best receiving duo of Roddy White (1,296 Yds, 8 TDs) and Julio Jones (959 Yds, 8 TDs), but the Chiefs' 6th ranked Defensive Hogs from a year ago won't make it easy for Ryan or halfback Michael Turner.
Meanwhile, Matt Cassel is one of the league's most questioned quarterbacks after his less than stellar 2011 campaign (76.6 QBR) ended early when he broke his hand against the Broncos in a Week 10 loss. The return of the historically explosive Jamaal Charles along with the emergence of Jon Baldwin will go a long way in helping Kansas City's AFC-Worst 13.3 PPG to go with their 2nd worst CHFF Scorability Index rating. The Chiefs will be much more explosive on offense than they were a year ago, but it will be a tough task for Cassel to outplay Ryan in this matchup. The Arrowhead advantage will make it interesting but Atlanta is clearly a better team, as our Final 2011 Quality Stats Power Rankings show.
4. A new era of "Orange Crush" defense will begin in Denver on Sunday night.
Step aside, "Steel Curtain", because the Broncos' defense wants to steal the show. Denver finally has elite players at every level, just two years removed from being the worst defense in the NFL in both points and yards allowed (29.4 PPG, 390.8 YPG allowed). However, don't look at last season's stats for any proof. The Broncos ended up with unfavorable statistics also in 2011, allowing 24.8 PPG (24th) and 357.8 YPG (20th), despite the oftem overshadowed ability to make just enough plays to facilitate last minute miracles. They must improve upon last year's 28th raned Defensive Passer Rating of 93.12 or it's not going to matter what Peyton and his neck do.
The additions of Derek Wolfe and Ty Warren (3rd year in Denver, first two lost to injuries) to solidify the line along with Mike Adams and Tracy Porter in the secondary will make a huge impact, but the Broncos will be without D.J. Williams for at least six games in an already thin linebacking corps. If the offense is able to get more than one or two first downs in quarters 1-3 unlike last year, and even (gasp!) play from a lead once in a while (like Manning's Colts teams of old), the defense will make huge leaps.
Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil combined for 21 sacks last year and will again be one of the NFL's best pass rushing duos. The sky is the limit for Miller in just his second year as a pro after being the highest draft pick in Broncos history (and first player drafted by John Elway). Tracy Porter is primed for a big season as he replaces Andre Goodman at the corner position opposite Champ Bailey. Porter is best remembered for his victory sealing "Pick 6" in Super Bowl XLIV against...ahem...Peyton Manning's Colts. (Can you say awwwwwwkward?)
Ben Roethlisberger, who was sacked five times in the playoff loss, has recovered from the ankle injury that hobbled him in January and will not go down as easily as he did in that game.
5. Trying to beat Vegas in Week 1 is trickier than trying to figure out which cousin you can kiss at the family reunion, but we're here to help.
CHFF Insiders have access to our revolutionary new point-spread analyzing super computer, Spreadopedia, and if the fat cats behind the cage at the sports books aren't scared yet, they will be. Here are a few trends to look at in the matchups discussed above:
- The Oakland Raiders are 5-12 (.294) ATS against the San Diego Chargers since Al Davis moved the team back to Oakland before the 1995 season.
- The "Over" has been reached in 6 of 10 contests when Pittsburgh travels to Denver, and in 12 of 16 (.750) in the series history between the Broncos and the Steelers. Denver also has a game record of 16-5 (.762) in season openers played at home.
- The Chiefs are a staggering 42-14 (.750) in home games against NFC opponents since 1990, and 60-23 (.729) overall in non-conference home games.
- Norv Turner's Chargers are 9-5-1 ATS (.643) and 11-4 overall (.733) on the road in the AFC West since he took over before the 2007 season.
All three games involving the AFC West in Week 1 will be exciting matchups featuring marquee players. The winner of the San Diego vs. Oakland game will have an early leg up in what's sure to be a tightly contested division. The Chiefs and the Broncos could gain a ton of early season momentum with victories over their respective quality opponents.
Be sure to check back here when the final whistle blows on Week 1 for a recap filled with the Cold, Hard Football Facts.