The general consensus seems to be that the AFC West is Denver’s to lose in 2012, but that’s not as etched in stone as Broncos fans wish it was. The fact of the matter is, Peyton Manning and Co. have a tough schedule this year. Forget the fact that No. 18 still hasn’t proven that can throw the long ball anymore, and forget the fact that his squad isn’t exactly stacked with a crazy wide receivers group. Just by virtue of the competition they'll encounter this year, the Broncos could be knocked out of playoff contention very, very easily.
That in turn opens the door for the Chargers or Raiders to sneak to the top of the division if they perform like they have the potential to. Tonight’s game will tell us a lot about both squads, and it'll tell us how legitimate of a shot each has at possibly challenging for the AFC West crown.
With all that in mind, here are three things to watch for from each team during tonight’s outing:
1. How does Carson Palmer look?
Coming into last season, Palmer was supposed to be Oakland’s quarterback savior. After years of disappointment at the position, finally, the Raiders purportedly had a Pro Bowl-caliber talent who could make defenses respect the pass. Yeah, that didn’t work out too well. Palmer finished the year with 2,753 yards, 13 touchdowns and 16 interceptions – not great totals for 10 games worth of work. Now that he’s had a full summer to acclimate to himself to the Raiders, this is make it break it time. Tonight’s performance versus the Chargers defense (one that he’s done well against) will tell us a lot about how Oakland’s aerial attack will function in 2012.
2. Can Darren McFadden play up to his potential?
A foot injury kept the Raiders’ star running back out of all but seven games last year; needless to say, McFadden’ ability to stay healthy will be huge for how the offense ultimately ends up looking. When he’s on, McFadden is among the best in his position in the league. When he’s hurt and producing a mere 614 yards like he did last season, he’s not. If McFadden can stay healthy for the first time in his career, he’d take a lot of pressure off Palmer. But that’s a big if. More than how much yardage he runs for tonight, keep an eye on how McFadden is walking, running and being utilized. His health coming out of today’s game is far more important than the numbers he puts up in it.
3. Can the defense hold off an iffy Chargers offense?
Last season the Raiders had a better defense than they have this season and they still got torched regularly. It totally wouldn’t be surprising if Oakland’s offense came out strong tonight only to have a weak secondary and a questionable linebacker group completely mess it all up.
1. Can Philip Rivers avoid throwing the ball away?
After appearing to be one of the league’s best quarterbacks for a lot of years, Rivers regressed in 2011 and threw a career-high 20 picks. That’s why, despite the fact that he racked up 4,624 yards and 27 touchdowns, a lot of his effectiveness was negated by his inability to keep the ball out of other teams’ hands. The Raiders secondary isn’t even worth discussing, so if Rivers wants a game where he can get into a nice little groove – tonight is it.
2. How effective can a Ryan Matthews-less rushing attack be?
A good way to keep Rivers from turning the ball over is giving it to the team’s best running back. Unfortunately, at the moment, the Chargers don’t have that option at their disposal because he’s recovering from a broken collarbone. That mean’s San Diego’s ground production will largely come from Ronnie Brown. Good luck with that, Chargers fans.
3. How do the rookie defensive pieces look?
Realizing that they needed an infusion of youth on defense, the Chargers went out and grabbed some guys early in the draft. Keep an eye on how Melvin Ingram and Kendall Reyes look – if they’re as good as some projected they were coming out of college, San Diego’s defense could look a lot better this season.