The 2013 slate of Monday Night Football was pretty much dogshit, so the NFL wasted no time in scheduling another dogshit matchup for their first Monday Nighter of 2014 with the New York Giants taking on the Detroit Lions. Should be awful. Fortunately, opening week gives us a pair of games tonight, and the nightcap featuring the San Diego Chargers and Arizona Cardinals should be substantially better.
The Chargers were a playoff team last year, but actually finished with a worse regular season record (9-7) than the Cardinals (10-6) did, yet the Cardinals didn’t make the playoffs. AFC! Both teams come into this season with higher aspirations than they did a year ago, though a few injuries could muck things up a bit.
For the visiting Chargers, their stalwart at tight end, Antonio Gates, is questionable with a hamstring injury he suffered at practice late last week. If he’s unable to go, we’ll get a look at the much-hyped Ladarius Green starting in his place. Green is one of the latest in the new line of hyper-athletic tight ends entering the league, and showed flashes of brilliance in limited duty last season. For fantasy purposes, you should obviously be starting Gates if he plays. If not, Green could be in for a productive evening.
On the other side, it’s looking doubtful that Arizona will have its top rusher from last season, Andre Ellington, in the lineup. Ellington suffered a foot injury during the preseason that may wind up keeping him on the shelf anywhere between 4-6 weeks. However, he’s not yet officially been ruled-out of tonight’s action. The Cards don’t have much by way of capable replacement backs, as the others on the roster are the brick-footed Jonathan Dwyer and Stepfan Taylor. Dwyer would likely draw the start in the event that Ellington is out.
There’s also the issue of Larry Fitzgerald’s knee, but he’s listed as “probable”, so expect him to be out there. The Cardinals’ defense lost Darnell Dockett to a torn ACL during the preseason, while Daryl Washington will miss the season serving a drug suspension. Arizona’s defense should still be solid, but those are two big pieces that won’t be available for them.
We could see some points in this one (/cliche’d). The Cardinals’ defense was a top-10 unit statistically in the league last year, including No. 1 in defending the run. However, as I JUST said, a couple of missing players could bring them down a peg. San Diego can also score with the best of them.
If we’re comparing the two starting quarterbacks, Philip Rivers and Carson Palmer, you’d obviously have to give the edge to Rivers. He was phenomenal for the resurgent Chargers a year ago, connecting on 32 touchdown passes with 11 interceptions. Arizona boasts a strong secondary, but Rivers is good enough and has the weapons to pick that apart. Palmer looked shaky during the preseason, but he did have a solid debut 2013 with the Cardinals. He did throw twice as many interceptions as Rivers did, however, and he’ll be facing a bit of a retooled Chargers defense featuring a pair of new corners in Jason Verrett and Brandon Flowers.
If Andre Ellington sits, then the Chargers also have the three best running backs in this game. Jonathan Dwyer is trash, while Stepfan Taylor is slllllloooooowwwww. Ryan Mathews, Danny Woodhead and Donald Brown are all capable runners for San Diego, though I’d expect Mathews and Woodhead to get the lion’s share of the work. Mathews is the “bell cow” (whatever tha means), while Woodhead is as dangerous as they come catching passes out of the backfield. The only way I’d expect anything from Brown would be if Mathews were to get hurt, which will probably happen, since Ryan Mathews always gets hurt.
The wide receivers are a different story. Both Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd are better than anything the Chargers are running out there. Keenan Allen had a spectacular rookie season, but if given the choice, you’d take both Fitz and Floyd over him. The Chargers may also spread the ball around more than the Cardinals will, meaning Allen could have his targets/TDs snaked by the likes of Eddie Royal, Malcom Floyd, etc. With Andre Roberts gone, Fitz and Floyd are pretty much all Carson Palmer has at his disposal. Are you going to trust Ted Ginn? Damn right you’re not. Expect him to target them both a TON.
As for tight ends, it’s another nod to San Diego. Gates or no Gates, Ladarius Green is still more useful than Arizona’s John Carlson, Rob Housler and Darren Fells. Carlson and Housler are both talented, but unreliable.
If you’re going to be rolling one of these defensive units out, the obvious choice is the Cardinals. They can get to the quarterback and force turnovers. Check, check. Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu are also two of the league’s most dangerous return men, so there’s always the chance they could bust one off a kick.
I originally picked the Cardinals to make the playoffs out of the NFC this season (which means I am an idiot), so I guess I’ll have to pick them to win their home opener tonight. The Chargers are notorious for being slow-starters, so I’d imagine they’ll live up to that reputation tonight. However, I think we’re in for a high-scoring, close game, so it should at least be fun. I’ll say Arizona 31: 27 San Diego.