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Sunday’s AFC West matchups have implications for Raiders

The Oakland Raiders were able to sit back and watch the opening day of NFL games on Sunday, and boy did they get to witness some action. But a few of the games mean more than others to the Raiders this season, and in particular the games that affect the AFC West division. Like the Raiders, I had the opportunity to watch most of the Buffalo at Kansas City game, a game involving a Chiefs team that the Raiders will play twice this season, and a team that the Raiders will face coming off a short week in the Bills’ home opener. The other game in the AFC West today was between the San Diego Chargers who took the field at home against the Minnesota Vikings.

Let’s start by analyzing the Bills at Chiefs game. The big question that arose after the second biggest loss in Chiefs home history was: Are the Bills really that good or are the Chiefs just plain horrible? The answer is a lot of B and a little bit of A. The Bills’ defense played lights out against a team that was solid enough to win the AFC West conference in 2010. They held Jamaal Charles in check throughout the game and held him out of the end zone. They also made Matt Cassel look as if he should still be in New England backing up Patriots quarterback Tom Brady instead of making multi-millions playing in Kansas City as their franchise quarterback.

All in all, the Bills were not highly impressive in their victory, but ultimately scored enough points — mainly from Chiefs’ untimely turnovers — to force the Chiefs’ players to give up on the efforts of winning. About midway through the third quarter, you could see the Chiefs’ defense half stepping and jogging instead of going all out and attacking. It’s a concerning issue for the Chiefs as they move forward and try to build on their 2010 playoff season. Thus far, though it still is week one, they look like a team that will finish dead last in the division.

As mentioned before, the Bills will face the Raiders in their home opening in Week 2. The Bills will be very confident after their victory at Arrowhead Stadium, where the Chiefs have an excellent track record. While sometimes overconfidence is a killer for a young team, the fact remains that the Raiders have to have a solid performance against the Broncos and at the very least win this Monday Night Football game. Because while overconfidence can be a bad thing, underachieving against a divisional opponent on a short week when you’re on the road almost certainly would mean an 0-2 start for the Raiders.

In the other battle of the AFC West on Sunday, the Chargers squared off at home against the Minnesota Vikings. As in years past, the Chargers started off slowly getting down 17-7 going into half time. It raised concerns amongst the fans in San Diego as the team appeared to be off to another of its epic slow starts to a season.

However, running back Mike Tolbert refused to let his team be denied in this contest as he scored three touchdowns making fantasy football owners happy and at the same time reviving his team to score 21 unanswered points and seal up a victory 24-17. The Chargers’ special teams unit proved they are not that improved from a season ago by allowing a 103-yard kickoff return on the opening kickoff. In addition to that, the Chargers lost kicker Nate Kaeding on that play. We’re still awaiting word on the kicker’s immediate future, but if he is out for a handful of games, it is a devastating blow to the Chargers.

Following a first half that made people begin to doubt quarterback Phillip Rivers would be an MVP nominee at the end of the season, Rivers proved that the second half of games is so often where players need to be at their best. His game winning touchdown pass to Tolbert may have been the play of the game in this contest.

Punter Mike Scifres turned into the team’s place kicker when the injury to Kaeding took place. He hit a 40-yard game-tying field goal in the fourth quarter with precision and proved that he is trustworthy if the Chargers can’t find a reliable kicker in the absence of Pro Bowler Kaeding. But Kaeding’s early injury could still open the door to that Pro Bowl nod that Raiders’ kicker Sebastian Janikowski keeps being denied. Jano is going to have a chance on the national stage to prove himself worthy against the Broncos.

But Janikowski isn’t going to be the only Raider under the microscope against the Broncos tomorrow night. Whichever team gets it done tomorrow is going to put themselves in a great position to battle a Chargers team that is considered Super Bowl contenders despite their meager 2010 effort. The team that gets the victory in Denver tomorrow is going to be in a tie for first place in the division.

And while it is still really early in the season, an important part of getting to that ultimate division crown is having a nice first game and proving your resiliency as the Chargers did today against the Vikings. Of course, if you come out and dominate the way the Raiders did in Denver last year, it builds an extreme amount of confidence for a team with a head coach in his first year. But the same goes for the other side of the ball as well, as a victory for the Broncos would give them great confidence under their first year head coach, John Fox.

In situations like this, I like to go back to what popular long-time NFL Head Coach Bill Parcells says about the first week: “Half the teams in the NFL come out of week 1 feeling like they’ll never lose and the other half come out of week 1 wondering if they will ever win a game this season.”

Thus tomorrow’s game means a ton to two young teams looking to prove they are worthy in what could be a tough conference to navigate this season, as the Chargers get off to a relatively good start.

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