Chiefs involved in several intriguing matchups
Led by QBs Peyton Manning and Steve McNair, the Colts-Titans series has become one of the best in football.
Editor's note: ESPN senior NFL writer John Clayton's weekly "First And 10" column takes you around the league with a look at the best game of the week followed by primers for 10 other games. Here's a look at the season's best contests.
Having made the tour of NFL training camps, it's time to make adjustments in some earlier predictions.
Preseason predictions are often made on paper transactions. Until camps start, a team doesn't know how an acquisition is going to play until he is on the field. That's the benefit of seeing 19 teams in person and watching the rest on tape following the preseason games.
As a result, the Steelers and Jets are better than expected in the AFC. Though neither is a favorite to make the playoffs, both teams appear to be better on defense than advertised and can be seeded just a notch below the playoff teams. The Saints are an interesting team. Combine the offensive weapons with their defensive talent and you have a team that may be more talented than the Panthers.
Still, don't discount the Panthers. Their offensive line problems may stay with them all season, but their scheme may minimize the holes in their line. Offensive coordinator Dan Henning loves to max protect for his quarterback. Most of the time, the Panthers will be run-blocking. Picking between the Panthers and Saints for the division winner might be the toughest decision of all, but the Panthers get the edge because of the swagger they picked up last season going to the Super Bowl.
On the negative side, the Falcons offense looks challenged. Michael Vick had only 29 preseason plays, not enough to garner confidence he can smoothly run the West Coast offense he is trying to learn. Though this was projected to be a breakout season, they will struggle. Meanwhile, the Rams offensive line took severe hits and it shows. Without right tackle Kyle Turley and center Dave Wohlabaugh, it will be virtually impossible for Mike Martz to send everyone into routes without risking quarterback Marc Bulger to injury.
Those shifts and other observations caused adjustments in the long-term look at key games ahead in the preseason First And 10.
And 10. Oct. 4: Kansas City Chiefs at Baltimore Ravens -- The Ravens will be coming off three straight AFC North games and will have a great feel whether they have a lock on the division. Games against the Browns and Bengals are on the road, so if the Ravens can jump to a 3-0 start, they should cruise to the division title. It's going to be hard for the Bengals and Browns to beat them in Baltimore in November and early December and any team that goes 5-1 in a division should be in Super Bowl contention. The game against the Chiefs is their most attractive non-division home game. Plus, it's a night game with Deion "Prime Time" Sanders returning to the national spotlight. The Ravens have the league's best defense. The Chiefs counter with a potent offense, yet one that faces some obstacles. Kansas City is without wide receiver Marc Boerigter and tight end Kris Wilson and opens the season against four tough defenses -- Denver, Carolina, Houston and Baltimore. They will be looking forward to the Week 5 bye for a break and a chance to regroup. This game will also be a great test for Gunther Cunningham's revamped defense. Kyle Boller is the Chiefs first young quarterback on the schedule who hasn't established himself.
9. Nov. 14: Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers (rematch Dec. 24) -- It's still puzzling why the league scheduled this NFC North showdown so late. A year ago, the Vikings opened with a victory in Green Bay. It allowed them to get off to a 6-0 start. The Packers eventually caught them and won the division. It was clear from the outset that the Vikings were loaded. They are better on defense. Daunte Culpepper continues to develop as one of the league's most exciting quarterbacks. Waiting for the Packers and Vikings is like annually waiting for great TV shows such as 24, NYPD Blue and others that start later than others when the fall season opens. The Packers will be coming off a bye week, which will give them a chance to reflect on their first eight games. That could be a huge edge. Even though the Vikings have improved their defense with good young athletes, they don't have a lot of depth. Their bye week is Oct. 3. They will have five games before this Packers game, and they will be coming off a Monday night road game against the Colts. Ouch.
8. Oct. 31: Indianapolis Colts at Kansas City Chiefs -- Both teams might list their punters as inactive. It's an offensive showdown of two 4,000-yard quarterbacks and two offenses that can't be stopped. Both teams are still shaking their heads over last year's 38-31 playoff win by the Colts in Kansas City. Peyton Manning and Trent Green turned each possession into scoring drives and punters didn't have to do a thing. The Chiefs spent the offseason revamping their defense because of this game and a December loss in Minnesota. The league loves offense. Officials are expected to emphasis the rule prohibiting defensive backs from making contact with receivers after five yards. This could be one of the highest scoring games of the year.
6. Oct. 10: Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots (rematch Dec. 20) -- Usually, these matchups are headliners. The Patriots are the league's best team. No one knows about the Dolphins. They've changed four spots along the offensive line. Ricky Williams retired. David Boston was lost for the season and the Dolphins acquired Marty Booker from the Bears. This game will determine the early read on how those changes affect the Dolphins. Three of their first four games are at home, so they have a chance for a good start. If they start 1-3, this visit to New England could be their swan song. The Dolphins enter the season a desperate team. Dave Wannstedt is fighting for job security. But the Dolphins could come into Foxboro with some confidence this has a chance to be a great game.
5. Sept. 20: Minnesota Vikings at Philadelphia Eagles -- You'll notice this is the only reference to the Eagles. That's not an oversight. The Eagles are the favorites to win the NFC. They are clearly the best team in the NFC East. The reason for this game being picked over the rest is that it's one of the few in which they play a potential non-divisional playoff team. Look at their schedule. It's one of the strangest in football. They play only six games against teams that made the playoff last year -- at Carolina Oct. 17; Baltimore Oct. 31; Green Bay Dec. 5; at St. Louis Dec. 27; and Dallas (away Nov. 15 and home Dec. 19). They have only one division game before Nov. 15. Strange. That increases the magnitude of this game. If the Vikings play up to expectations, this could be a playoff preview. It should be a good one. Terrell Owens versus Randy Moss. Donovan McNabb versus Daunte Culpepper. It doesn't get better than that.
4. Sept. 17: Dallas Cowboys at Washington Redskins (rematch Sept. 27): It's no wonder ABC grabbed this one. It's Joe Gibbs versus Bill Parcells. More important for the Redskins, it's Joe Gibbs on his home turf. A lot of flashbacks will occur. Gibbs is a legend in Washington, D.C. He won three Super Bowls. He won with class. But Parcells epitomized last season what a great coach he is by taking a Jerry Jones team that finished 5-11 for three straight years and won 10 games. Parcells has a little bit more of a personal stamp on this team. Quarterback Vinny Testaverde, running back Richie Anderson and wide receivers Keyshawn Johnson and Terry Glenn all played for Parcells with other teams. This game would be ranked higher, but the Eagles are still the best in the division so it's an attractive meeting of two teams vying for second fiddle.
3. Sept. 26: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Oakland Raiders -- Jon Gruden returns to the Black Hole. He brings with him a bunch of former Raiders including Mr. Raider, Tim Brown. Raiders fans will be in full costume for this game. For Raiders fans, this will be personal. Gruden took away their hopes of winning a Super Bowl by beating his former team two years ago. The Raiders have gotten younger since that game because of good drafts. The Bucs brought in 13 players in free agency in their 30s, and they kept 12. Now, the Bucs have an older, Raider-like team. Warren Sapp starts on the Raiders defensive line and gets his first chance to go against the team he helped turn into a champion. This will be great television and great football.
2. Nov. 22: New England Patriots at Kansas City -- The Patriots actually got a few breaks in the schedule. Normally, Super Bowl teams are disrespected when the league hands out the schedule. The NFL loves to make it tough for teams to repeat. This year, things broke right for the Patriots. They get Indianapolis at home. They get Baltimore at home Nov. 28. The game against the Chiefs is the most attractive road game for the Patriots. The Chiefs have a high-powered offense and they expect to add weapons as the season advances. If the Chiefs are indeed one of the best in the conference, their offense needs to stand the test of facing the Patriots tricky 3-4 defense. It's a matchup of two low-key but great quarterbacks -- Trent Green and Tom Brady. Chiefs fans will decked in red and well-fed from all day tailgating.
1. Dec. 5: Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints (rematch Jan. 2) -- If my evaluation of the division is right, this might be the most interesting series to develop during the month of December. Say what you want about the Saints, but they are loaded with talent. Their three-receiver set of Joe Horn, Donte' Stallworth and Jerome Pathon is more explosive than the Panthers. While the Panthers have two very good backs in Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster, the Panthers have a better one in Deuce McAllister. Aaron Brooks may be an enigma in December, but he is a talented quarterback. The sad part about this matchup is that it happens too late. The interesting part is that it happens in December and the series starts in New Orleans. Imagine the excitement if the Saints win this game and gain momentum heading into the final three weeks of the season. This could be the game that gains them a legitimate chance of winning the division. The matchup is interesting because of the offensive line problems of the Panthers, which may be even more pronounced by the end of the season. The Saints have three pass-rushers in Darren Howard, Charles Grant and Will Smith.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
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