Games that look to be thrillers now could turn out to be absolute duds in a few months. Likewise, a matchup between two scrubs of 2010 could potentially decide a playoff berth in 2011.
Such is the nature of the NFL, and the very reason fans of some teams can express optimism heading into a season even after decades of futility. I, for one, wouldn’t have it any other way.
Despite that, it’s hard not to look ahead at some potentially promising contests. Let’s take a closer look at five games that appear to be critical for one or both teams involved, boast the juiciest storylines or some combination of the two.
Will they live up to that billing? That’s anybody’s guess. But for now, here are the five biggest games involving at least one team from the AFC West this year, in chronological order.
Last years’ 59-14 home massacre at the hands of Oakland didn’t seal Josh McDaniels’ fate, but it certainly set him on the path to being run out of town earlier than anticipated.
McDaniels may be gone, but many of the players who suffered through that defeat will be given the chance for redemption. Coach Fox will make sure they remember what happened last time Oakland came to town. The players should respond to that as well as the desire to start Fox’s tenure off right.
Tempers run high whenever these two teams meet, but the Denver defense will likely be especially short-fused and a tough, physical game should be expected. The Broncos will be out to prove their defense is no longer soft, and the Raiders will have no trouble matching their intensity, hoping to embarrass their rivals again.
Besides Denver’s thirst for revenge, this game is important for the effect it will have on morale for both
teams. A Week 1 loss at the hands of a hated rival isn’t the best way to build confidence, and it will be interesting to see the effect the outcome of the game has on the loser as well as the winner.
Is there a better example of how a Week 1 divisional game can effect a season than these two teams?
Last year, the Chiefs beat the Chargers on Monday night to open the season. Kansas City used the momentum from the big win to propel themselves to a 5-2 record before a demoralizing overtime loss to another divisional opponent in Oakland. San Diego, on the other hand, stumbled to a 2-5 record in the same span.
The entire season could have played out differently if the results of that Week 1 contest were different. Think the Chargers aren’t motivated to make sure they get off to a hot start this year?
The Chargers already got some measure of revenge with a dominant shutout of the Chiefs in December, but Matt Cassel was out following an appendectomy, and the Chiefs clearly didn’t give their best effort. Jamaal Charles said after the game that the Chargers defense was “not that good.”
The Chiefs will want to avenge that shutout and prove they are a much better team with Cassel in command, and the Chargers will want to show they can beat up on Cassel just as easily.
What’s more, the Chargers will be coming off a tough game at New England and if they lose that one, they will be doing everything they can to avoid starting 1-2 again.
With as brutal as KC’s schedule is in 2011, it’s harder to find a game that isn’t a big one than one that is.
One matchup that looks particularly intriguing on multiple levels, though, is the Week 11 visit to Foxborough. Obviously, the significance of this game is Cassel’s return to New England.
Shortly after arriving in Kansas City, Cassel publicly thanked Bernard Pollard for the opportunity he gave him by knocking Tom Brady out for the season. While he expressed explicitly he never wants to see a player hurt, his words could potentially be spun in the locker room to further fuel the fire.
Both sides should be highly motivated to beat the other. Cassel surely wants to beat his former team, and his teammates should give extra effort to see that goal accomplished, while Brady undoubtedly remembers all the attention Cassel got in New England when he went down.
Brady has nothing to prove to anyone, but he might feel passionately about proving he’s the far superior quarterback—not to mention his desire to beat the team that ended his season so prematurely.
This game has added importance because the Chiefs play four more 2010 playoff teams consecutively after the Patriots, including the defending Super Bowl champs. An emotional loss to New England
could put Kansas City in a tailspin.
Again, the storyline is obvious here. In seasons past, if you asked any Broncos fan if they could win only one game all season who it would be, you’d likely get “the Raiders” in response. For the Bears, it would almost certainly be the Packers.
But in 2011, there’s no doubt that the team Broncos fans (and probably more than a few players and staff) want a humiliating victory over the Bears and Jay Cutler more than anything else. Bears fans may not care as much—they didn’t go through a bitter saga with their franchise QB—but there’s no doubt Cutler wants that one-upmanship just as badly.
If ever there was a game in which Denver’s recently soft defense will rise to the occasion, it’s this one. This game will be crucial for morale, especially as Denver has to host the Patriots the following week. Beating New England isn’t the easiest of tasks under the best circumstances, let alone after a heartbreaking loss.
The Bears probably wouldn’t be as affected by a loss here, but the importance of this game to Denver—plus the Orton-Cutler storyline—is more than enough to earn its place on this list.
To close the list, we go to a game that also closes the regular season for two of the AFC West teams and could potentially propel one of them to the postseason. The Chargers are notoriously slow starters and though that could certainly change in 2011, it’s equally possible they will be struggling for the division title late into December once again.
The Raiders play the Chiefs in Week 16 and Kansas City travels to Denver in Week 17, so if the teams are within a game or two of each other heading into the last couple weeks, things will get interesting. Depending on how things play out, there’s a possible scenario in which the Raiders take the division lead from Kansas City with a win in Week 16. They could then lose it to the Chargers in Week 17, if they lose and the Chiefs lose to the Broncos.
It doesn’t get more dramatic than that.
If the 2010 Chiefs showed us anything, it’s that anything is possible in the AFC West. We shouldn’t be too surprised if the division really is that deadlocked in the last two weeks. If it is, this final AFC West matchup could be the biggest game of all.