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San Diego Chargers vs. Arizona Cardinals Game Preview and Prediction

Philip Rivers

Philip Rivers

Week 1 of the NFL regular season concludes with an interesting cross-conference affair between the San Diego Chargers and the Arizona Cardinals on ESPN. The second half of ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” doubleheader features two teams that posted winning records in 2013, with the Chargers (9-7) advancing to the playoffs while the Cardinals (10-6) just missed out on the final NFC Wild Card spot.

San Diego leads all the all-time series with Arizona 9-3. The last meeting occurred back in 2010, a 41-10 Chargers home victory powered by two Philip Rivers-to-Antonio Gates touchdown passes.

San Diego Chargers at Arizona Cardinals

Kickoff: 10:20 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ESPN

Spread: Arizona -3

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Three Things to Watch

1. Arizona’s Fractured Front Seven

Even though they missed the playoffs, the Cardinals went 10-6 last season, powered by one of the NFL’s best defenses. Arizona finished sixth in total defense, gave up the fewest rushing yards and was seventh in points allowed at 20.3 per game. Defense was supposed to be one of the team’s strengths once again, but instead this unit has been hit hard by roster turnover, injuries and other circumstances. Linebacker and leading tackler Karlos Dansby signed a big free-agent deal with Cleveland. Then running mate Daryl Washington was suspended for all of 2014 for another violation of the league’s substance-abuse policy. The next big blow came in training camp when defensive end Darnell Dockett tore the ACL in his right knee, ending his season before it even started. And the hits may not be over, as linebacker John Abraham, who led the team with 11.5 sacks last season, could end up facing some measure of league discipline stemming from a DUI incident in June. This much is clear; the Cardinals’ front seven will look nothing like it did at the end of last season, which puts a lot of pressure on what is now an inexperienced and dangerously thin group of defenders.

2. Backfields in Motion

San Diego’s ground game averaged a respectable 122.8 yards rushing per game last season, good for 13th in the NFL. Ryan Mathews led the way with a career-best 1,255 yards, but he was not a one-man show. Danny Woodhead, who signed as a free agent, got more than 100 carries and was second on the team with 76 receptions. Despite the production the Chargers got from this pair, general manager Tom Telesco signed free agent Donald Brown. How head coach Mike McCoy and first-year offensive coordinator Frank Reich dole out the touches in the backfield is anyone’s guess, but it’s certainly a situation worth watching. Especially considering the fact that Mathews is entering the final year of his rookie contract, while Brown and Woodhead have both already signed longer deals. Arizona’s situation, on the other hand, would be a little more settled, if not for the fact that Andre Ellington is nursing a foot injury and may not even play. After leading the league with a 5.5-yards-per-carry average (min. 100 carries) as a rookie, Ellington was expected to carry a much heavier load on offense. Now with reports saying he could be out as long as a month, the Cardinals could be forced to turn to a committee of veteran Jonathan Dwyer and Stepfan Taylor, the team’s fifth-round pick last year. This duo combined for a total of 312 yards rushing on 85 carries last season. So in many ways, both teams enter their 2014 opener with uncertainty in their respective backfields, although the Chargers are probably in a little better shape because they appear to have healthier options.

3. On Second(ary) Thought

As weakened as Arizona’s defensive front seven may appear entering tonight’s contest, at least head coach Bruce Arians doesn’t have to worry about his secondary. Even though the Cardinals reside in the same division as Seattle’s “Legion of Boom,” Arizona may be able to claim the NFL’s best secondary before this season is over. It starts with a pair of All-Pro cornerbacks in Patrick Peterson and new Cardinal Antonio Cromartie and also features 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist free safety Tyrann Mathieu. The former LSU Tiger is recovering from a torn ACL and LCL he suffered last December, but it’s possible Mathieu could be back on the field as early as tonight. In the meantime, Deone Bucannon, the 27th player taken in May’s draft, is a big, physical strong safety who should fit right in with this group. Philip Rivers and the Chargers’ passing game will have its work cut out for them against this secondary. On the other side, San Diego’s passing defense was one of the NFL’s worst last season and the only significant addition during the offseason was former TCU cornerback Jason Verrett. The 21st player taken in the draft, Verrett is a gritty and fundamentally sound corner, but he’s also undersized at just 5-10. Besides being a rookie, Verrett’s first assignment in the NFL will be trying to cover Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd, a pair of explosive wide receivers who stand 6-3 and 6-2 respectively. With so much emphasis on the passing game it appears that the Cardinals, despite their issues elsewhere on defense, has a distinct advantage as it relates to the back end.

Final Analysis

Arizona enters this game as a slight favorite and if the Cardinals were even close to full strength, I would side with the home team. However, Bruce Arians’ defense is nowhere near full strength, especially up front, and there’s a really good chance that lead back Andre Ellington doesn’t suit up either. Even though the Cardinals have a stout secondary that should make things difficult for Philip Rivers and San Diego’s passing game, I just don’t like the fact that Arizona is opening its season so shorthanded in the first place. The Chargers opened up many eyes with their 2013 playoff run in Mike McCoy’s first season, and this relatively young team should only continue to get better, especially on defense. The Cardinals have a solid veteran quarterback in Carson Palmer, who should have even more time to throw to his playmakers with an improved offensive line, but the uncertainty in the backfield and a decimated defensive front seven are just going to be too much to overcome tonight.

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Prediction: San Diego 23, Arizona 20