Five to Watch: Chiefs vs Ravens

A sense of uncertainty has followed this team like a lingering rain since December of last year. But it's a new dawn for the Kansas City Chiefs and hopefully Sunday will be the beginning of something that reminds us this football team was once the toast of the town.

The Ravens won't be an easy opponent, but it's not out of the realm of possibility that this weekend's opener is a better game than advertised.

A year ago the Chiefs entered their season opener at New England with a chance to tie the game in the final seconds of regulation. But four tries inside the five-yard line turned a nearly perfect game, one that might have catapulted the Chiefs to a better season, into the beginning of a string of games Kansas City lost in the fourth quarter.

When the 2009 schedule came out the Chiefs were handed a blistering set of games that has made even the most loyal fans believe it will be impossible to get through the first seven weeks without at least four losses. So most believe the Chiefs won't play well come Sunday in Baltimore.

The Ravens made it to the AFC Championship game thanks in part to their wide-eyed rookie quarterback, Joe Flacco. Though he bombed under the pressure of the eventual Super Bowl Champions, the Pittsburgh Steelers, he was the pulse of Baltimore's offense.

On defense, the Ravens still have playmakers all over the field. They still have Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis and a revamped defensive front that might be the best the Chiefs face all season. Though Baltimore is not as strong in the secondary as in years past, they can still bring the pressure.

The hope for a Kansas City win is nothing but a prayer at this point. But this is the NFL and on any given Sunday any team can beat another team, especially on opening day. So when the NFL prognosticators made the Chiefs 13-point underdogs, I started to give this game second thoughts.

In fact, it made me look at this game in a whole new light. Sure, the Chiefs' point spread matches that of the Detroit Lions, who are also on the road at New Orleans. So I now have visions of an upset. That's just too many points to place on any game in the first week of the season.

Quarterback Matt Cassel might play on Sunday, despite hobbling around in practice all week. He has something to prove, especially against one of the better defenses in the league. His $63 million contract tells the NFL that he's one of the game's best. Now he needs to back it up.

If Cassel plays and wins on Sunday, NFL headlines will tout new general manager Scott Pioli as a genius and head coach Todd Haley as the best of the rookie head coaches.

Five to Watch:

1. WR Dwayne Bowe - He returned to the starting lineup this week in hopes of being Cassel's new Randy Moss. Let's hope he's learned the lessons that have been pounded into him by Haley since the onset of the offseason. Right now the Chiefs are expecting big things from Bowe and my guess is that despite his struggles the past two seasons, he's going to not only get into the end zone on Sunday but he'll rack up at least 100 yards.

2. LB Tamba Hali - We just put him on the cover of our next issue of Warpaint Illustrated the Magazine, so we've either jinxed him or he'll start on a path towards greatness. Right now he's playing the best of all the Chiefs' starting linebackers and that includes Derrick Johnson, who is relegated to backup status. At least that's what we think heading into Sunday's Ravens' contest. But Hali has made the transition from defensive end and with his pass rushing abilities he won't be easy to contain in a two-point stance.

3. DE Tyson Jackson - Something tells me early on that Jackson has a star quality that might be defined on Sunday. He's already up to NFL speed and his work ethic is second to none on the defensive line. He didn't miss a beat after sitting out nearly a week in ironing out his rookie contract. It's easy to see why Pioli fell in love with his potential last April. He has Richard Seymour qualities, like his relentless drive that I think can produce a couple of sacks on Flacco on Sunday. He's going to be special and what a better time to prove all those NFL doubters wrong than Sunday?

4. RT Ikechuku Ndukwe - Don't ask me to pronounce that one and let's hope the CBS broadcasting crew of Ian Eagle and Rich Gannon never bring up Ndukwe's name during the entire game. If that happens, the Chiefs might have solved their right tackle spot. For now he's the guy that Haley believes can solidify the right side of the line. We really can't determine anything about him based on a few preason games, but Kansas City did bring in former Eagles' tackle Jon Runyan for a workout. That tells me Ndukwe has a game to prove he can be a long-term solution for the Chiefs.

5. RB Larry Johnson - This might be the biggest game of his NFL career. There isn't another player on this team who can change the game with a few big runs and lift the Chiefs to victory. Johnson seems to be one of the few players that openly was happy with Haley's removal of Chan Gailey from the coaching booth. Johnson has that chip on his shoulder and some pretty big critics to silence after a tough offseason that culminated with probation over his off-the-field antics. Despite all that he's changed, or at least that appears to be the case. If Johnson can run for over 125 yards on Sunday by bouncing outside or scraping through a few holes between the tackles, he'll find the end zone at least once or twice. For this team to win, they must be able to run the ball and Johnson has to be at the center of that.

Prediction:
Kansas City Chiefs 19 @
Baltimore Ravens 20

The Rest of the AFC West:

Denver Broncos 7 @
Cincinnati Bengals 31

San Diego 23 @
Oakland Raiders 24

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