Russell vs. Thigpen an intriguing matchup

Forget Jay Cutler and Philip Rivers. Sunday's game between the Raiders and Chiefs offers up a look at two young quarterbacks who could very well shape the AFC West landscape for years to come.

Oakland's JaMarcus Russell and Kansas City's Tyler Thigpen are both in their second NFL seasons but first as full-time starters, Russell by design and Thigpen by default.

The two men head into Sunday with nearly identical statistics. Russell has completed 52.2 percent of his throws for 1,597 yards, seven touchdowns and four interceptions for a 75.0 quarterbacking rating.

higpen, thrown into the Chiefs lineup after injuries to starter Brodie Coyle and backup Damon Huard, has a 53.6 completion percentage with 1,577 yards, 13 TDs, seven interceptions and a 77.4 rating.

Both of those pale in comparison to those of Rivers and Cutler, particularly Rivers who leads the AFC with a 103.3 rating. By numbers alone, Russell and Thigpen don't even belong in the same conversation as their division brethren.

Thankfully we're all smart enough to look beyond the numbers.

Rivers, for example, has a pretty solid receiving crew along with tight end Antonio Gates to throw to. He also has the luxury of being able to hand the ball off to LaDainian Tomlinson, which may be the biggest factor of all.

I once asked Jeremy Newberry, the former Raiders center who is now a backup with the Chargers, how important it was for a team to have a veteran backup quarterback to help in the development of a young quarterback. Newberry, a two-time Pro Bowl lineman, shook his head and instead said it was more important to have a good running back. He specifically pointed to San Francisco's Alex Smith, who was coming off a good season but had Frank Gore to help carry the offensive load.

Neither Russell nor Thigpen has had that kind of luxury.

Rivers has. And while there's no doubting he has played well this season, he's more of a second-tier quarterback who is benefiting greatly from his surroundings. It's worth noting that his interception rate is also the fifth highest in the AFC and eighth highest overall.

Cutler has 230 more passing yards than Rivers but four fewer touchdowns with the same number of interceptions. And he also has the benefit of having two of the game's best young receivers, Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal, to throw to.

Thigpen, at least, has had wide receiver Dwane Bowe and tight end Tony Gonzalez to throw to. The two both rank in the Top 10 in the NFL in receptions and have given the young quarterback a much-needed comfort zone as he has developed into one of the only real bright spots for the Chiefs.

"They're 180 degree different team offensively because of Thigpen," Raiders interim head coach Tom Cable said. "He's a tremendous threat to run the ball. He's making some good decisions at times. He's a little streaky that way in terms of throwing the ball but they're getting the ball to Tony Gonzalez again and they got a bunch of speed outside. I agree with that. I think he's changed them dramatically."

Russell is the wild card.

While critics point to his numbers in comparison with other young QBs in the league, they tend to overlook the intangibles. The lack of consistent pas protection has seriously hurt Oakland's passing game, as has the lack of a reliable receiving corps that has been both banged up and unproductive.

Russell, the No. 1 draft pick in 2007, has also had to deal with a head coaching change, one that resulted in the Raiders foolishly trying to open up the passing game when the pieces weren't in place to do so. He has had receivers in and out of the lineup, a tight end that has to spend too much of his time blocking instead of getting downfield, and has dealt with three different people calling plays.

Dizzying. But there are steady signs of progress.

Russell was sharp in leading the Raiders to a solid overtime win against the Jets in October, a win that looks increasingly impressive considering the Jets have the second-best record in the AFC. Russell also played well against Buffalo, San Diego and Miami before tying Ken Stabler for second-place on the Raiders' franchise record for single-game completion percentage in last week's win over Denver.

One of his completions came on a 4-yard pass to Ashley Lelie that was originally intended for Ronald Curry. Russell, who had a tendency to lock on receivers earlier in the season, stepped up in the pocket once he saw Curry was covered and looked for Lelie, who made the easy grab.

Granted, he hasn't had the success that rookies like Matt Ryan and even Joe Flacco. But again, look at the circumstances of each quarterback. And Russell's 149.1 rating last week is definitely encouraging, albeit off 10 passes.

So while Sunday's game might not mean much this season in terms of the playoffs -- though Oakland's window is still open -- it's definitely an intriguing matchup between Russell and Thigpen. Two young quarterbacks who could easily be dueling it out for seasons to come.

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