Chargers, Cardinals think big heading into opener

Posted: Updated:
By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman

GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) -- A turnaround season under a new coach.

That was the story of the San Diego Chargers and Arizona Cardinals a year ago, and both squads begin this season believing they will be even better.

Only one of them will kick off the season with success because they meet in the second half of the NFL's Monday night doubleheader.

"We can win it all," Chargers safety Eric Weddle said. "We added some pieces we needed both offensively and defensively, got our guys back on special teams. We are a year better under the system. Nothing is impossible if everybody is doing the right thing and preparing the right way, playing together and playing fast."

The Cardinals feel they are much better after a year under coach Bruce Arians' system.

Comparing this year's offense to the one that started last season, Arians said, "would be like taking an eighth grader and putting him in the first grade. `'

That's particularly true of quarterback Carson Palmer, in his 12th NFL season, second with Arizona.

"This is the most comfort I have had in a while going into a season," he said, "and I think that's one of the things that I am so excited about is being comfortable and not having a bunch of unknowns. I think this whole locker room feels that way."

There was one big difference in the teams' seasons last year: The Chargers went 9-7 and made the playoffs, the Cardinals were 10-6 and didn't. Arizona fell victim to playing in the NFC West.

"We know we have the toughest division in football, and we love that," eight-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. "We love the competition, and we like our odds against the guys in our division."

Here are some things to know about Monday night's matchup:

ON THE RUN: Both teams want to get their running game going to facilitate their big-play, play-action abilities.

"We do take our shots," Palmer said. "A lot of them come out of our play-action game. Those aren't there if you aren't running the football."

The Chargers have three strong running backs in Ryan Mathews, Danny Woodhead and newcomer Donald Brown.

Arizona, though, could be without dynamic running back Andre Ellington because of a foot injury. That would leave Jonathan Dwyer, Stepfan Taylor and Robert Hughes to carry the load.

DIFFERENT DEFENSE: The Cardinals will have a handful of new starters on a defense that ranked first against the run and sixth overall last season. The big question is up the middle. Inside linebackers Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington are gone - Dansby to free agency, Washington to suspension. Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett went down in training camp with a season-ending knee injury.

Veteran Larry Foote and second-year pro Kevin Minter are the replacement linebackers. Frostee Rucker, who saw a lot of playing time last season, moves up to start at tackle.

NEW COACH, SAME SYSTEM: As offensive coordinator last year, Ken Whisenhunt got a lot of credit for quarterback Philip Rivers' revival. Whisenhunt is now head coach at Tennessee, and Frank Reich moves up from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator.

Don't expect to see much difference.

"The system's in place," Chargers coach Mike McCoy said. "We have a system that's going to survive the long haul."

McCoy brought the offense with him from Denver, where he was coordinator before being hired in San Diego.

"Every coordinator has their tweaks and different things they like," Rivers said, "play-calling styles and wrinkles we've added to the offense. But from a system standpoint, we didn't change. We're doing the same thing and trying to build on what we got started in Year 1."

CARDINAL SPEED: Arians loves "fast little guys" and he has two of them now: Ted Ginn Jr. and John Brown. The 5-foot-11 Brown, out of little Pittsburg State (Kansas), was the sensation of training camp.

NO COMPARISON: The Chargers and Cardinals are playing for the second time in 12 days after they met in San Diego in the preseason finale. But neither team did anything to tip off the other as to what would be coming when the real thing arrived. Almost every starter sat that one out.

---

AP Sports Writer Bernie Wilson in San Diego contributed to this story.

---

Online:

AP NFL website: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.