NFL Preview - Kansas City (3-1) at Houston (3-2)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Pay no attention to that giant sucking sound, ladies and gentlemen.
Not to worry. It's just the collective football fortunes of Houston and Kansas City.
Presented with a dual opportunity to seize destiny amid the early-season jumble that is the AFC, the Texans and Chiefs instead took giants steps back toward a pack which - for at least 60 game minutes last Sunday - looked poised to swallow both teams like so much underwater plankton.
And a week later, in the words of a former NFL coach-turned-beer commercial staple, both squads "are who we thought they were."
The Texans, who opened the season with a win over Indianapolis and eventually surged to 3-1 by defeating Oakland and Washington, tumbled backward into a four-way tie in the South after a disheartening 34-10 home loss to the New York Giants.
The return of wideout Andre Johnson after an ankle injury and linebacker Brian Cushing from a suspension seemingly meant little to the hosts, whose vaunted rushing attack yielded a franchise-low 24 yards while quarterback Matt Schaub was sacked three times.
Houston also coughed the ball up twice and was penalized eight times.
Not exactly worthy of the chic conference playoff pick a few weeks earlier.
"I'm shocked by how we played," coach Gary Kubiak said. "The discipline part is what bothers me the most."
While the result was similar, the reviews weren't quite so bad in Kansas City.
A surprise as the league's lone unbeaten after four weeks, the Chiefs got their comeuppance courtesy of the unit traditionally in that spot - the Colts - in a desultory 19-9 loss that nonetheless did little to alter the mid-October pecking order in the West.
Coach Todd Haley and Co. maintain a 1 1/2-game edge on a trio of 2-3 followers in a slow-starting division, who've stumbled from the gate with just one win in eight road games and a 3-7 mark against the rest of the AFC.
So, as the least of four mediocres, the Great Plains fairy tale may not be quite over yet.
Toward that end, Haley was still singing a confident tune on Monday.
"If you can get to three wins in a quarter (of the season) and you do that throughout the season," he said, "you are - it's not even a knock-on-wood situation, but I wouldn't want to jinx that and have it not come to fruition - but you should make the playoffs."
Kansas City was 0-4, 1-3, 2-2 and 1-3 in four successive quarters of the 2009 season, ultimately ending in last place behind the Chargers, Broncos and Raiders. The Chiefs, in fact, have won exactly 13 times in 52 games since completing a playoff run under Herm Edwards in 2006.
"We just did not execute and ultimately capitalize on the opportunities that were presented to us in that game, on the road, against (Indianapolis), to have the result be the way we wanted it to be," Haley said. "That is the bottom line. There were multiple opportunities in multiple areas, offensively, defensively and special teams where we could've affected the outcome in a little different way."
The all-time series between the Texans and Chiefs is knotted, 2-2, with Houston evening the series by virtue of a 20-3 win when the teams last met, in the 2007 regular season opener from Reliant Stadium. Kansas City won the previous meeting, a 45-17 rout in Houston in 2005. The Chiefs are 2-1 against the Texans in Houston all-time.
Kubiak is 1-0 in his career against Kansas City, while the Chiefs' Haley will be meeting both Edwards and the Chiefs for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL
Though it's not reflected in wins and losses, QB Matt Cassel hasn't exactly been lofting majestic aerials through four games. In fact, he's completed just 54.7 percent of his throws (58-of-106) for four touchdowns, three interceptions and a pedestrian 74.0 passer rating. That said, he's gone for 406 yards, three scores and just one pick in the last two games - with a 90.3 rating. He's been buffeted by a significant run presence thus far, with a 148.8-yard average that's second in the conference and third in the league. Veteran workhorse Thomas Jones has two 100-yard efforts against Houston in three career games, including two scores in a 2009 game while with the Jets. Running mate Jamaal Charles, a Texas native, attended the University of Texas and is averaging 127.5 yards from scrimmage in the last two weeks. Among the wideouts, Dwayne Bowe is averaging just 23.5 yards per catch in the last two games and had a key end-zone drop against Indianapolis, while Chris Chambers has four TDs against Houston in his last four meetings.
The defense has clearly been the problem in Houston. The Texans are surrendering an ugly average of 409.2 total yards per week and are minus-1 in turnover margin. Foes have been particularly successful in the air, averaging nearly 330 yards per game through five, with a 68.9 completion percentage and 11 pass touchdowns, compared to just five on the ground. The second quarters of games have been especially painful, with opponents scoring 51 points compared to Houston's 20. The Texans have a plus-15 point differential in the first, third and fourth quarters. Among the individuals, former No. 1 overall draft pick Mario Williams has five sacks in his last six home games, two in his last game against the Chiefs and five for the season - third-best in the AFC. Safety Bernard Pollard is a former Chief, having been drafted in the second round of 2006 and playing with them through 2008. In the backfield, rookie corners Kareem Jackson and Sherrick McManis each had their first career INTs last week.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
While his counterpart Cassel has grinded it out, Houston's Schaub has been lighting it up to the tune of 102 completions in 164 attempts (62.1 percent) for 1,233 yards, seven touchdowns and an 86.8 rating through five games, with five interceptions. The Texans are 14-4 when he reaches a triple-digit rating, and, so far in 2010, the team is second in the league with a 5.1-yard average per play. Though he was bottled up by the Giants, running back Arian Foster has averaged 125.5 yards in games where he gets at least 15 carries, and backfield colleague Derrick Ward is eyeing a third consecutive game with at least one rushing touchdown. Foster's 562 yards are best in the NFL and his four ground touchdowns are tied for third. Still listed as questionable this week, Johnson has thrived when at full speed, including a seven-catch effort with 142 yards and a 77-yard touchdown in his last game against the Chiefs. He's averaged 97.5 yards in four matchups with KC and already has five catches of 20-plus yards overall this season.
Defensively, the Chiefs have shined - allowing 14.3 points per game through four, good for second-lowest billing in the AFC and third-lowest in the league as a whole. Another ex-Jet, safety Jon McGraw, recorded his first interception of the season last week, while linebacker Tamba Hali has four sacks in his last two games and aims for a third straight game with at least one. His 4.5 sacks are tops on a team that's racked up nine through four games while allowing an average of 306.8 yards per game and maintaining a plus-1 turnover margin. The two interceptions in four games by cornerback Brandon Flowers are tied for second in the conference. Linebackers Derrick Johnson and Jovan Belcher and safety Eric Berry each have recorded at least 20 tackles, with Johnson leading the way at 33 - 28 solo, 5 assisted. Kansas City has allowed 239.5 passing yards per game while holding foes to a 55.8 completion percentage with three team interceptions.
Several names could fill several roles in a beneficial matchup for Kansas City, including Cassel, Bowe and Chambers, not to mention Charles, who's worked his way into every-week starter status. Tight end Tony Moeaki has gone for either 50 yards or a TD in every game this year as well. The same goes for Houston as a team, which should get a big number from both Schaub and a healthier Johnson, along with the league's top rusher in Foster. As for the defenses... avoid them both.
Both teams are surprising, but for different reasons. The Chiefs were presumed doormats and have overachieved, while the Texans were seen as a statement-maker this season and have so far been uncertain in its delivery. Having the home field against a team with a porous pass defense should cater to their strengths in what looks to be a must-win in order for Houston to have street cred as a contender.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Texans 34, Chiefs 20
10/14 14:28:46 ET