NFL Preview - San Diego (4-2) at Kansas City (3-3)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - For the perfect case study in how a team's fortunes can drastically turn over a portion of an NFL season, look no further than the Kansas City Chiefs.
The defending AFC West champions were presumed to be dead and buried after a tough loss to the San Diego Chargers in late September left them still without a victory three games into this 2011 campaign. Just over a month later, the resurgent Chiefs find themselves with a chance to grab a share of first place in the division when they host the rival Chargers in a pivotal Monday night matchup from Arrowhead Stadium.
The outlook had indeed looked hopeless for Kansas City following deflating season-opening setbacks to Buffalo and Detroit in which the team was not only outscored by an 89-10 margin, but lost two of its cornerstone contributors in All-Pro running back Jamaal Charles and standout young safety Eric Berry to year-ending ACL tears.
Though the Chiefs followed those pitiful results with a 20-17 defeat at San Diego in Week 3, their ability to compete with the talented Chargers on the road seemed to have a galvanizing effect. A revitalized Kansas City squad has gone on to win three straight contests since that loss and now sits only a game behind San Diego for the AFC West's top spot.
"I think that the San Diego game was a turning point for us as a team in guys getting their confidence back, swagger so to speak, and guys are out there now just having fun and making plays," said Chiefs cornerback Brandon Carr.
Kansas City made its share of plays -- particularly on the defensive end -- in its most recent triumph, coming up with six interceptions of Oakland's comical quarterback tandem of Kyle Boller and a just-acquired Carson Palmer en route to a 28-0 thumping of the Raiders last Sunday at the Oakland Coliseum. It was the Chiefs' first shutout on the road since 1973.
The Chargers would seem to represent a step up in competition in Kansas City's quest for its first four-game win streak since Dec. 5-25, 2004, however. The Chiefs' first two victims during the run -- Minnesota and Indianapolis -- are a combined 1-13 heading into this week's play, while the Raiders were playing for the first time without usual triggerman Jason Campbell under center.
San Diego's 4-2 mark has come against opponents with dubious credentials as well, with Kansas City the only team the Bolts have beaten that's presently without a losing mark. Penalties and turnovers have also plagued the Chargers throughout the course of the season, and their overall play hasn't usually been as impressive as their record and first-place standing indicates.
"You can look at that two ways," said quarterback Philip Rivers. "Obviously we're not playing as good as we can and we've won four games. Or, we'd better get it together or we're not going to get done what we want to get done."
San Diego's earlier ousting of the Chiefs began a string of three consecutive wins, but that sequence was stopped with a frustrating 27-21 loss to the New York Jets this past Sunday. The Chargers squandered an 11-point halftime lead that day, as the offense failed to score over the final two quarters and Rivers threw two costly interceptions in the last 11 minutes.
Kansas City holds a slight 51-50-1 edge in a regular-season series with San Diego that dates back to the teams' AFL days in 1960, when the Chiefs franchise was then known as the Dallas Texans and the Chargers resided in Los Angeles. With last month's above-mentioned result, San Diego has now won seven of the last eight bouts between the longtime foes, with Kansas City's lone victory over that stretch a 21-14 verdict at Arrowhead Stadium (also on a Monday night) in the 2010 season opener. The Chargers registered home-and-sweeps of the Chiefs in both 2008 and 2009 in addition to a 24-10 road decision in 2007.
In addition to their regular-season history, the teams have met once in the postseason, with the Chargers scoring a 17-0 home win over the Chiefs in a 1992 AFC First-Round Playoff.
The Chargers' Norv Turner owns a 7-7 lifetime record against the Chiefs as a head coach, but has won seven of nine tests with Kansas City since taking over in San Diego in 2007. Kansas City's Todd Haley is 1-4 against both Turner and the Chargers during his time with the Chiefs.
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
San Diego certainly has the components needed for a devastating aerial attack, possessing a three-time 4,000-yard passer in Rivers (1715 passing yards, 7 TD, 9 INT), two big and athletic wide receivers in the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Vincent Jackson (24 receptions, 423 yards, 3 TD) and similarly-sized Malcom Floyd (14 receptions, 1 TD) and a matchup nightmare in tight end Antonio Gates (13 receptions, 1 TD). But the normally-prudent Rivers has thrown more interceptions than touchdown passes in an uncharacteristically slow start and Gates has missed half the season due to a nagging foot injury, which both being contributing factors to the Chargers' modest scoring average of 23.5 points per game. Gates did return to haul in five passes for 54 yards and a touchdown against the Jets, but Floyd -- who's averaging a splendid 21 yards per catch -- injured his hip during the game and isn't expected to be available on Monday. Despite the turnover problems, San Diego still ranks eighth overall in total offense (391.5 ypg) and second in third-down conversions (55.4 percent) and sports a solid running game as well, with 2010 first-round pick Ryan Mathews (452 rushing yards, 3 TD, 24 receptions) and short-yardage demon Mike Tolbert (163 rushing yards, 28 receptions, 5 total TD) both capable at churning out yards on the ground as well as catching passes out of the backfield.
Though last week's domination of the disoriented Raiders may have skewed the numbers, the Chiefs entered the week seventh in the NFL in pass efficiency defense and third in interceptions (11), with steady cornerback Brandon Flowers (26 tackles, 4 INT, 11 PD) earning AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors after amassing two picks, three passes defensed and scoring a touchdown in the Oakland game. Free safety Kendrick Lewis (26 tackles, 2 INT) also returned an interception for a score in last Sunday's rout, and both he and Flowers had picks of Rivers when these teams squared off last month. Kansas City also owns a premier pass rusher in outside linebacker Tamba Hali (30 tackles, 4 sacks), the AFC's leader with 14 1/2 sacks last season, but has had a tough time finding a dependable complement to the converted end as well as stopping the run on occasion. The Chiefs have just six sacks on the year, the second-lowest total in the league, and have allowed over 150 rushing yards three times in their six games. The linebacker corps can still be viewed as a strength, as top tackler Derrick Johnson (44 tackles, 4 PD) is a quality all-around player and inside mate Jovan Belcher (33 tackles) a sound two-down plugger in run support.
WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL
Kansas City's improvement has coincided with considerably sharper play from quarterback Matt Cassel (1106 passing yards, 8 TD, 7 INT). After being picked off four times in the team's two lopsided losses to start the year, the onetime Tom Brady understudy has compiled a 7-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio over the last four games while displaying good accuracy and decision making, and he's been doing an admirable job getting the ball into the hands of playmaking wide receiver Dwayne Bowe (29 receptions, 496 yards, 4 TD) as well. The 2010 Pro Bowl honoree has accumulated over 100 receiving yards in two of his past three outings, while bringing a needed big-play element to an offense that's still just 30th overall in passing yards (173.7 ypg). Haley's been resourceful in the challenging assignment to find a suitable replacement for the game- breaking Charles, inserting the previously seldom-used Jackie Battle (232 rushing yards) into a featured role at running back and spelling the 238-pound bruiser with the shiftier Dexter McCluster (210 rushing yards, 19 receptions) and high-mileage veteran Thomas Jones (185 rushing yards). The rotation has served the Chiefs well, as the club averaging 166.5 rushing yards in the two games Battle has been the lead man.
The Chargers were able to keep Kansas City's ground game at bay in the first matchup, limiting their fellow division member to a meager 81 rushing yards on 27 attempts. San Diego hasn't been as effective in that department in recent weeks, though, as both Denver and the Jets ran for 162 yards in the Bolts' last two contests. Inside linebacker Donald Butler (41 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and end Vaughn Martin (15 tackles) were both factors in containing the Chiefs' backs in that September game, and they'll be counted on to do so again in this rematch. Turner also wasn't pleased with the play of his team's secondary in last Sunday's loss, and it seems cornerback Antoine Cason (21 tackles, 5 PD) will bear the brunt of his coach's displeasure. After getting beat for three touchdowns by the Jets' Plaxico Burress, the 2008 first-round pick will be reportedly benched in favor of youngster Marcus Gilchrist (11 tackles, 1 INT), with the rookie slotting opposite seasoned veteran Quentin Jammer (16 tackles) in the new arrangement. Like the Chiefs, San Diego hasn't been particularly good rushing the passer this year, and the Chargers just had to place second- leading sacker Larry English (7 tackles, 2 sacks) on injured reserve with a broken foot this week.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Minimizing mistakes. The Chargers are unquestionably the more talented of these two teams, but their recent penchant for turning the football over is troubling. They've been able to get away with those miscues against some of their other opponents, but may not be so fortunate against a Kansas City outfit that was incredibly opportunistic on defense a week ago and is starting to resemble the 2010 group that produced a plus-nine turnover ratio on the way to making the playoffs. The Chiefs have had just one giveaway in their last three clashes with San Diego, while the Chargers have committed five in that span.
The Chiefs have been at their toughest under Haley when they've been able to run the ball with authority. That wasn't the case in last month's showdown with San Diego, but the Chargers didn't have to deal with Battle, who's emerged as a competent chain-mover, in that outing. San Diego's had trouble defending the run as of late, and will need to shore things up to have its best chance of victory.
The home crowd. Kansas City is 8-2 in regular-season games at Arrowhead Stadium since the start of the 2010 campaign and has permitted 17 points or less in all but one of those wins. The venue has a reputation for being one of the loudest in the NFL and could give the Chiefs the extra edge they'll need in what should be a close contest.
The Chiefs are a better team now than the one that took on the Chargers five weeks ago, and that one played the Bolts awfully tough on the road. San Diego also hasn't handled adversity all that well during the Turner era, and there will be some to deal with from an Arrowhead crowd that should be at its most raucous under the Monday night stage. If Rivers can get over his recent hiccups and the defense can play stout over an entire game, the Chargers should be able be come away with an important victory that would go a long way of solidifying their postseason hopes. An improved and inspired Kansas City team will be trying its best to make sure that doesn't happen.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Chiefs 24, Chargers 20
10/28 17:12:35 ET