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NFL Preview - San Diego (2-3) at Kansas City (1-5)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The San Diego Chargers will find themselves in a strangely familiar position when the notoriously slow starters visit Arrowhead Stadium this Sunday for a divisional matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs.
For a third consecutive year, the Chargers have lost three of their first five games to begin a season, although that hasn't been a hindrance to the team in the past. San Diego went on to capture the AFC West title in both of those campaigns by displaying a strong finishing kick, having gone 9-0 in December over the course of that time frame.
The Chargers won their final four contests of 2008 to edge out a collapsing Denver squad and claim the division with a mediocre 8-8 record. The previous season, the club's first under current head coach Norv Turner, San Diego closed out with six straight victories to earn a trip to the playoffs with an 11-5 mark.
While history says this year's Chargers shouldn't panic, Turner's troops still have to be at least somewhat concerned about their current state. San Diego finds itself 3 1/2 games behind the unbeaten Denver Broncos in the West standings after being dealt a costly 34-23 home loss at the hands of their longtime rivals on Monday.
The Chargers held a 23-17 lead late in the third quarter before surrendering 17 unanswered points to the resilient Broncos, with critical breakdowns from both the defense and special teams playing a large role in the setback. Denver put together two long touchdown drives in the final 20 minutes to move ahead, while San Diego's coverage units allowed both kickoff and punt return scores to wide receiver Eddie Royal in the first half that kept the Broncos in the game.
The Bolts would seemingly encounter less trouble from the 1-5 Chiefs, a team that has suffered defeats in 28 of its past 31 games. Kansas City will be returning home on a high note, however, after coming through with a 14-6 decision over the dysfunctional Washington Redskins this past Sunday at FedEx Field.
Rookie head coach Todd Haley's first career win was hardly pretty, but the Chiefs received four field goals from young kicker Ryan Succop and a much- improved showing from a defense that held the sputtering Redskins to 265 total yards and a mere seven first downs.
That breakthrough followed a tough 26-20 home overtime loss to Dallas during Week 5, in which Kansas City permitted 498 yards and was burned for two long touchdowns by Cowboys wideout Miles Austin late in the game.
The Chiefs will be out to halt a string of eight straight losses at Arrowhead Stadium and put together back-to-back victories for the first time since October 14-21, 2007.
Kansas City holds a 50-46-1 lead in a regular season series with San Diego that dates back to 1960, when the Chiefs franchise was known as the Dallas Texans and the Chargers resided in Los Angeles. San Diego swept Kansas City in last year's home-and-home, winning one-point nail-biters at both Qualcomm Stadium (20-19) in Week 10 and Arrowhead Stadium (22-21) in Week 15. The Chiefs last defeated the Chargers in 2007, when they came up a 30-16 winner in their trip to Qualcomm. San Diego is 2-0 in Kansas City since last losing there in 2006.
The Chargers last won three straight in Kansas City from 1979 through 1981.
In addition to their regular season history, the teams have met once in the postseason, with the Chargers scoring a 17-0 home victory over the Chiefs in a 1992 AFC First-Round Playoff.
Turner is 3-6 against the Chiefs as a head coach, including 3-1 since taking over in San Diego. Haley will be meeting both Turner and the Chargers for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (1519 passing yards, 7 TD, 3 INT) has had some big days against the Chiefs in the past, and expect the team to rely heavily on its fiery field general once again on Sunday due to its continued struggles in running the football. San Diego's 57.6 rushing yards per game and 2.9 yards per attempt are both tied for the worst marks in the league, and the offense has clearly missed the presence of sturdy center Nick Hardwick, out since tearing ligaments in his left ankle in the season-opener. Rivers has done his best to compensate, as he's averaging better than 300 yards per game and has thrown 108 straight passes without an interception, but the former first-round pick has been sacked 15 times this season and had three fumbles while absorbing a litany of hits in Monday's loss to the Broncos. The Chargers' fifth-ranked passing offense (284.0 ypg) also possesses a pair of impact receivers in physical wideout Vincent Jackson (29 receptions, 419 yards, 3 TD) and five-time Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates (29 receptions, 419 yards, 2 TD). One-time NFL MVP LaDainian Tomlinson's (140 rushing yards, 1 TD, 5 receptions) production has been curtailed by injuries and the line's shaky play, but the star running back totaled 100 yards from scrimmage against Denver in his best game of the year.
After managing a meager six sacks through the first five games, the Chiefs generated three against Washington last Sunday, one of which resulted in a game-sealing safety by outside linebacker Tamba Hali (18 tackles, 3 sacks), the club's top pass rusher. Kansas City will need Hali and veteran counterpart Mike Vrabel (26 tackles, 1 sack) to apply such consistent pressure again this week to protect a secondary that has given up nearly 250 yards per game through the air (25th overall), as well as 10 touchdown passes and a host of big gains. The Chargers hope to have greater success on the ground when they take on the Chiefs' 25th-rated run defense (130.3 ypg), which yielded a career-long 78-yard run to the Redskins' Clinton Portis a week ago. Seasoned strong safety Mike Brown (39 tackles, 1 sack), the team's leading tackler, will also have the unenviable task of covering Gates, a matchup nightmare from his tight end spot.
WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL
Kansas City doesn't have a wealth of playmakers on offense, as evidenced by the team's No. 30 overall ranking in total yards (259.7 ypg) and league-worst 21.2 percent conversion rate on third-downs, but quarterback Matt Cassel (897 passing yards, 7 TD, 2 INT) has played reasonably well despite a lack of support from the skill positions as well as a pedestrian offensive line that could be without talented left tackle Branden Albert for a second straight week due to a sprained ankle. Cassel has a streak of 132 straight pass attempts without an interception, and the Chiefs have just four turnovers in the ex-New England Patriot's five starts this year. He's been aided lately by a return to form out of top target Dwayne Bowe (21 receptions, 3 TD), with the third-year wide receiver having posted season-bests of 109 yards and six grabs against the Redskins. Kansas City is one of three teams that doesn't have a rushing touchdown this year and primary ball-carrier Larry Johnson (309 rushing yards, 11 receptions) is averaging a subpar 2.7 yards per carry, although the two-time All-Pro was able to grind out 83 yards on 23 attempts in last week's win. Cassel is prone to taking sacks, having gone down 19 times in five games thus far in 2009.
While the Chiefs have had problems sustaining drives, the Chargers' defense has struggled mightily in getting off the field throughout the team's disappointing start. Opponents have been successful on over 50 percent of their third-down attempts against a San Diego stop unit that hasn't stopped the run or pressured the passer well this year. The season-ending loss of three-time nose tackle Jamal Williams has been a devastating blow to a group that's allowing 141 yards a game on the ground (27th overall), while the accomplished outside linebacker tandem of Shawne Merriman (13 tackles) and Shaun Phillips (21 tackles), a duo that combined for a whopping 49 1/2 sacks between the 2006 and '07 seasons, has yet to deliver a sack. The Chargers did hold Denver to a respectable 101 rushing yards on Monday, and the insertion of 220-pound rookie safety Kevin Ellison into the starting lineup seemed to have a hand in the team's better performance in that area. The sixth-round draft choice, who took over for the recently-released Clinton Hart, finished with a team-best seven tackles.
Tomlinson and Johnson's days as elite fantasy players may be long gone, but these two declining backs are still worth a spot in this week's lineups with a favorable upcoming matchup on each side. San Diego's running difficulties have further enhanced Rivers' status as a top-level quarterback, and he rates as a must-use along with Jackson and Gates. Bowe is the only Kansas City receiver that warrants starting consideration, while Cassel should only be used as a bye-week fill-in until the Chiefs are able to develop a more stable passing game. The Chargers have not been particularly efficient within the red zone this season, which makes reliable kicker Nate Kaeding one of the better options at that position.
With both 2008 meetings between these divisional foes decided by a single point and the talent level among them having narrowed from last season, it would be no surprise if this game boils down to whomever is better able to execute in the fourth quarter. Although the Chargers' deficiencies on defense and in running the ball make them hard to trust on the road, this has been a team that's shown the ability to come through when needed in previous spots, and they do need this one to avoid digging too large a hole in the playoff race. The Chiefs are making gradual progress under Haley's direction, but they'll find the San Diego offense a much tougher task to tame than what they went up against the previous week.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Chargers 23, Chiefs 20
10/22 15:49:00 ET