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Chiefs can take drama out of AFC West

12/10/2010
The Chiefs celebrated a wet Week 1 win over the Chargers. Sunday's weather should be perfect. John Rieger/US Presswire

The Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers will play this season's most important game to date in the AFC West on Sunday in San Diego.

If the Chiefs win, there won’t be many more important games left in the division this season. Kansas City, which hasn’t made the playoffs since 2006, is 8-4 and has a two-game lead over both the Chargers and Oakland Raiders, who are both 6-6 after the Raiders’ thrashing of the Chargers in San Diego this past Sunday. A Kansas City victory this Sunday would eliminate the Chargers from contention in the AFC West. In that scenario, the Chiefs would be 9-4 and the Chargers would be 6-7 with three games to go. The Chiefs beat the Chargers 21-14 in Week 1 in a Monday night monsoon and would have a season sweep.

Oakland, which plays at Jacksonville on Sunday, will still be in the race regardless of what happens Sunday, but a Kansas City win over the Chargers would make it very difficult for the Chiefs to lose the division. Check out ESPN.com’s Playoff Machine for all the possibilities.

The division gets a lot more interesting in the final three games if the Chargers beat the Chiefs. The Chiefs, Chargers and Raiders (if they beat the Jaguars) would all be in the race, even though the Chiefs would still have the upper hand.

Let’s take a further look at the key aspects of this huge AFC West matchup:

The Cassel factor: The intrigue of this game took a dramatic turn Wednesday when Kansas City quarterback Matt Cassel had an appendectomy. The Chiefs may make a decision Friday on whether he can play, but it could end up being a game-time decision.

Even if he does try to play, there are no guarantees that he would last an entire game or be effective. He'll probably be sore and may not be sharp because of missed practiced time.

If Cassel can’t play, the most important Kansas City game in four years will be in the hands of backup quarterback Brodie Croyle, who hasn’t played since Week 13 of last season. Croyle has a history of being fragile, so Tyler Palko, who was promoted from the practice squad this week, could be one big hit from being in charge in this huge game.

There’s little doubt how important Cassel is to Kansas City. He has thrown 23 touchdown passes this season and has been intercepted only four times. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Cassel has thrown 12 touchdowns while being blitzed -- second in the NFL behind Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers.

“Matt Cassel is playing almost error-free football right now and he has improved in so many areas,” Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. said. "[He has shown] ball security and precise footwork.”

Kansas City’s running game: With or without Cassel, expect Kansas City’s offensive game plan to revolve around its run game. Kansas City has the No. 1-ranked run game in the NFL, and the Chargers just showed they can be handled on the ground.

Oakland had 251 rushing yards in 52 carries in its win at San Diego. But before the Oakland game, San Diego’s middle of the defense was playing very stout against the run.

"After seeing what Oakland did, I totally expect the Chiefs to try to exploit the same thing," Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said. "Kansas City has the best run game in the NFL. Expect to see Jamaal Charles break some big runs in this game. San Diego has to stop the run, or the Chiefs will be in good shape."

Philip Rivers versus Kansas City’s secondary: The entire Chargers’ attack starts with Rivers, who is having an MVP-type season. He was neutralized some by the terrible weather in Kansas City in Week 1, but it is supposed to be a perfect Sunday in San Diego.

That’s passing weather, folks.

Williamson thinks a key for both teams is the matchup between Rivers and the Chiefs’ young secondary, which features standout cornerback Brandon Flowers and Brandon Carr (who had an excellent game against the Broncos last week) and rookie safety Eric Berry. The unit has been strong.

Still, Williamson thinks Rivers can win the battle.

"The guys in the Chiefs’ secondary are going to be jumping out of their skin trying to make a big play," Williamson said. "Rivers will be able to sense that. The Chiefs will have difficultly stopping Rivers, because most defenses do."

Will the Chiefs be nervous? This is the biggest NFL game of most of the Chiefs’ careers and it’s the biggest game of Todd Haley’s head-coaching career.

This type of high-pressure contest is nothing new to the Chargers or coach Norv Turner. The Chargers, who lost their first December game since 2005 last week, have won the past four AFC West titles and have been in this type of playoff atmosphere often.

This could be an edge in San Diego’s favor.

"I wonder if the Chiefs are going to be nervous or tight," Williamson said. "It could be a factor. You won't see San Diego pressing, but you might see the Chiefs and Haley do things out of character because they want to win so badly."

Can the Chiefs pressure Rivers? Rivers was shaky at times against Oakland. The Raiders pressured Rivers well and sacked him four times.

Just as the Chiefs' offense wants to exploit the Chargers’ problems stopping the run, their defense wants to create the same type of pressure on Rivers that Oakland enjoyed.

The Chiefs' defense features linebacker Tamba Hali. He has 10 sacks and has been one of the best defensive players in the NFL this season.

"The Chargers have to stop Hali, or at least contain him," Williamson said. "I love Hali and he is a game-changer. But I’m not sure the Chiefs have anyone else who can make Rivers uncomfortable. Hali is a real factor for both teams in this matchup."