SAN DIEGO –- One of the most followed and intriguing storylines of the days leading up to Sunday's NFL play involved the San Diego Chargers.
They just chose to ignore it.
While Matt Cassel’s appendectomy Wednesday made national headlines and doused the city of Kansas City in worry in advance of the Chiefs’ biggest game in four years, the Chargers weren’t exactly hitting the refresh buttons on their computers looking for Cassel updates.
All the Chargers were doing -- especially the defense -- was rehashing the events of last Sunday, when the Raiders thrashed them 28-13. The Raiders ran for 251 yards on the No. 1 defense in the NFL, giving the Chargers acute stomach pain of their own. That was all San Diego focused on. It needed to find a way to not get gutted by the run, no matter whether Cassel would make a fast recovery, the winless Brodie Croyle would hit the field for the first time in more than a year or if the legendary Len Dawson would come down from the radio booth.
“To be honest, we really never talked about the Cassel thing -- we thought it was going to be him,” Chargers safety Eric Weddle said. “Guys weren’t looking at the Internet [Saturday night]. We thought it was Cassel until we heard he didn’t make the trip. But the truth was, it was about us and getting back to what we do and that’s stopping the run. That was the focus.”
Added San Diego cornerback Quentin Jammer: “It didn’t matter if it was Cassel or Brodie Croyle. We just couldn’t let what happened against Oakland happen again. It was all about stopping that great running game.”
I guess we all wasted our time following the Cassel saga.
Still, a healthy Cassel could have given the Chiefs a better chance than Croyle -- now 0-10 as an NFL starter -- did in a dominating 31-0 San Diego win on Sunday. But the way San Diego was playing, it's doubtful Cassel, who could return next week, would have been the difference between victory and defeat.
San Diego held Kansas City to 67 yards of total offense, while its own offense had great balance, compiling 426 total yards. Because of the great defensive effort and balanced offensive attack, San Diego held the ball for 40 minutes, 10 seconds.
The result of the utter San Diego domination is a tight AFC West race. Kansas City is now 8-5 and leads the Chargers (7-6) by one game with three games to go. Oakland fell to 6-7 and remains two games behind Kansas City after a 38-31 loss at Jacksonville.
The Chiefs are still in control of the division and can secure their first playoff berth since 2006 by winning at St. Louis next week and then beating Tennessee and Oakland at home to end the season. Kansas City is 6-0 at home. With the benefit of an easy final three games, the Chargers are still in win-out mode with a home game against San Francisco looming on Thursday and back-to-back road games in Cincinnati and Denver.
A win at San Diego would have put the Chiefs one win from the division crown. But the Chargers were clearly not ready to give up their four-year hold on the division, even though that appeared to be the case in a lackluster loss to the Raiders, which ended a four-game San Diego winning streak and was the team’s first December loss since 2005.
“We were bad against Oakland,” Jammer said. “Getting better started Monday morning. We had to go out and make sure we were better than what we showed last week. We were not good last week.”
The task was tall. Kansas City entered the game with the NFL’s best running attack. But with Croyle playing very conservatively, the Chargers teed off on Kansas City’s running game. San Diego held Jamaal Charles to 40 yards on 10 carries and Thomas Jones to one yard on three carries. It was a season low for both players.
Croyle didn’t help. The Chargers never had reason to respect the pass Sunday. Croyle finished 7-for- 17 passing for 40 yards. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Croyle was 0-for-8 on passes that traveled 10 yards or more. Croyle hadn’t played since Week 13 of last season and it showed.
With Croyle not a factor and the Chiefs running most of the time on first and second down, the Chargers simply hunkered down and were much more aggressive and physical against the run Sunday than they were against the Raiders. Kansas City was 0-for-11 on third down. It had a total of five first downs.
“I was just a matter of focus,” Weddle said.
Kansas City coach Todd Haley was disappointed his entire team was listless in a game of this magnitude without Cassel, who missed the entire week of practice.
“We needed the whole team to step up and play our best game,” Haley said. “We didn’t come close to doing it.”
A week ago, the now refocused Chargers knew exactly how Haley felt.