This is a team that Kansas City fans are all too familiar with. The Chiefs see the Chargers twice a season, and over the years there has been no lack of the dramatics. Over the last two seasons, the Chiefs have split the series,* but it’s not long ago when the Chargers used to be the scourge of the Earth.
*Including one of the greatest moments of my life: the Halloween victory over the Chargers in 2011 with the fabled fumbled snap. Oh, and the 2010 season opener on Monday Night Football against the Chargers will always be high on that list too.
Luckily for the Chiefs, the Chargers have fallen off over the last two seasons, and the inability or unwillingness to retain talent might be the key. Just the difference in the Chargers now from the last time they won the AFC West, 2009, is staggering. No LaDainian Tomlinson, no Darren Sproles, no Vincent Jackson, no Kevin Burnett, no Shaun Merriman,* or Marcus McNeill; the list goes on and on of Pro Bowlers and good players no longer with the team.
*This one they are probably better off without.
And while the Chargers’ roster has gotten worse from its title-contention-just-to-fall-short-in-the-playoffs-in-disappointing-fashion days, the Chiefs’ roster has improved each year since 2009. The Chiefs 2010 division title is a testament to that, and also, possibly the beginning of the end for the Chargers AFC West dominance.
Just like every other offense, it’s defined by the quarterback play.* And that quarterback play is executed by the four-time, Pro-Bowler Philip Rivers. While, as a Chiefs fan, I can’t say I enjoy Rivers, I do respect him as one of the top quarterbacks in the game. And although his ‘scrambling’ ability hasn’t impressed the analysts, I certainly remember the days of Charger dominance with Rivers and his Hall-of-Fame pace at the helm. Currently, Rivers is 69/103 for 688 yards, four TDs and three INTs.
*Except if you have Jamaal Charles on your team.
For the first time this season, Ryan Mathews, the former first-round pick from 2010, returned to the starting lineup last week against the Atlanta Falcons. If trying to replace LT wasn’t hard enough, a broken collarbone in the preseason couldn’t have helped anything. In Mathews return, he had 10 rushes for 44 yards and a fumble. But that is to be expected coming off an injury. For some comparison data, Mathews has 70 carries for 298 yards and three TDs in four games (of which the Chiefs have never allowed him to rush for more than 98 yards). As far as the backups: former Dolphins first round pick Ronnie Brown, and former Chief Jackie Battle.* And let’s not forget one-time Chiefs full back and fan-favorite, Le’Ron McClain.
*Who is currently leading the Chargers in rushing … with 124 yards.
The Charger’s wide receiver position took a hit this year with the loss of Vincent Jackson in free agency. The team tried to compensate for the loss with the additions of former first round pick Robert Meachum from New Orleans* and Eddie Royal from Denver. They Chargers still have Malcolm Floyd, who will be there for quite a few years to come after his new contract extension he received earlier in the week. The deal is good for three years and $11 million, a great deal for a number one receiver, if, that is, you believe Floyd a number one receiver.
*I guess the Chiefs are dat.
It’s hard to think of the Chargers without Antonio Gates, but over the last couple of years, that’s what Chargers fans have had to do with all the injuries Gates has battled as of late. Since 2010, Gates has missed nine games due to those various injuries. It’s because of those injuries that spurred on the signing of Dante Rosario, who had four catches for three TDs against the Titans, and the drafting of Ladarius Green from Louisiana-Lafayette in the fourth round.
As far as the offensive line is concerned, it is in a stage of transition. McNeill is shot, and four-time Pro Bowl guard Kris Deilman announced an early retirement after concussion concerns (and a seizure on an airplane). McNeill’s replacement, Jared Gaither,* brought instant insurance to the left tackle position in 2011 but has been injured so far in 2012 and is questionable heading into Sunday. Nick Hardwick, the 2006 Pro Bowler, still leads the offensive line from the center position, but the rest of the line isn’t great.
*Who Chiefs fans will remember as the guy who became great in San Diego but couldn’t even replace Barry Richardson at right tackle last season while with the Chiefs.
The defense for the Chargers is dealing with a new coordinator, firing Greg Manusky after just one season. The new coordinator is John Pagano, brother of Colt’s new head coach Chuck Pagano. John Pagano had served as the linebackers coach under Manusky. And although Manusky might not have been given a fair shake in San Diego, Pagano is inheriting a talented defensive group.
For the second year in a row, the Chargers took a defensive player in the first round. Melvin Ingram from South Carolina was their pick in 2011, and Corey Liuget from Illinois was their selection in 2010. While Liuget is starting at defensive end, Ingram is backing up free agent acquisition and underrated linebacker Jarret Johnson, who they got from the Ravens.
Running the Pagano-essential 3-4 defense, the very colorful Antonio Garay anchors the nose tackle position, while the well-traveled Vaughn Martin finishes the starting defensive line. Aubrayo Franklin, who I had quietly wanted the Chiefs to pursue in free agency over the last two seasons, is Garay’s backup while 2012 second-round pick Kendall Reyes from Connecticut is the reserve for both end positions.
For the linebackers, Shaun Phillips, the 2010 Pro Bowl selection, and Donald Butler sure up the outside linebacker positions while Johnson and the ageless wonder Takeo Spikes* man the middle. Former Chief Demorrio Williams, and former 2009 first round pick Larry English** serve as reserves. As you can tell, the front seven of the Chargers is formidable.
Veterans Quentin Jammer – first round pick in 2002 – and Antoine Cason – 2008 first-round pick – are the starters at the cornerback positions, although Jammer is dealing with an injury and listed as probable. For the rest of the defensive backfield, free agent Atari Bigby is at the strong safety position and currently leading the team in tackles at 27, while 2011 Pro Bowler Eric Weddle* returns to his free safety position.
So far, Pagano’s defense has held opponents to 67.3 rushing yards per game (4th in NFL) and 238.3 yards passing per game (17th in the NFL). If the defense keeps that up, A.J. Smith* might not have to fire him in order to save his own job … again.
*And still 0-for-infinity in the playoffs
Punter: Mike Scifres – averaging 42.5 net yards per punt in 2012
The Chiefs have defeated the Chargers in Kansas City the last two seasons in a row in prime time. Will a noon game slow them down? Let’s just hope the Chiefs’ win over the Saints last week will carry over to Sunday and give the Chiefs first place in the AFC West.