It was only a month ago that the San Diego Chargers were in the midst of the AFC West race, trying to keep pace with the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs.
Now, they head to Arrowhead Stadium today playing for their season.
The Chargers (4-6) have lost three straight by a combined 18 points, and their chances of slipping into the playoffs are quickly slipping away. But if they can somehow knock off the rebounding Chiefs (9-1), they have four of their final five games at home.
“I don’t know if you ever say it’s your last chance,” Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said, “because I think they’re still going to kick off the other five, regardless. But I don’t think it’s a year where you can go 4-7 and still win the division.
“We know what we’ve done,” Rivers said. “We’ve lost some head-to-head games with other teams that are in the mix. But that’s not really what we’re concerned about. If you asked every player in there about the playoffs, they’d tell you it’s not even worth talking about right now. We’ve got to find a way to win a division game. We’re 0-2 in the division.”
They’re also staring up the standings at the Broncos and Chiefs.
Kansas City will be trying to bounce back from a loss in Denver last Sunday that gave the Broncos the upper hand in the AFC West. But the Chiefs will also be guarding against looking ahead to next week, when the Broncos play their return game at Arrowhead Stadium.
“It’s one loss,” Chiefs linebacker Tamba Hali said, “and our mindset right now is we’re playing another divisional game. We can’t hang our head on that game. There are more games for us to win and we just have to focus on the next team.”
The Chiefs said all the right things all week, praising the Chargers and pointing out all the close calls that could have turned San Diego’s record around. After all, they’re precisely the kind of close games Kansas City has made a habit of winning.
“These division games are so big, every single one of them,” Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said, “and they just get bigger as the season goes on.”
With that in mind, here are five story lines to watch for today:
HOMETOWN HEROES: Smith grew up in Southern California as a fan of the Chargers, and still remembers watching them lose to the 49ers in the Super Bowl after the 1994 season. “Grew up watching Stan Humphries and the Chargers play,” he said. “I mean, I remember watching that very well, pulling for the Chargers at the time.” He doesn’t pull for the Chargers anymore, and for good reason: They’ve beaten Smith the only two times he’s faced them.
NO FUN-DAMENTALS: One of the biggest reasons for the Chargers’ three-game swoon has been their lack of fundamentals. Chargers coach Mike McCoy said there were 12 missed tackles in last week’s loss to Miami, not to mention the blown coverages and costly penalties. “When I think of every game we lost this season, we made errors and we weren’t good enough to overcome them,” Chargers tight end Antonio Gates said. “It’s just too tough to overcome them.”
SACK ATTACK: The Chiefs were on pace to shatter the NFL record for sacks in a season with 35 through their first seven games. They have one in their last three. Teams have dealt with the pass rush by chipping linebackers, using maximum protection and simply having quarterbacks deliver the ball quicker. “When you have success, people find a way to slow that success down,” Hali said. “But we as rushers have to do a better job of trying to get there.”
CLOSING TIME: Kansas City has been among the best in the NFL at closing games in the fourth quarter. San Diego has had a much more difficult time, routinely failing to come through despite being within one possession in the fourth quarter the last three weeks. “I don’t know if it’s just late in games,” McCoy said. “You look back early in games at the opportunities you missed, and you see you have to be consistent throughout the game.”
SAFELY CONSERVATIVE: The Chiefs and Chargers have both erred on the side of caution, much to the chagrin of their fans. The Chiefs chose to kick a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the Denver 1 in their loss last week, while San Diego has made a habit of punting or kicking field goals when in similar fourth-down situations. “I think you have to attack,” Smith said, “but it changes week in and week out, depending on how a defense is playing you.”