Before the season started, the midseason matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers seemed like it might have playoff implications. Instead, both AFC West rivals are looking to get their seasons back on track.
The Chargers (3-4) have a perennial Pro Bowl quarterback (Philip Rivers) looking to regain his all-star form and end San Diego's three-game skid. Matt Cassel is also trying to rediscover his game while leading a Chiefs (1-6) offense that has been dismal for most of the season. Both squads likely view this as a contest they must win, so we could get a vintage AFC West shootout on NFL Network's Thursday Night Football (8:20 p.m. ET).
Here are three key questions heading into this matchup:
1. Can Norv Turner get Philip Rivers going again?
Rivers, who emerged as one of the NFL's elite quarterbacks during his first five seasons as the Chargers' starter, has been in a slump since the beginning of the 2011 campaign. During the ensuing 23-game span, Rivers has completed 63.4 percent of his passes, but he also sports a 37:29 touchdown-to-interception ratio, which is simply unacceptable for a player of his ilk. Granted, the Chargers have routinely trailed over the past season and a half, leading Rivers to try more high-risk throws, but his inability to secure the ball and his questionable decision-making have cost San Diego dearly in critical moments.
If the Chargers are to have a chance at jumping back into the playoff hunt, Turner must get his franchise quarterback to play well again. The Chargers might rely less on the vertical passing game and incorporate more short and intermediate routes designed to get Rivers into an early rhythm. If Rivers can string together some positive plays and resume performing at a high level, the Chargers could overpower the Chiefs and build some momentum heading down the stretch of this season.
2. Will Jamaal Charles get his touches?
Though he's one of the top running backs in the NFL, Charles has not been the focal point of the Chiefs' game plan. Charles has received 16 or more carries in just four of the Chiefs' seven games, despite gaining an average of 137 rushing yards in those contests. After Charles ran the ball just five times for four yards in a loss to the Oakland Raiders last Sunday, coach Romeo Crennel was at a loss for words when asked by reporters to explain the lack of touches for his offensive star.
With the season hanging in the balance, I would expect Crennel to encourage coordinator Brian Daboll to feed Charles early and often in an attempt to spark a unit that has struggled. If Charles can provide steady production early, the Chiefs will be able to open up the offense with their play-action passing game and generate points against a Chargers defense keyed on stopping the run.
3. What is going on with the Chiefs' defense?
Kansas City was expected to field one of the NFL's top defenses, but the unit has been a huge disappointment. Although the Chiefs have a core of supremely talented playmakers in linebackers Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson and safety Eric Berry, the defense has struggled in all aspects, particularly with regard to defending the run. Kansas City has surrendered 11 runs of 20 yards or more (the second-highest total in the NFL) while allowing 126.4 rushing yards per game. Those numbers are embarrassing, and are indicative of a defense that is failing to fill the proper gaps or tackle well at the point of attack.
Crennel had a sterling reputation as a defensive coordinator, and it's on him to find a way to get the defense to perform better. If he doesn't, his second stint as an NFL head coach will come to a premature end. That's why I expect Crennel to sell out on early downs to stop Ryan Mathews and Ronnie Brown on the ground in an attempt to force Rivers to throw against a loaded defense in passing situations. If the Chiefs can make San Diego one-dimensional, they'll have a chance to nab their second victory of the season.
The Chargers are in "must-win" mode after falling one game behind the Denver Broncos in the AFC West race. Though the Chiefs are also intent on turning around a dismal season, I believe Rivers will have the Chargers' offense ready to go in this one. The game will stay close for three quarters, but look for San Diego to pull away at the end.
Chargers 24, Chiefs 13
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.