SAN DIEGO -- If this was a statement game then the statement goes something like this: Good luck, Kansas City. You're going to need it.
Yeah, OK, despite Sunday's 31-0 shredding, the Chiefs still lead the AFC West by a game over San Diego. Moreover, two of their last three starts are at Arrowhead Stadium, where they haven't lost. Plus, they could have quarterback Matt Cassel back by next weekend.
All of that is good.
|Philip Rivers says the Chargers 'have to win out,' no exceptions. (Getty Images)|
In fact, based on what I just witnessed, I'd be shocked if the Bolts lose again. They play San Francisco here Thursday, then finish with road games in Cincinnati and Denver, and do the math, people -- those opponents are a combined 10-29.
Kansas City, meanwhile, plays at St. Louis, then follows with home games against Tennessee and Oakland -- and now you know why I'm not so sure the second-place team in the AFC West isn't in the better position.
It's not that the Chargers overwhelmed the Chiefs. It's how they did it. We all know they can pass. But they ran for 159 yards more than the league's top running team, they had five drives of 50 yards or more, their top-ranked defense just produced its first shutout since 2007 and they did all this with tight end Antonio Gates sitting on the sideline. What's more, they have running back Ryan Mathews and wide receiver Vincent Jackson back in the lineup, and they draw three stiffs the rest of the way.
So what's not to like? Granted, they have to run the table from here on out, but big deal. They did that last year. And the year before that. And the year before that.
"There's no reason we have to sugar-coat it," Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said. "We have to win it out. We made it known before this game. Norv (coach Norv Turner) made it known. We all made it known. We have to win out. All this 'one-game-at-a-time' [talk] is the way to win, but the truth of the matter is we can't lose. Understanding that, on Jan. 2 we just want to know we've done all we can do. And if it's enough, it's enough."
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Fair enough. Now look what Kansas City is up against: It scored 10 points its past two games. Star receiver Dwayne Bowe has one catch for 3 yards in two weeks after going seven straight games with TDs. Its defense just completed one of its worst performances, gashed for 426 yards, with San Diego converting 11 of 15 third downs -- or 73 percent -- and controlling the ball over 40 minutes. And its offense ... what offense? It produced a season-low 67 yards, five first downs and failed on all 11 of its third downs.
I know, I know, Cassel didn't play, and that was a factor. The guy has 19 touchdown pass and only one interception the past eight games, and backup Brodie Croyle is 0-10 as a starter. But the Chiefs had the NFL's best running game, and Croyle can hand off just as easily as Cassel. Plus, San Diego was coming off a blowout loss where it hemorrhaged 251 yards to the Oakland Raiders.
There was no reason to believe it could stop these guys, yet it did -- so completely, so effectively and so decisively that on their last series the Chiefs, down by 31, ran out the clock by having quarterback Tyler Palko kneel down.
"You have to let it go," said Chiefs running back Thomas Jones, "but you can't."
Well, the Chiefs better try. Because if they can’t get rid of this hangover -- if they respond to this embarrassment as the New York Jets responded from their 45-3 beatdown in New England -- it could be over. I guess that's why coach Todd Haley afterward was preaching resilience to his team, reminding players how they responded to a loss in Houston this season where they should have won and a hammering in Denver where they did virtually nothing right.
In both instances, they responded with victories.
"If you lose a bunch, or too much," said Haley, "it becomes habit, and you say, 'Here we go again.' What's important for our team is that when you have a devastating, or critical, loss at a big, big moment in your season you can use that to work harder and make you prepare a little more diligently.
"You can lose a game like this, and we've done that this year [but] ... the past has nothing to do with the future and present. What we need to do is take this devastating loss and use it as a catalyst to try to make ourselves better for these last three games."
What the Chiefs need to do is get Cassel back in the lineup. Haley said afterward there is no timetable for recovery, though Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger in 2007 bounced back from his appendectomy in two weeks to play. That doesn't mean Cassel is OK. But it does mean there's hope -- and, trust me, the Chiefs are going to need it ... or him. Because what we've learned about this team is that when Cassel plays it doesn't make mistakes, it can close out opponents in tight games and it doesn't lose at home.
But that was before this. That was before the schedule started winding down, and games took on additional importance. Kansas City has laid the foundation for future success by winning more in 13 starts this season than it did its previous 42 games, but this is not about the future. This is about now, and for San Diego to win its fifth straight division championship the Chiefs must lose of one of their last three.
I don't know that that happens, but I do know that if the Chiefs don't improve dramatically from their latest performance they might as well pull to one side of the road and wave San Diego forward. I mean, they couldn't run. They dropped an alarming number of passes. They couldn't tackle. They stunk.
"We should have played a little bit harder," said safety Eric Berry.
No, they shouldn't. They should've play a lot harder. And they must now ... or else.