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NFL Preview - Kansas City (3-7) at San Diego (7-3)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - It's the AFC West, so something's gotta give.
Just a week after the Denver Broncos' six-game season-starting win streak reached four games on the flip side, the conference's warm-weather division is host to another watershed contest.
In one corner, the suddenly white-hot San Diego Chargers, who've turned yet another disappointing 2-3 start into yet another five-game skein that's given them ownership of the division's premier standings spot.
Meanwhile, the Kansas City Chiefs enter with mediocrity's version of a hot streak after winning two in a row since the addition-by-subtraction move that sent Larry Johnson packing.
First-year coach Todd Haley's squad began turning around a 1-7 start with a not-so-surprising downing of the equally hapless Oakland Raiders in Week 10, then continued the climb with a much-more-shocking OT defeat of the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers seven days later.
Ryan Succop's 22-yard field goal in the extra session capped off a nine-point day Sunday and kick-started another game week's worth of optimism in the Missouri plains.
"I'm a rookie head coach and am passionate about what I do," Haley said. "I live and die every day on how it goes with this team - not just game day. When you care about something, there is going to be some emotion. It's easy to be positive when good things are happening."
The turnaround has registered with the media as well, yielding equally positive commentary from Kansas City Star columnist Jason Whitlock.
"Good things happen when you expect positive results, when you put your mind in a positive place, when you treat the people fighting with you like they have as much invested in the outcome as you do," Whitlock said in a post-game piece Sunday.
"Haley's transformation from coaching mad man to competent leader has been going on for several weeks. Sunday, he finally struck the right balance. His team reflected his new spirit. The players wanted to shock the Steelers as much as their coach, whose father played and worked for the Steelers.
"Are things perfect between Haley and his players? No. But there's been a lot of progress."
As for the Chargers, their late-season brand of progress is hardly new.
Coach Norv Turner and Co. stumbled from the gate an inglorious 4-8 in 2008, then won four straight at the end to catch the Broncos and win the division en route to a second-round playoff appearance.
They began the stretch drive a bit earlier this time around, downing the Chiefs by 30 on Oct. 25 before subsequent defeats of Oakland, the New York Giants, Philadelphia and the Broncos, the last of which came last week by 29 points.
Denver had won the first go-round this season by 11.
The Chargers are 19-4 against the West since 2006 and have won three straight in the division.
"When you go beat a team like that, sometimes people assume, 'You went to Kansas City and you should beat them because they're not very good,' or 'You beat Oakland because they aren't very good,'" Turner said.
"Then you turn around and see Kansas City beat Pittsburgh and Oakland beat Cincinnati, two pretty good football teams, then it starts to reconfirm some of the things I believe. Maybe I haven't lost it completely in terms of understanding completely what this league is all about."
Kansas City holds a 50-47-1 lead in a regular season series with San Diego that dates back to 1960, when the Chiefs franchise was known as the Dallas Texans and the Chargers resided in Los Angeles. The Chargers have won four straight in the series, including a 37-7 win when they visited Kansas City in Week 7 and a home-and-home sweep of the Chiefs last season. San Diego took one-point nail-biters at both Qualcomm Stadium (20-19) in Week 10 and Arrowhead Stadium (22-21) in Week 15 of last year. The Chiefs last defeated the Chargers in 2007, when they came up a 30-16 winner in their trip to Qualcomm Stadium.
In addition to their regular season history, the teams have met once in the postseason, with the Chargers scoring a 17-0 home victory over the Chiefs in a 1992 AFC First-Round Playoff.
Turner is 4-6 against the Chiefs as a head coach, including 4-1 since taking over in San Diego. Kansas City's Haley is 0-1 against both Turner and the Chargers as a head coach.
WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL
Bereft of its two most identifiable names from the beginning of the season - Johnson and wide receiver Dwayne Bowe (suspension) - the Chiefs turned to no- name running back Jamaal Charles against the Steelers and were rewarded with a 97-yard kickoff return TD and a subsequent scoring catch from quarterback Matt Cassel. Recent acquisition Chris Chambers, an ex-Charger, is another key addition and caught four passes for 119 yards, including a game-high 61-yarder. He's averaged 24.9 yards per catch since joining Kansas City. Cassel, who led the New England Patriots to 11 wins in place of Tom Brady last season before a high-profile trade, completed 15-of-30 passes against Pittsburgh for 248 yards and a pair of scores. Cassel is 13-11 as a starter and has 32 TDs and an 84.6 passer rating. Tight end Leonard Pope caught his first TD pass last week since December 2007 with Arizona.
The Chargers continued a recent trend of stinginess against Denver, holding the Broncos to less than 300 yards of total offense to drop their weekly average for the season to a slightly more respectable 321.1. Of that total, 118.5 is on the ground and 202.6 is through the air. Linebacker Shaun Phillips leads a pressure-heavy defense with six sacks, two ahead of fellow linebacker Shawne Merriman. Cornerback Antonio Cromartie has three of the team's 10 interceptions. Linebacker Stephen Cooper, a product of the University of Maine, leads with 77 tackles - 57 solo. Phillips has 5.5 sacks in his last six games against the Chiefs, while Cromartie seeks a third straight game overall with an interception. Yet another linebacker, Kevin Burnett, had two sacks against Denver last week and has registered a career-best three so far in 2009. The Chargers had three interceptions in the teams' first matchup this season.
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
Don't look now, but standout running back LaDainian Tomlinson is turning back the clock. The former TCU star rumbled for 73 yards and a touchdown against the Broncos, a week after going for 96 yards and two touchdowns in a defeat of the Eagles. He averages 90.6 yards per game against Kansas City and has 458 yards on 135 carries overall. The rushing attack of Tomlinson and Mike Tolbert provided the bulk of a 203-yard ground attack against Denver. On average, though, San Diego picks up just 87.9 of its 336.2 total weekly yards via rush. In the air, quarterback Philip Rivers needs 379 yards to hit 3,000 for the fourth straight season. He is 9-2 at home against the West with an 84.1 passer rating. Wideout Vincent Jackson is a TD short of surpassing a career-high set last year. Tight end Antonio Gates, who leads the team with 52 catches, has nine TDs against the Chiefs - his most against any foe.
Stoutness hasn't been a hallmark of the KC defense, which has allowed a hefty 389.5 yards per week even with the two recent wins. Nearly 140 come on the ground, while 250.9 are through the air. Even the Steelers gashed the Chiefs, with Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger going for 32 completions, 398 passing yards and three TDs in defeat. A plus-3 turnover margin has helped turn the tide, including four interceptions in the past two games. Linebacker Andy Studebaker had his first two career picks against Pittsburgh and returned one 94 yards. End Wallace Gilberry and linebacker Tamba Hall each have 3.5 of the team's 15 sacks through 10 games. Linebacker DeMorrio Williams has a team-best 84 tackles and has deflected two passes. Helping the field position game has been busy punter Dustin Colquitt, who leads the league with 29 punts inside the 20-yard-line.
For the Chiefs, a motivated Chambers is a logical choice against ex-mates, and the suddenly surging Charles is emerging as a much more pleasant alternative to the exiled Johnson. For the Chargers, it's the usual suspects - Tomlinson, Jackson, Gates, Rivers - against what figures to be a generous defense. Speaking of defense, San Diego's is more likely to provide worthwhile points.
OK, we'll bite on a few fairy tales. Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, heck... even the Great Pumpkin makes the list. But not the Chiefs on the road against a first-place divisional foe in the season's final stages. The matchups are too heavy in San Diego's favor, even in what some could portray as a trap.
Bottom line, the Chargers are too good. And Kansas City, well... isn't.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Chargers 27, Chiefs 14
11/25 16:50:37 ET