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NFL Preview - Kansas City (8-5) at St. Louis (6-7)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - As the St. Louis Rams have put together an incredible turnaround behind rookie quarterback Sam Bradford, the Kansas Chiefs showed last weekend just how much they depend on their starting quarterback.
Kansas City will hope to have Matt Cassel back under center this Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome as it battles St. Louis in a meeting of division leaders.
The Chiefs own an 8-5 record on the season, but that is good enough for just a half-game edge over the San Diego Chargers. Kansas City lost a 31-0 debacle in San Diego last weekend and the Chargers picked up a half-game this past Thursday with a victory over the San Francisco 49ers to put the pressure on the Chiefs.
Cassel missed last Sunday's game after undergoing an appendectomy earlier in the week and Kansas City managed just 67 yards of offense without its starting quarterback. Brodie Croyle started in Cassel's place, but completed just 7- of-17 pass attempts for 40 yards.
The setback landed a minor blow to the Chiefs' playoff hopes, as they could have eliminated the Chargers from the race for the AFC West crown with a victory. Instead they had a three-game winning streak halted and fell to 2-5 on the road this year.
"We have to see this game for what it is," said Kansas City head coach Todd Haley. "We have to understand that San Diego clearly played better than us, it wasn't even close. We didn't do enough to win in too many areas [last week]."
The Chiefs, who haven't made the postseason in each of the last three seasons, are aiming for their first division title since 2003. Having Cassel back could help those chances, and the 28-year-old was able to return to practice on a limited basis Wednesday, though he remains day-to-day.
"It's great to be back out there," Cassel said on Wednesday. "The medical staff, the trainers and the coaches will discuss it and see where I'm at. If I can go out there and throw and move around without discomfort, I want to play."
Bradford, the top pick of the 2010 draft, has helped his club post six wins already this season, which matches their total from the previous three years combined. However, he went through some rookie struggles last Sunday in New Orleans as the Rams fell to 6-7 on the season with a 31-13 setback to the Saints.
Bradford threw a pair of interceptions in Saints' territory, one of which was returned for 96 yards and a score right before halftime to give the Rams a 21-6 deficit.
"Turnovers killed us," said Bradford. "Turnovers hurt you everywhere, but when you get into the red zone and turn the ball over, it just gives the other team all of the momentum in the world. I've got to be better when we're down there and I have got to be smarter with the football. I just can't make those mistakes."
The Rams had a two-game win streak snapped in the finale of a three-game swing, but were able to maintain their share of the lead in the NFC West with Seattle thanks to a loss by the Seahawks on Sunday.
St. Louis now plays its next two games at home, where it is 4-2 this season.
On the milestone watch, Chiefs running back Thomas Jones is just 17 yards shy of becoming the 25th player in NFL history to rush for 10,000 in his career.
The Chiefs lead the all-time series with the Rams, 5-4, breaking a deadlock in the series with a 31-17 road win when the teams last met in 2006. The Rams are 0-4 against the Chiefs since moving to St. Louis in 1995, with their last win a 16-0 blanking (as the Los Angeles Rams) at Arrowhead Stadium in 1994. The Rams' only home win in the history of the series came in 1982, a 27-20 victory in Anaheim.
The Chiefs are 2-0 in St. Louis since a loss there to the Cardinals in 1986.
Haley and Rams' Steve Spagnuolo will be meeting each other, as well as their counterpart's respective teams, for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL
While Kansas City would love to have Cassel (2503 passing yards, 23 TD, 4 INT) for this weekend's matchup, what it really needs is to be able to keep running backs Jamaal Charles (1177 rushing yards, 36 receptions, 4 total TD) and Jones (766 rushing yards, 5 TD) as part of the game plan. Due to the size of last weekend's blowout, Charles -- the league's third-leading rusher -- ran the ball just 10 times for 40 yards, while Jones had just one yard on three carries. There is a reason the Chiefs are at the top of their division, and its because of a top-ranked ground game that is averaging 165.4 yards per week. If Cassel does return, then Kansas City's offensive line will need to step up after Croyle was sacked four times by the Chargers. Cassel, who has been sacked just 17 times this year, likely won't be able to take such a pounding given his recent medical procedure. Dwayne Bowe (59 receptions, 14 TD) leads all NFL wide receivers in touchdown receptions, but he was limited to just one catch versus San Diego and hasn't grabbed a scoring pass in back-to-back games after doing so in seven straight. Charles, tight end Tony Moeaki (38 receptions, 3 TD) and wide receiver Terrance Copper (17 receptions) all finished last week with two catches, with Copper's 15 receiving yards leading the team.
The Rams' 13th-ranked defense (333.9 ypg) ran into a red-hot Saints offense on Sunday and was tagged for 345 yards. New Orleans used a three-back attack to post 132 rushing yards against St. Louis, while quarterback Drew Brees threw for 221 yards with three touchdown passes. The Rams did come away with a pair of interceptions last week, giving them 12 on the season. Safety Chris Dahl (78 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) picked off a pass for a second game in a row, while cornerback Bradley Fletcher (63 tackles, 4 INT) also came up with an interception. Fletcher should have his starting partner back this weekend, as Ron Bartell (44 tackles) missed last week's loss with a shoulder stinger but hopes to return for this game. The 6-foot-1 corner should be tasked with shutting down Bowe if he can play. Safety Darian Stewart had St. Louis' only sack last week, but the Rams have been able to get pressure all season long. Defensive end James Hall (38 tackles) leads the club with 7 1/2 sacks, while fellow end Chris Long (25 tackles) has 6 1/2. Six of Long's quarterback takedowns have come in his last eight games. Dahl and Fletcher both ended with a team-leading nine tackles against the Saints, while linebacker and leading tackler James Laurinaitis (87 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT) had eight.
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
With the Rams in the thick of the NFC West title hunt, the club has to hope the pressure isn't getting to Bradford (2884 passing yards, 17 TD, 12 INT). The Oklahoma product threw for 231 yards on 18-of-32 passing versus the Saints, getting sacked three times in addition to his two picks while also scoring on a one-yard touchdown run late in the game. Bradford has been picked off three times without a scoring pass in his last two games after notching an 11-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio over his previous six games. St. Louis' 20th-ranked pass attack continues to spread the ball out, as wide receiver Brandon Gibson (44 receptions, 2 TD) was the leader versus the Saints with four receptions for 67 yards. Wideout Laurent Robinson (27 receptions, 1 TD) added a pair of catches for 61 yards and tight end Daniel Fells (31 receptions, 2 TD) notched three for 26 yards. Running back Steven Jackson (1081 rushing yards, 4 TD) made four catches for 38 yards and totaled 96 rushing yards on 16 carries. However, the talented back also lost a fumble for the first time this season. With Bradford and Jackson both playing a lot of mistake-free football this year, the Rams are ninth in the NFL with an average time of possession of 31 minutes and 18 seconds.
With the Chiefs' offense doing next to nothing last weekend versus the Chargers, the team's 18th-ranked defense (341.9 ypg) was on the field for just over 40 minutes in the game. As a result, the unit allowed 426 total yards, including 207 on the ground on 43 San Diego run attempts. Two of San Diego's four touchdowns also came from running backs. Kansas City did force a pair of turnovers, getting rookie cornerback Eric Berry's (76 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 INT) team-leading fifth interception of the season as well as a strip sack from linebacker Tamba Hali (43 tackles, 11 sacks) that was recovered by defensive end Wallace Gilberry (19 tackles, 4 sacks). Defensive end Tyson Jackson (24 tackles, 1 sacks) also came away with a sack -- the first of his career -- and linebacker Derrick Johnson (99 tackles, 1 sacks, 1 INT) paced the defense with nine tackles. Cornerback Brandon Carr (46 tackles) added eight stops and Berry finished with seven. Hali has already set a new career high for sacks in a season, and the Penn State product has three in his last two games. Like the Rams, the Chiefs are allowing 20.6 points per game, tied for 14th in the NFL.
Charles owners have to be happy that he is becoming the focal point of Kansas City's ground attack with Jones taking a bit of a back seat. Charles is a must-start while Jones is a flex play at best. Cassel's status has to be monitored up until kickoff, while Bowe and Moeaki's value takes a hit if he is out. Kansas City's defense will be looking to bounce back and has a decent matchup, while kicker Ryan Succop has missed five of his 20 field goal tries.
Steven Jackson is the Rams' only must-start, while Bradford has emerged as a low-risk play and should put up decent numbers. The offense spreads the ball out too much for any receivers to warrant a start. St. Louis' plus-five turnover differential makes the defense a decent play, while kicker Josh Brown has made 26 field goals on the season.
The Rams and Chiefs have been two of the bigger surprises this year, though the sad state of the NFC West has kept the Rams in contention despite a mark below .500. Both teams are coming off disappointing losses, though Kansas City figures to be stinging the most. It's a tough call without knowing if Cassel will play, but Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger was able to return after missing just one game with the same procedure a few seasons ago. Still, one has to wonder just what kind of shape Cassel -- and in effect the offense -- will be in. The Rams have been good at home this year and should deliver another blow to Kansas City's playoff hopes.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Rams 23, Chiefs 17
12/17 11:08:42 ET