Chiefs vs. Bills: 5 Keys to the Game for Kansas City
Buffalo came into Arrowhead to start last season and left the Chiefs broken both physically and mentally. The illusion of being the defending AFC West champs shattered long before time expired on a 41-7 blowout that ended Eric Berry's season with a torn ACL.
It practically ended the entire team's season before it started, too. Kansas City would then go to Detroit and lose 48-3 with Jamaal Charles joining Berry and Tony Moeaki on injured reserve.
Now, this payback isn't about some personal vendetta. Head coach Chan Gailey did well for the Chiefs in 2008. Gailey also spoke to the media this week to let people know the Bills had no intent on injuring Berry.
No, this is solely about the Chiefs and banishing the specter of last year's dysfunctional season. Especially after last week's collapse against the Atlanta Falcons, Kansas City needs a solid win to get this season headed in the right direction; to do that, they need to execute on these five things both on Sunday and for the rest of the season.
If they don't, the Chiefs could find themselves mired in the same funk that almost ended their last season before it began.
Avoid the Quicksand
Have you ever watched "The Replacements"?
It's a fun movie; not necessarily a great movie with its cookie-cutter storyline, but good for plenty of laughs. I especially love how after the center makes a touchdown John Madden talks about how he "loves to see a fat man score."
That part doesn't relate to the Chiefs, but the clip above does. In a team meeting, Gene Hackman asks about what fears his players have on the field. After some requisite jokes, Keanu Reeves talks about "quicksand", where one bad thing happens and the harder you try to make up for it, the more bad things happen.
Against the Atlanta Falcons in the third quarter, the Chiefs got caught in quicksand.
First Ryan Succop missed a field goal. Then Atlanta moved down the field for a touchdown. Kansas City was down by 10 points but not out of it.
Six minutes later, the Chiefs ran three plays for negative yards, coughed up two turnovers and watched the Falcons score twice. Quicksand doesn't get much quicker.
Kansas City possesses the talent to overcome the occasional mistake. There are enough explosive players on both sides of the ball to come from behind, but they can't deviate from what kept them in the game until that point.
When they do that, mistakes happen. And all the talent in the world won't matter when your team gets mired in the quicksand.
Get Healthy and Get on the Field
Another time when talent doesn't do a team any good is when it's on the bench.
Kansas City's offense and defense both suffered from the start of the season last year without their top performers. This year, the offense is fine, but the same can't be said of the defense.
As if losing Tamba Hali for a one-game suspension wasn't bad enough, the Chiefs played the Falcons without three other starters—Brandon Flowers, Kendrick Lewis and Anthony Toribio. Atlanta couldn't do much on the ground but carved Kansas City up in the passing game with nearly 300 yards and three touchdowns.
Two of those players should find their way back into the lineup against Buffalo. Flowers went through his first full practice on Thursday, a sure sign that he's looking to take the field on Sunday given Romeo Crennel's comments earlier in the week.
The same can't be said of Lewis and Toribio, unfortunately. Neither player fully participated in practice; Lewis might not even be ready until the end of October. Fortunately, the drop in talent isn't as extreme in either case with Abram Elam and rookie Dontari Poe respectively waiting in the wings.
Meanwhile, Hali sounds ready to make up for lost playing time after sitting out next week, and his intensity should elevate the play of those around him. To say Hali doesn't take off plays is an understatement; until the whistle blows he's looking for a way to get to the ball-carrier. He just doesn't stop, ever.
The Chiefs need to see more of that as the season progresses.
Bring Some Intensity on Defense
Did I mention how important Tamba Hali's relentless motor is to Kansas City's defense?
Well, it's so important that it bears repeating. Last week against Atlanta, the Chiefs did well plugging the running lanes; Falcons running backs averaged less than three yards per carry on 20 attempts.
But that aggressive play didn't carry over to stopping the pass. Atlanta's receivers found plenty of space to get open, particularly on the intermediate routes. The Chiefs did a fair job of swarming the receiver once he caught the ball but need to do better. Buffalo might not have Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez, but Steve Johnson is plenty dangerous in his own right and C.J. Spiller is a fair receiver out of the backfield. By the time the ball is in their hands the damage is done.
Hali will complete the pass-rushing tandem Kansas City needed since trading Jared Allen to the Vikings. With him and Justin Houston both in the lineup, Ryan Fitzpatrick should have considerably less time in the pocket.
But Kansas City needs more aggression in the secondary to take advantage of that pressure. If the Chiefs can jam Buffalo's receivers at the line and start getting to Fitzpatrick, they will create opportunities for interceptions—a problem Fitzpatrick has yet to shake.
Take Advantage of Kansas City's Depth at Running Back
Two years ago, Kansas City led the league in rushing yards and won the AFC West division title.
In case you were wondering, those two things weren't a coincidence.
Jamaal Charles experienced his own NFL coming out party in 2010 when he came within one carry of breaking Jim Brown's record for yards per carry in a season. He partnered with a talented but aged Thomas Jones for over 2,300 yards on the ground.
But Jones hit a wall last year and Charles ended his season almost before it began with a trip to the injured reserve list. So Kansas City replaced Jones with 26-year-old Peyton Hillis, then drafted the agile Cyrus Gray in the sixth round.
That alone should have cemented Kansas City's running back position. But then a pair of undrafted players—Nate Eachus and Shaun Draughn—fought their way onto the roster. Draughn showed plenty of speed, while Eachus looked like a workhorse in the preseason.
With a stable of running backs like this, the Chiefs would be foolish to not base their offense on their ability to carry the ball. Charles shows no sign in his game that he spent the last year rehabbing a torn ACL while Hillis looks determined to show his last year in Cleveland was a fluke rather than the norm.
This Sunday should provide plenty of opportunities for some or all of these running backs. The Bills had little success in stopping the Jets' Shonn Greene last week and should face an even greater challenge when the Chiefs come to town.
When All Else Fails, Get the Ball to Dexter McCluster
With all the upgrades at running back and wide receiver on the Chiefs' roster, more than a couple people wondered what to do with Dexter McCluster.
Should Kansas City keep him or trade him? Would he stay on the roster at running back or receiver? Was there a chance he might not even make the team?
In all the speculation at websites and water coolers, "go to receiver" likely didn't come up.
But that's what McCluster's been these last few weeks. He saw plenty of action in the preseason, at first putting to rest the chance of him being cut. And with his performance against Atlanta, the likelihood of him being traded should have gone to nil as well.
If his game against the Falcons provides any real indication, McCluster could be poised for a breakout season. He caught six passes for 82 yards, though that stat line alone doesn't do him justice. Time and again McCluster shifted, squirmed or just fought his way out of certain tackles to gain additional yards after the catch.
Both Dwayne Bowe and Steve Breaston made notable catches as well, but receiving honors go to McCluster for Week 1. And if that trend continues, it could mean a trade in Bowe's future rather than paying him a new contract.
But it's too early in the season for that. For now, getting McCluster the ball should prove to be a key piece to winning some games and digging the Chiefs out of the bottom of the AFC West.