It's an AFC West battle that's lost its luster on Thursday Night Football as the Kansas City Chiefs head to San Diego to take on Philip Rivers and the Chargers.
The Chiefs (1-6) were supposed to be a surprise team this season, but they've been surprisingly bad instead. Fans have cheered for Matt Cassel's injury because it meant they would finally get to see Brady Quinn. Now, with Quinn having failed fantastically and having been injured himself, Cassel returns to action with the lowest of expectations.
Scott Pioli and Romeo Crennel are both on the hot seat, and a once mighty and underrated defense is unable to shoulder the load any longer.
The Chargers (3-4) had a blazing 3-1 start to the season but have dropped three straight to New Orleans, Denver and Cleveland. The hope has to be that home cooking against a beatable team can right the ship before trips to Tampa Bay and Denver.
Philip Rivers and Norv Turner are also competing for their jobs over the rest of the season. A.J. Smith should be as well, but there is far too much historical evidence showing his job is probably safe.
Which of these teams picks up a much-needed win on Thursday night?
Key Storyline: Which QB Finds His Rhythm? Which Coach Saves His Job?
While the season will not be written entirely on the back of this Week 9 matchup, it's entirely possible that a loss here could seriously shape the narrative and the future of both of these teams. A loss to the lowly Chiefs could be the straw that breaks the camel's back in San Diego, and another loss (before an 11-day break) could mean changes in Kansas City.
Both of these quarterbacks have potential over and above how they have played recently. Maybe Cassel will never be more than the average quarterback he's peaked at in the past. Maybe his NFL career is closer to being over than hitting a second wind. Still, he's been atrocious. He can be better than atrocious.
As for Rivers, maybe he'll never be that elite Super Bowl-winning QB the Chargers thought they were getting on draft night, but he can put up huge numbers. He has to do that to change the Chargers' course in 2012.
Keys for the Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs need to run the ball and need to do so effectively. While the Chargers have had a fantastic run defense over the first half of the season, the NFL saw last week against the Cleveland Browns that a commitment to the run could put them away. Trent Richardson was bottled up but simply ran through the walls that stood in his way. While Jamaal Charles isn't the same type of runner, he can have the same impact on a game.
On defense, the Chiefs need to continue to grow and mature as a passing defense. As horrible as they were early in the season, they have improved as of late. Note: "Improved" doesn't mean good; it just means less than horrible. If they can look less than horrible against a struggling and hobbled Chargers passing offense, this game could be up for grabs.
Keys for the San Diego Chargers
While a lot of talk (too much talk?) has centered on the Chargers' run game, this team isn't going to win on the fumble-prone back of Ryan Mathews. Philip Rivers and the Norv Turner-created passing attack need to be better, period. This is how this team won in the past, and it is the only way this currently constructed team is going to win in 2012.
Who wins on Thursday Night?
Of course, that means the protection needs to be better. Rivers has been under duress for most of the season, and a dose of Mathews hasn't slowed anyone down when it's time for Rivers to drop back. It might be too much to ask Turner to start calling some quicker three-step drops, but Rivers needs to progress through his reads more quickly and make better decisions.
On the other side of the ball, the Chargers need to return to their early-season roots and stop the run. If they make Cassel beat them, he won't. However, that doesn't just mean scheming well against the run or even winning the battle up front. We know they will do both of those things, and they did both of those against Cleveland. No, the back seven needs to be at its best in this one, or Charles will run wild just like Richardson did.
Bold Prediction: Matt Cassel Will "Win" Starter's Job Back
I'm truly a "believer" in Matt Cassel. No, that doesn't mean I think he's amazing, and it certainly doesn't mean I think he's the long-term solution in Kansas City. However, I also can't reconcile how bad he's been this year with what I've seen from him in the past.
On "gut" alone (please post your fat jokes in the comments below), I would make this bold prediction based on Cassel's competitiveness. However, he's getting a chance against a poor Chargers pass defense while they're reeling.
Cassel was not fantastic against the Chargers when they faced off earlier in the season (three interceptions), and I don't think he'll be fantastic now. However, he will do just enough to make himself the clear starter for the Chiefs for the rest of the season.
Player of the Game Prediction: Philip Rivers
As average as I think Cassel will be (and that will be an incredible improvement), Rivers will be the story of this game as he, too, returns to form—be it ever so temporary. Rivers has slumps every year, but he always pulls out of his tailspins no matter how many people are betting against him.
Final Score Prediction: San Diego Chargers 23, Kansas City Chiefs 17
Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff alongside other great writers at "The Go Route."