This is not the encore season LaDainian Tomlinson had in mind. The reigning MVP has rushed for more than 80 yards only three times, and not since a week eight against the Houston Texans. His per-carry average is down to 4.0 and continues to plummet. Only twice in his career has he averaged fewer than 4 yards per carry – in 2001, when he was a rookie, and in 2004, when he hampered by a groin injury.
Tomlinson is coming off a game in which he netted 122 yards from scrimmage and topped 10,000 yards rushing for his career. This week's historical quest is aimed at Walter Payton. LT is one rushing touchdown shy of tying Payton's career mark (110). Additionally, Tomlinson needs one more touchdown pass to tie Payton for the most scoring strikes by any non-quarterback. Two of Tomlinson's seven career touchdown passes came against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Tomlinson will have a new face blocking for him this week, as Jeromey Clary replaces Shane Olivea in the starting lineup. Clary is the team's fastest rising star. Since coming into training camp as the No. 5 offensive tackle, he has successively seized Cory Lekkerkerker's spot on the roster, Roman Oben's place in the rotation and Olivea's starting assignment.
Clary will work to clear some lanes against the league's No. 18 run defense. The Chiefs allow 109 yards per game and 4 yards per carry. However, the Kansas City defense is coming off a game in which Oakland Raiders running back Justin Fargas broke loose for 139 yards and a touchdown. The Raiders enjoyed a lot of success running on the edges, so expect Brandon Manumaleuna to log heavy snaps.
Michael Turner appears to have fallen out of the offensive rotation. In the last four games, Turner has three caries for -1 yard. Norv Turner has gone to Darren Sproles as his change-up back of choice, although Sproles has proven utterly ineffective on the offensive side of the ball.
WR Vincent Jackson
Philip Rivers has always struggled against the Chiefs. In three career meetings, Rivers has completed only 50 percent of his passes for two touchdowns, five interceptions and a 52.8 passer rating. Gunther Cunningham does an excellent job of stacking the box and quickly collapsing the pocket, forcing Rivers to throw under duress.
No player will make Rivers more uneasy than defensive end Jared Allen. Allen is tied for fourth in the NFL with 9.5 sacks, despite missing the first two games of the season. Allen is on pace to finish with 13.5 sacks, which would be the highest number by a Chiefs player since Eric Hicks had 14 in 2000. Allen boasts 37 career sacks, the seventh-highest total in team history.
Allen will go one on one with Marcus McNeill, a stud sophomore who has allowed only three sacks this season. McNeill anchors an offensive line that has allowed only 13 sacks, a number bested by only the New Orleans Saints. On the other side, Clary will make his second career start against former first-round pick Tamba Hali. Hali always had his way with Olivea, beating him for a sack in each of their three meetings, so the switch to Clary came right in time.
When Rivers has time to throw, his first read will be Antonio Gates. Gates has eight touchdown catches in seven career games against the Chiefs. He is coming off a 105-yard, two-touchdown performance last Sunday against Baltimore, which was his first 100-yard game since week five. Gates had the best day of his career in 2005 against the Chiefs, racking up 145 yards receiving and three touchdowns -- both were career highs.
Outside the hashes, Chris Chambers is matched up with Ty Law. Chambers and Rivers appear to be developing chemistry as they prepare for their sixth game together. Chambers caught five balls last week and chipped in his second score since coming to San Diego. Vincent Jackson comes off his best game since the Chambers addition (five catches, 65 yards). He will look to take advantage of Patrick Surtain, who is battling a shoulder injury.
Rookie Craig Davis looks to improve in his second meeting against former LSU running mate Dwayne Bowe. In week four, Davis caught one pass for 8 yards compared to Bowe's eight catches for 164 yards and a touchdown. Davis will split time with Legedu Naanee, who has become the go-to receiver in short-yardage situations. Norv Turner plans to use Jackson, Davis and Naanee to attack the middle of the field, as the Chiefs safeties (Bernard Pollard and Jarrad Page) are prone to giving up big plays.
DE Jacques Cesaire
Larry Johnson is out this week courtesy of a foot injury. Priest Holmes is out for good due to his inability to fully recover from a vicious hit Shawne Merriman laid on him back in 2005. That leaves the workload to rookie Kolby Smith, who last week picked up 150 yards rushing and two touchdowns in setting a franchise rookie record with 31 carries. Smith showcased exciting power and acceleration, although he did so against a Raiders defense that ranks dead-last against the run.
The Chargers will key in on stopping the run. The Chiefs prefer to pound the ball, shorten the game and pull away in the fourth quarter. They have been mostly successful with the first two parts of that equation but have struggled with the third. The Chiefs have owned at least a share of the lead in the fourth quarter in each of their last three games but have lost them all.
The Chiefs will have a new face driving the running game, as nine-year veteran Kyle Turley replaces right tackle Chris Terry, who will miss the game after losing his mother earlier this week. Turley will be matched up with another sub, as Jacques Cesaire will replace Luis Castillo at left defensive end for the fourth consecutive game. Ryon Bingham will split time with Cesaire and play mostly running downs.
The marquee matchup takes place up the middle, where Jamal Williams will tangle with blue-collar center Casey Wiegmann. If Williams wins this battle, it allows Matt Wilhelm and Stephen Cooper to play downhill and eliminate the inside running threat. That, in turn, forces opponents to run at the edges and into the arms of the defense's best tacklers: Merriman and Shaun Phillips.
SS Clinton Hart
Brodie Croyle is out with a back injury. Damon Huard, who authored the come-from-behind win against the Chargers earlier this season, will take his place. When these teams met in week four, Huard struggled to a 39.3 passer rating in the first half. However, he rallied nicely in the second half when he hit 11 of 16 passes for 178 yards and two touchdowns. That victory marked just the second time since 1990 that the Chiefs had overcome a double-digit deficit to produce a double-digit road victory.
The Chargers will need to crank up the pressure. Although the defense sacked Kyle Boller four times last week, much of that was due to Boller playing from behind and throwing from obvious passing situations. The Chargers defense still struggles to get off the field on third-and-long, with Ted Cottrell remaining reluctant to rush more than four players and all but refusing to rush more than five.
That leaves the pass rush up to Merriman and Phillips, both of whom upped their sack totals last week for the first time since week six. Merriman is pitted against former Chargers tackle Damion McIntosh, although Cottrell moves Merriman around. Phillips has way too much speed for Turley, so expect tight end Jason Dunn to provide some help.
When Huard drops back to pass, his only targets of significance are Bowe and tight end Tony Gonzalez. Bowe's 49 receptions and 731 receiving yards are first among NFL rookies. He also leads all rookies with nine catches of 20-plus yards. The 164 yards he racked up last time these teams met established a Chiefs single-game record for a rookie.
Gonzalez has some impressive marks of his own, although they come with the qualifier "all-time record" instead of "rookie record." He remains the most talented player on the Kansas City offense, although he's making fewer big plays than in the past. His per-catch average is below 12 yards for just the second time since 2000. Plus, he has exactly half as many touchdowns as Gates (4:8). Nonetheless, Gonzalez is on pace to finish with more than 1,000 yards.
The Chargers secondary will roll extra attention to Bowe and Gonzalez. Clinton Hart will give Quentin Jammer over-the-top held on Bowe while Marlon McCree spies Gonzalez over the middle. Eric Weddle will also see some time against Gonzalez in obvious passing situations. Antonio Cromartie and Drayton Florence are pitted against Eddie Kennison and Jeff Webb, respectively, so they have no excuses for giving up big plays.
The thing do watch in this matchup is turnovers. The Chiefs have a plus-four turnover differential in their four wins this season and a minus-six in their seven losses. In their last three meetings with the Chargers, the Chiefs are plus-four and have scored 40 points off turnovers. San Diego is second in the league in turnover differential (plus-11). They are also second in interceptions (17), despite having no picks in two games.
K Nate Kaeding
The Chiefs signed John Carney earlier this week, and the 43-year-old will make his Kansas City debut against the team he kicked for from 1990-2000. That means increased accuracy on field goals and decreased length on kickoffs. That could result in a big day for Sproles, who has struggled to compensate for the extra attention he's received since his two-touchdown performance against the Indianapolis Colts.
The Chiefs are also making a switch at kick returner due to the ineffectiveness of Eddie Drummond. Jeff Webb takes over on kickoffs and Eddie Kennison will handle punts. Neither player is a threat.
The Chiefs and Chargers have two of the elite punters in the league. Dustin Colquitt ranks in the top-ten in net average (38.1) and gross average (45) among punters with at least five attempts. However, he can't hold a candle to his San Diego counterpart.
Mike Scifres is the NFL's third-leading punter in net average (40.2). He's only had 19 punts returned, tied for the fifth-fewest among the NFL's top 25 net punters. He's working to join Dennis Partee (40.6 in 1971) as the only punters in team history to finish a season with a net of 40-plus yards. Chargers' opponents have had either zero or negative punt return yards against the Chargers five times this season – Chicago (0), Kansas City (0), Oakland (0), Indy (-5) and Baltimore (0). Scifres has hit at least one 60-yard punt in five straight games.
Scifres' kicking mate, Nate Kaeding, comes into this game hot as well. Kaeding hit a season-high four field goals last week, including attempts of 46 and 41 yards. That was the first time he hit four field goals in a game since Sept. 17, 2006 against the Tennessee Titans. The last time these teams played in Arrowhead, Kaeding missed a 47-yard field goal that came back to bite the team in a 30-27 defeat. He has not missed a field goal in a losing effort yet this season.
Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. He has followed the Chargers for more than 14 years and covered the team since 2003.