In Cassel's absence, backup quarterback Brodie Croyle started his first game since last year's season opener. Not surprisingly, he struggled to fit into the Chiefs' game plan and failed to justify the scarce optimism some still had in his ability. In fact, Croyle performed worse than Cassel did against the Chargers' defense in the team's first match-up back in September.
After that game, fans and analysts alike called for Cassel's head as he managed to throw for only 68 yards with 10 completions. Croyle had his own shot at the Chargers on Sunday, and his 40 yards with 7 completions on 17 attempts set the bar at an almost comedic low. It wasn't entirely his fault, though, because if you ask me, this was just another bye week for the Chiefs. Nothing was working for the 8-5 Chiefs, and it showed in just about every aspect of the game.
Compare this to the Chiefs' first meeting with the Chargers on Monday Night Football in September and you'd get apples and oranges. If the first game against the Chargers was the victory that laid the foundation for this new Chiefs era, this was the game that put a halt on those construction plans.
It wasn't just a bump in the road for the Chiefs, it was a beatdown of epic proportions.
Without their top receiving targets (tight end Antonio Gates and wide receiver Legedu Naanee) the Chargers were hobbling into this crucial matchup. They entered the game two games behind the Chiefs with a 6-6 overall record, and a loss by the Oakland Raiders earlier in the day to the Jacksonville Jaguars made them the main candidate to threaten Kansas City's AFC West lead.
Croyle had no time to throw the ball on Sunday against the Chargers aggressive defense.
They entered the game as heavy favorites, despite their recent struggles and loss against Kansas City months ago. On Sunday, their offense was steady in gaining 25 first downs against an undermanned Chiefs defense. That sounds like a pretty normal showing to me, especially since quarterback Philip Rivers is a legitimate candidate for league MVP. But compare that to only five first downs by the Chiefs and you can call it complete domination. The Chargers controlled the ball for 40 minutes, and this game seemed to go by faster than any other game from this season.
There's no doubt that they were fired-up following their 28-13 loss to the Oakland Raiders last week, and let out their frustration on the Chiefs. Three different Chargers receivers had over 50 yards, and their receivers averaged 15 yards when they hit big holes. The Chiefs' top receiver, Terrence Copper, tallied 15 yards for the entire game. There was a night-and-day difference between the two offenses.
Kansas City failed on all 11 of its third-down attempts and looked like a carbon copy of the team from a few seasons ago. The Chargers out gained the Chiefs 426 to 67 in the yardage category, and the most obvious reason why is that Kansas City averaged only 1.6 yards on every offensive play.
The Chargers punted only once after a failed offensive drive, but held return man Dexter McCluster to only 11 yards on said return. That failed offensive effort came at the very beginning of the fourth quarter when the game was well out of reach.
It wasn't until late in the game where the Chiefs managed to break Rivers' composure. Tyson Jackson recorded his first quarterback sack on the season, but it will become largely forgotten. A more highlight film-friendly play was the spectacular interception by Eric Berry. It was his third on the season and a perfect example of his potential and just why he was chosen fifth overall in the NFL Draft.
It all happened when a wild pass from Philip Rivers sailed over his receivers towards the sideline and got within reach of Berry. The rookie proceeded to snag the ball and pull it back in bounds. Berry juggled the ball, but gained control of it just as quickly, tapping his toes on the very edge of the field.
It wasn't the only turnover the Chiefs coughed out of Rivers. Just minutes after Berry's interception, linebacker Tamba Hali sacked Rivers, forced a fumble, and teammate Wallace Gilberry recovered the ball. It was a repeat offense for Hali, who registered a sack and forced fumble on the same play against the Denver Broncos last week. His 11 quarterback sacks on the season keeps him in the top-five of NFL pass rushers.
Despite a sack and forced fumble, linebacker Tamba Hali was chasing Phillip Rivers all afternoon.
Unfortunately, the Chiefs failed to capitalize on the turnovers. In fact, they had failed drives on offense that—much like how the turnovers were produced—were over in a blink of an eye.
The closest the Chiefs seemed to get in scoring points was after the forced fumble by Hali. When the turnover occurred late in the third quarter, Brodie Croyle took the helm and had the Chiefs on San Diego's 33-yard line. Two consecutive rushes by Jamaal Charles gave the Chiefs only four more yards, and the Chiefs fell victim to their own mistakes. Offensive lineman Barry Richardson was called for holding.
It was just another huge mistake for Richardson that could have very well been avoided and resulted in a scoring drive for the Chiefs. It doesn't help the penalty-prone Richardson any, especially since the guy blew up on his coaches and teammates after a critical penalty against the Broncos last week.
Even though he had a full week of practice throwing the ball for the Chiefs, Croyle was expected to rely mostly on the Chiefs' running game. For the most part he stuck to those expectations, but the end result was just as disappointing as his passing attack. Jamaal Charles finished the game with only 40 yards rushing and nine yards receiving. Never before has Charles had at least 10 attempts and a more disappointing effort. To say the least, it may very well have been the worst game he's ever played for the Chiefs.
His comrade Thomas Jones registered only one yard on three carries, and their combined effort from Sunday can make you easily forget that they lead the NFL's best rushing attack.
In San Diego, Charles and Jones were mere pedestrians compared to a balanced Chargers rushing attack. Both Mike Tolbert and Ryan Mathews carried the ball 16 times each, and Tolbert ran for 66 yards while Mathews tallied 65. Both had their own rushing touchdowns, and most of their yardage came after they were first hit.
That was the biggest problem for the Chiefs' defense all day: their inability to tackle upon initial contact. The most glaring example of this was when Ryan Mathews broke a tackle from Chiefs linebacker Mike Vrabel and scored 15 yards out. It took several Chiefs defenders to tackle ball carriers all day, and surely riled up defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel on the sideline.
Chiefs linebacker Mike Vrabel was no match for the Chargers efficient offense.
The defense was on the field for two-thirds of the game, so they were surely gassed when the final seconds ticked off the clock. Despite their strong showing early in the season, this defense has ultimately collapsed in their biggest games and it doesn't help that in all three of their losses to divisional rivals, they've had their biggest problems in wrapping up and taking down their opponents.
For instance, Jacoby Ford had over 148 yards receiving when he burned up the Chiefs' secondary, shedding tackles left and right. Meanwhile I don't even know where to start when I recap the defense's effort when the Broncos stomped the Chiefs 49-29 the following week. There's a reason why this team has won only two of their five games against their AFC West foes, and it comes down to the basics of defense.
It's hard to pinpoint the reason why the Chiefs were virtually nonexistent against the Chargers, because San Diego was clicking on all cylinders. Brodie Croyle shouldn't be blamed for the whole thing because he was sacked four times, and his receivers dropped plenty of his passes. He did have enough time in the pocket on a few plays where he could have advanced the ball down the field, but dumping the ball off for just a few yards each time can turn the finger-pointing towards the coaches calling the plays.
There's too much blame to go around for this 31-0 shellacking from the Chargers, but with a one-game lead over San Diego in the standings, the Chiefs' season is not entirely over. This wasn't a playoff game where the Chiefs were embarrassed; it was just another chance for them to learn from their mistakes before they get there. Realistically, there's no more room for error, and with San Diego creeping up behind them now with a series split, the Chiefs have to grab onto the division lead and never let it go.
Perhaps the most effective way the Chiefs had to prove Matt Cassel's worth was this loss. A multi-million dollar contract wasn't enough to convince us, but Cassel's absence for just one game proves why the Chiefs have believed in him for the past two years. No matter how frustrating his own play had been at times, the Chiefs just can't benefit without Cassel, no matter how hard they try.
WARPAINT ILLUSTRATED MESSAGE BOARDS:
So what were your keys to this embarrassing loss?