Gut Check Time For Cassel, Chiefs

Setting aside Thursday's AFC West showdown between the Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers, the Kansas City Chiefs can't be scoreboard watchers any more. Thanks to their blowout loss at home to Miami, their playoff destiny now depends on how they bounce back.

It's been a few days now since the 31-3 debacle at Arrowhead. The Chiefs were thrashed by the Dolphins and now face a Denver Broncos team that just might have more question marks than their AFC West counterpart.

At this moment, there isn't a Chiefs fan who has any idea which team is going to show up this Sunday. Will it be the one that rode a four-game winning streak into the Dolphins game, or the one that's been blown out three times?

Either way, there isn't any way you can successfully predict the outcome of this game on Sunday. With Denver quarterback Tim Tebow and Kansas City quarterback Matt Cassel rising and falling last weekend, this game has more to do with that position than anything else.

Tebow's inconsistency is going to be his theme this year. It's expected. For Cassel, it's also expected. As he goes, the Chiefs go. But in order for Kansas City to win football games and make a playoff push, their leader has to be nails every game.

We saw a year ago that Cassel could carry this offense. For a point in time in 2010, he was sharp, crisp and ultimately parlayed that success into a Pro Bowl appearance. He also led the Chiefs to their first home playoff appearance since 2003.

But he's going to be judged this season on wins and losses. Thus far, he's a .500 quarterback. That might be stellar to some degree in baseball but in the NFL, that's not going to cut it.

With eight games to go, the Chiefs can wrap up the AFC West by claiming six more victories. That would put them at 10-6 – same as a year ago.

But is it reasonable to assume that Cassel can get six more wins? Well, it is if you look at things my way.

Losing to the Dolphins was pitiful, and Cassel had a hand in that. But it's the Dolphins. With the Broncos coming into town riding the arm and legs of Tebow, the Chiefs already know they better show up or they will suffer their second consecutive home loss.

Because after this AFC West matchup, the Chiefs face the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, Chicago Bears, New York Jets and Green Bay Packers.

The good news is that all of those teams are going to bring their Sunday best. That means the Chiefs have to do the same.

And maybe because the coaches and probably some of the players overlooked the Dolphins, they won't make that same mistake anytime soon. That doesn't mean they're going to win the six games I'm suggesting. But it gives them no room to fail, either.

Right now the Chiefs backs are against the wall. Todd Haley, though he was given votes of confidence from Clark Hunt and Scott Pioli, finds himself with his job on the line. Generally, such support is the kiss of death.

But he can't do much now because the team is what it is and the shortcomings we all can see every Sunday aren't going to be fixed.

That's why so much has to fall on Cassel. If he can lead the Chiefs, play well and generally manage the offense, the Chiefs will win more games than they will lose.

Should that happen, KC's defense will have that bounce in their step that they began to play with in the second half of the Chargers game in Week 2.

It might be unfair to put so much pressure on Cassel but he's the highest paid offensive player on this team and needs to perform at his best to salvage this season.

I maintain the Chiefs are still the favorite to win the AFC West for the sheer fact nobody expects them to win it. At 4-4, tied atop the division with the Chargers and Raiders, I say though they have that brutal five game stretch there isn't a team in that group that can't be beat – sans the Packers.

The Chargers and Raiders have a difficult schedule as well. The Raiders play four of their next five on the road. San Diego is playing to lose the division instead of winning it. Though they don't have the stellar opponents the Chiefs have to face, they are playing some average teams that have given them trouble the last season and a half.

At least Cassel and company understand what's ahead of them. All they have to do to regain control of their playoff destiny is win two or three games against teams many expect them to lose to.

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