Five To Watch: Chiefs Vs. 49ers

This weekend's game is a must win for the Chiefs. They have a better offense, a better defense and probably the hottest punter in the NFL. But after two straight losses to open the season, and a starting quarterback down and out, this game against the San Francisco 49ers has plenty of drama left to keep the Arrowhead crowd on their seats well into the fourth quarter.

Let's be honest. The Chiefs should win this game. We can very easily over analyze this game from one side of the field to the other. Kansas City knows that the 49ers are not going to lie down and just hand the Chiefs a victory. The team in Red is going to have to play hard and execute their game plan. If they do that, then the Arrowhead faithful will leave the stadium with renewed hope that this team can turn things around.

If they don't, then this season of promise is going to require more faith than the fan base is likely able to muster anytime soon. I guess my theme today is about the fans. After taking last Sunday off from watching most of the NFL games, I took a few minutes to reflect on the Chiefs' 0-2 start. As a fan, I felt compelled to be proud of my team. As a journalist, I felt compelled to offer all the reasons why this team has faltered thus far in 2006.

And then it dawned on me that I could do both. There is little doubt in my mind that the Chiefs can right the ship. Herm Edwards mentioned in his press conference on Thursday that his teams generally start out slow. His 2003 New York Jets team overcame a 2-5 start to make the playoffs behind a young Chad Pennington.

Can the same be said for the Chiefs with Damon Huard at the helm for at least the next two games? History indicates that it can be done.

Mike Livingston filled in for an ailing Len Dawson in 1969 and guided the Chiefs to a 6-0 mark. Not many people remember Livingston's perfect season. Without his brilliant play at quarterback the Chiefs might not have won Super Bowl IV.

In 1997, Rich Gannon guided the Chiefs to a 5-1 record. This one is painful to remember, because a Gannon-led team would have easily put the Chiefs in position to make the Super Bowl. Instead, Elvis Grbac ran out of gas in the Chiefs' playoff loss to Denver at home.

In 1999, Damon Huard was with the Dolphins and filled in for Dan Marino, winning four of his five starts. He's 0-1 as a Chief, but this Sunday's game should determine if he can duplicate his 1999 success.

But this game isn't likely going to come down to Huard and KC's offense. This game and all the rest of them this year will boil down to how much the defense improves from week to week.

They are already so far ahead of where I thought they'd be that I can say with confidence that this Chiefs defense will end up somewhere in the top 10 at the end of the year. They are ranked eighth after two games. Considering the fact that they still have plenty of room to improve, you have to be encouraged by the transformation thus far.

Second-year quarterback Alex Smith will bring his big-time arm into the Sea of Red to face a hungry and somewhat anxious Chiefs team this weekend. Young quarterbacks are an enigma in the NFL. You never know what to expect out of them when they enter a hostile environment. Smith could play lights out or he might get pummeled. Let's hope for the pummeling scenario.

Five to Watch:
1. RT Jordan Black - I cringe when I am forced to write about Jordan Black. His poor play in Week 1 against the Bengals was bad, and his comments this week about the way the Chiefs have moved him around were irritating. If he was good enough to be a starter he would have nailed down one of the tackle spots already. He needs to take advantage of the chances he has been given and start paying the organization back for their patience. Edwards said on Thursday that Black needs to step up and on Sunday he'll likely start because left tackle Kyle Turley's back has flared up. It's probably a good thing Trent Green is sitting this game out.

2. WR Rod Gardner - Something tells me that he might just see some action this week. My gut tells me that Gardner will make a big play on Sunday. He's been chomping at the bit and he's shown the ability to learn the playbook. With a week off he could be ready to get some significant playing time this Sunday. With so many able wide receivers available after the final cut down, Kansas City felt he was a player that could help this offense. He has size, speed and great hands. Let's hope Huard can get him the ball.

3. LB Kendrell Bell - After the Denver game it was very clear to me that last year's sputtering free agent could become this year's surprise. Bell was all over the field against the Broncos two weeks ago. If he can master where he needs to be in pass coverage, Chiefs fans will be happy with last year's defensive scapegoat. He's still not 100 percent healthy, but he's hitting like he was when he was a dominating player with the Pittsburgh Steelers. That's good news for the rest of the defense and bad news for opponents.

4. RB Larry Johnson - I was a little down on LJ after the season opener against the Bengals. I didn't much care for his body language. He redeemed himself against the Broncos, but he can't continue to put the ball on the ground. His fumble against Denver was a key contributing factor in the Chiefs loss. LJ has always wanted to be the man on offense and with Trent Green on the sidelines, the Chiefs starting running back needs to find the endzone often. He has to bring back that angry attitude that made him a hero at Arrowhead.

5. QB Trent Green - I know he's not playing, but it was great to see him smile and walk around the locker room on Thursday. Don't fret Chiefs fans, Green will be back. When he does reclaim the starting quarterback job, he might see things a bit different. It's one thing to watch your team when you're directing them on the field but it's something completely different when you watch them from your living room. This week he should be on the sidelines learning about his teammates. Huard will be the main benefactor of having Green to lean on during the game. Though he won't take a snap on Sunday, Trent Green might be the most valuable player at Arrowhead on Monday. There is no doubt that he's the leader of this team.

Nick's Prediction:
Chiefs 24, 49ers 13 Top Stories