KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The San Diego Chargers ran more than 1,000 offensive plays last season.
The easiest one to execute may have proven the most costly.
It was on Halloween night at Arrowhead Stadium, and the Chargers were at the Kansas City 15 with less than a minute left on the clock. The game was tied, kicker Nick Novak was limbered up on the sideline, and quarterback Philip Rivers crouched under center and asked for the snap.
He never had the chance to take a knee.
The fumble bounced into the hands of Chiefs linebacker Andy Studebaker, the game wound into overtime, and Ryan Succop — not Novak — kicked the winning field goal. By the time the season shook out, that virtually certain victory cost the Chargers a place in the playoffs.
“We fought like crazy to come back,” Rivers said this week, “and didn’t finish it.”
They fully intend to finish things on Sunday.
The Chargers return to Kansas City for an early season AFC West match-up that has implications for the top of the division. San Diego (2-1) is coming off a disheartening 27-3 loss to Atlanta, while the Chiefs (1-2) have been buoyed by the biggest comeback in franchise history, which allowed them to stun New Orleans 27-24 in overtime last weekend.
Another win for the Chiefs, and they’re tied for first place.
“It’s a funny game. It’s the National Football League, every game counts,” Chiefs offensive lineman Ryan Lilja said. “We’re lucky to be able to have a game at home for a lot of marbles, and it’s a big game, a division game, back to Arrowhead, and it’s the first-place team in our division, as you said. If guys can’t get right for this one, I don’t know that they can.”
Both teams come into the game with glaring issues. For the Chargers, it’s been turnovers and inconsistency. For the Chiefs, crippling injuries on both sides of the ball.
Rivers threw two interceptions and the Chargers committed a pair of fumbles against Atlanta, none more disastrous than Ryan Mathews’ at the Atlanta 4 as the Chargers, trailing 6-0 at the time, were trying to take the lead in the second quarter.
The Falcons jumped on the ball, and after a 96-yard scoring drive, tacked on another touchdown before halftime to put San Diego in an insurmountable 20-0 hole.
It was Mathews’ 11th fumble in 27 career games, and the sixth that he’s lost.
“He’s just got to move past it,” Rivers said. “He knows he has to take care of the ball.”
Chargers coach Norv Turner indicated he may rely on other running backs in certain situations to take the load off Mathews, including Jackie Battle, who played for the Chiefs last season.
“I’m not giving our game plan out in terms of where we’re doing it,” Turner said, “but there are certain things where we have more chances than others.”
Rivers hasn’t exactly been perfect at protecting the ball, either.
The two picks he threw against Atlanta gave him three for the season. He also threw two in last season’s game at Kansas City, and finished the season with 20, putting him in a tie with Rex Grossman and behind only Josh Freeman and Ryan Fitzpatrick for most in the league.
“I think he was trying to make a play and do too much,” Turner said. “It’s about decision-making and the position we put him in for certain situations.”
The Chiefs had reason to be optimistic about returning home after an 18-point, second-half rally to beat the Saints, but another wave of injuries has tempered some of the enthusiasm.
Kansas City placed center Rodney Hudson and cornerback Jacques Reeves on injured reserve this week. Hudson broke a bone in his left leg while Reeves, a backup, has a hamstring issue.
The loss of Hudson has caused some shuffling along the offensive line. Lilja will start his first game at center against San Diego, while rookie Jeff Allen make his first start in Lilja’s place at guard — the same arrangement they used when Hudson got hurt last Sunday.
“Ryan and I have taken snaps every day during practice, and like I said, once you get in there, you never know how it’s going to go,” Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel said.
There could be several other pieces missing for Kansas City, including wide receivers Steve Breaston (knees) and Dexter McCluster (elbow), running back Peyton Hillis (ankle), tight end Kevin Boss (head) and safety Kendrick Lewis, who has been out all season with a right shoulder injury.
Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe (thigh) was limited this week but is expected to play.
If some of those pieces are missing on offense, though, the Chiefs may again rely heavily on Jamaal Charles, who ran for 233 yards and caught six passes for 55 yards against the Saints.
“It doesn’t matter. Whenever the coaches want me to carry the ball, I’ve got to do something to get a win,” Charles said. “I’m just trying to help my team the best way I can.”
SAN DIEGO (2-1)
at KANSAS CITY (1-2)
Today, noon, CBS
OPENING LINE — Chargers by 1 ½
RECORD VS. SPREAD — San Diego 2-1; Arizona 2-1
SERIES RECORD — Chiefs lead 52-51-1
AP PRO32 RANKING — Chargers No. 13; Chiefs No. 24
LAST MEETING — Chiefs beat Chargers 23-20 OT, Oct. 31, 2011
LAST WEEK — Chargers lost to Falcons 27-3; Chiefs beat Saints 27-24 OT
CHARGERS OFFENSE — OVERALL (23), RUSH (17T), PASS (22)
CHARGERS DEFENSE — OVERALL (9), RUSH (4), PASS (17)
CHIEFS OFFENSE — OVERALL (1), RUSH (1), PASS (16)
CHIEFS DEFENSE — OVERALL (16), RUSH (22T), PASS (12)
STREAKS, STATS AND NOTES — San Diego 7-2 against Kansas City over last nine meetings. ... Chargers positioned for winning FG last season at Arrowhead Stadium when QB Philip Rivers fumbled snap while trying to take knee with 1:03 left in regulation. Chiefs K Ryan Succop instead booted winning FG in overtime. ... Chiefs turnover in first meeting last season allowed Chargers to hold on for 20-17 victory at Qualcomm Stadium. ... Kansas City has won two straight against San Diego at Arrowhead. ... Chiefs erased 18-point second-half deficit in OT win last Sunday at New Orleans, biggest come-from-behind win in club history. ... Succop set team record with six FGs vs Saints, including 43-yarder to force OT and 31-yarder to win game. ... Chiefs had 510 yards of offense against New Orleans, their most since gaining 524 against Denver on Jan. 3, 2010. ... Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles ran for 233 yards and caught six passes for 55 yards at New Orleans. ... WR Dwayne Bowe needs four catches to surpass Stephone Paige (377) for fifth-most in Chiefs history. ... Kansas City LB Justin Houston had three sacks against Saints, and has 9 1/2 since Week 13 last year, tied with Minnesota’s Jared Allen and Dallas’ DeMarcus Ware for most in NFL. ... Rivers needs 27 yards passing to surpass 25,000 for his career. ... Ex-Chiefs RB Jackie Battle has 124 yards rushing and two TDs for San Diego. FB Le’Ron McClain, LB Demorrio Williams and OT Jared Gaither also spent time with Kansas City last season. ... Chargers TE Antonio Gates has 77 catches for 952 yards and 12 TDs in 14 games against Kansas City. ... San Diego WR Malcolm Floyd agreed to three-year extension this week. Floyd has 13 catches for 227 yards, an average of more than 17 yards per catch.