The Kansas City Chiefs face their first “must win” game in years when they head across the state to take on the St. Louis Rams. A victory keeps the Chiefs in the driver’s seat for a playoff spot while a loss leaves them needing a San Diego Charger loss the final two weeks of the season.
If history is any indication, the Chiefs should be able to take care of business. They own a nine-game winning streak against NFC West opponents including 3-0 this season.
Both teams are coming off lopsided losses with the Rams losing to the New Orleans Saints 31-13 and the Chiefs falling to the Chargers 31-0. A loss Sunday would set both teams back as they search for a playoff spot that was seen as unlikely before the season.
Here are the three players from each team that you will need to keep your eyes on.
Offense: Matt Cassel
Officially his status is up in the air until just before kickoff, but is there any question that Cassel will line up for the Chiefs? If for some reason he is unable to go, it’s hard to expect anything but a repeat of last week’s lackluster performance.
Just like last week with a rusty Brodie Croyle, the St. Louis Rams are going to force the Chiefs offense prove that it can hurt them in the air. With eight men in the box for most of the day to stop Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones, Cassel will have plenty of one-on-one opportunities to take advantage of on the outside which means we will see early on how much he will be limited by the appendectomy he had a week and a half ago.
Defense: Derrick Johnson
Jonathan Vilma had his way with the Rams offense last week for the Saints, which bodes well for the Chiefs linebackers, especially Johnson. In a mostly lost effort against the Chargers, Johnson led Kansas City with nine tackles after a quiet game two weeks ago against the Denver Broncos.
We’ve seen over the years that Johnson will find his way to big plays as much as anyone on the Chiefs defense and right now that unit is due for a big play (or five). Speaking of due, Johnson has gone two games without a dropped interception meaning we should be looking for the recently-extended linebacker to get his hands on a pass.
Special Teams: Javier Arenas
There has been a lot of talk about the Chiefs struggling return units this week and no one was more vocal about the need for a bit time return than Arenas. The rookie insisted that Kansas City would get that first big return since the opening game of the season against the Chargers.
In addition to the troubles the special teams units have had putting returns together, Arenas took a monster hit during last week’s loss in San Diego. It bares watching to see if he shows any signs of being tentative or even yields more returns to fellow rookies Dexter McCluster an Verran Tucker.
Offense: Steven Jackson
Between the Chiefs defense showing no interest in stopping the running game of the Chargers last week and Jackson averaging 6 yards per carry against the Saints, the Rams no doubt will look to grind away on the ground Sunday.
Charles will be viewed as the most explosive running back on the field, but don’t sleep on Jackson. He is on pace for nearly 1,400 yards and has ripped off 7 runs of over 20 yards this season, just one less than Charles. While Romeo Crennel will look to force rookie quarterback Sam Bradford into mistakes, he won’t get that chance if the front seven can’t do something about Jackson.
Defense: James Laurinaitis
If the Chiefs are going to have more success running the football than last week, they will have to find a way to account for Laurinaitis. He’s shown off a knack for finding the ball this season while averaging nearly 7 tackles a game.
He is also a player you need to keep your eye on when trying to protect Cassel (and his abdomen). Laurinaitis doesn’t lead the team in sacks (James Hall has that honor) but, like Derrick Johnson, he can rush the passer when his number is called.
Special Teams: Danny Amendola
He leads the Rams offense in receptions, yards receiving and touchdown receptions, but that doesn’t mean Crennel is the only coach that will have to game plan for Amendola. You can add special teams coach Steve Hoffman to that list.
Amendola has yet to take a kick to the house, but don’t take that to mean he isn’t one of the better returners in the league. He has returned 25 kickoffs more than 20 yards and is second to only Devin Hester with 6 punt returns of more than 20 yards.