Rewind just about a month, and you'll remember the near moribund tone with which NFL experts and fans alike spoke about the Kansas City Chiefs. The defense was a sieve, Matt Cassel was a goner (Andrew Luck was on his way to town), and most had already packed it in on the Chiefs' 2011 season. Humbling defeats at the hands of Buffalo, Detroit, and San Diego had quickly faded memories of the Chiefs incredible 2010 turnaround, and the Chiefs were left handicapped by season-ending injuries to their two best players -- running back Jamaal Charles and safety Eric Berry.
Fast forward four games, one bye week, an unlikely Philip Rivers fumble, the breakout of Jonathan Baldwin, and an improbable four game win streak later and here we are, with the Chiefs sitting atop the AFC West in a deadlock with the Chargers and Raiders.
The Chiefs are a cautionary tale, however; they're a lesson on the importance in looking past a team's record. Focus on the record, and you'll find yourself in a dog fight, much like the New York Giants did in Week 8 when they hosted the Chiefs' upcoming opponent, the Miami Dolphins.
Miami marched in at 0-6 and a heavy road underdog to the Giants, but it took a late game Eli Manning comeback to steer the Giants clear of defeat. Miami hung tough with New York -- much like they have every other opponent in 2011 -- so don't fool yourself in thinking the Chiefs have a cupcake opponent strolling in to town for Week 9.
Unlike the only other winless team in the NFL -- the Indianapolis Colts -- the Dolphins play with immense competitive spirit and boast individual talent on both sides of the football.
Miami's most dangerous offensive player is a familiar name and face to Chiefs fans, as Brandon Marshall -- he of Denver Bronco fame -- is the focal point of the Miami receiving core. The biggest issue for Marshall has been the inability of his quarterback to get him the football, and yet even in a "down" year, Marshall in on pace for his fifth consecutive 1,000 yard receiving season.
Defensively, the Dolphins have one the AFC's best linebacking groups, highlighted by former NFL breakout star Cameron Wake, a pass-rushing menace. Ware is joined by the play-making Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett, who manned the middle in San Diego for the past two years prior to joining Miami this off-season.
Talent exists in Miami, and any time you match talent with desire, you have a tough task on your hands.
Yes, Miami is 0-7. Yes, Matt Moore is struggling at quarterback. And yes, Miami has generated just 15.3 points per game this season, but just ask New Orleans about the perils of playing a team desperate for their first victory.
So here are our 5 keys to a Kansas City Chiefs' victory:
1. Tackle well in the open field: Miami sports a trio of slippery players in the open field in Brandon Marshall, Reggie Bush and Davone Bess. Any one of them is capable of making defenders miss, and Marshall especially can get it done in a variety of ways. Marshall is a big, powerful, aggressive runner with quickness and speed to boot. He’s not the kind of guy to sneak behind a secondary for a long score, but he’s fully capable of turning a short slant into big yardage. Bush is arguably the best change of direction athlete in the NFL, with spectacular ability to sink his weight, plant, and alter his path in a matter of steps. He’s also one of the most capable receiving running backs in the NFL, so watch for him to be flanked out or aligned in the slot on occasion. Bess made his NFL mark in 2008 when he had 54 catches as a rookie, and is the consummate slot receiver: quick, nimble, and a pain to wrap-up. When the football finds its way into the arms of any of these three in the open field, it is imperative that the Chiefs take proper angles, keep vision on the ball-carrier, wrap-up and strike through the runner.
2. Beware of the screen pass: We’ve already touched on the struggles of Matt Moore and the entire Miami passing game, but one way to kickstart the aerial attack is the implementation of screens. In Bush and Marshall, Miami has two idyllic candidates to execute their screens, and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll is a descendent of the New England Patriots and their heavy screen-based offense. Coordinators also love to use screens, bootlegs and the short-passing tree to build a quarterback’s confidence early in a game, and expect Daboll to try to do exactly that with Moore on Sunday. We just warned you about the ability of Bush and Marshall to elude defenders in the open field, and Miami will use screens to give them the opportunity to find open space with blockers in the lead. Chiefs defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel isn’t a blitz-happy coordinator, which plays right in to defending screens. If the Chiefs’ rushers maintain their contain responsibilities and keep a careful eye on the sets and stances of the Dolphins' linemen, they should put themselves in a good position to defend whatever screens Miami throws at them.
3. Minimize turnovers: This is a key for any team in any game, but the Chiefs know full-well that they can ill-afford to turn the ball over again four times like they did on Monday night. Running the football on offense and generating turnovers on defense are the ultimate equalizers for inferior teams, and Miami’s defense will surely be looking to hound Chiefs’ ball-carriers in search of the football. Dexter McCluster is the Chiefs best option in up-tempo and two-minute offensive situations, but he has struggled in 2011 with fumbles. McCluster is a small frame who takes a whack nearly every time he touches the football, and he just needs to focus on falling forward with two hands on the ball, rather than looking for pay dirt on each carry. Jackie Battle maintains an active role on special teams and Thomas Jones has had an ineffective first half of 2011, so the Chiefs need to be able to rely on McCluster. Provided he can improve on holding onto the football, the Chiefs will find ways to use him -- he’s too talented not to.