The Kansas City Chiefs have finally put games with New England and Pittsburgh in their rear view mirror, but that doesn't mean the tough sledding has concluded.
Pittsburgh marked leg one of the Chiefs' four stop tour versus each of the NFL's semi-finalists from 2010; they'll travel to Chicago this Sunday, New York to face the Jets the following week, and will wrap it all up with an Arrowhead-hosted tilt against the perfect Packers. Call it unreasonable, unfair, bad luck, whatever may have you, but the fact remains scheduling is cyclically-generated, and the Chiefs have no time to feel bad for themselves during what needs to be an excellent week of preparation for Chicago.
The Bears mirror the Chiefs in that their starting quarterback, Jay Cutler, is down for the count with a thumb injury that may ultimately cost him his entire season. Bears fans have also suffered through a forgettable outing from their back-up-turned-starting quarterback, Caleb Hanie, and it looks as though we may play witness to the first (and likely last) Hanie-Palko bowl.
Depth charts are worth their weight in sand, but the Chiefs released theirs earlier this week and still entrenched at the bottom of it is Kyle Orton. Todd Haley has indicated Orton will take a load of the first-team snaps this week in practice and that whomever the Chiefs feel gives the team the best chance to win will start come Sunday.
Orton likely envisioned he was brought to the Chiefs to start and try to salvage a season that was slowly sliding from the grip of Kansas City, and probably wasn't counting on what appears now to be a quarterback competition between he and the struggling Palko.
On the other hand, the Chiefs may be engaging in some calculated gamesmanship. Perhaps the perception that either Palko or Orton could start is something the Chiefs want to create so as to force the Bears to have to prepare for both players. Again, this remains unclear.
Whoever takes the snaps, they'll need to bring their Sunday best as the Chiefs cling to life in the AFC West. Oakland holds a three game pad on Kansas City, but we've learned before that the AFC West isn't over until the regular season fully concludes (think the 2008 Chargers). A win Sunday in Chicago would inject some much needed zest into a Chiefs team that continues to play hard, but clearly needs some offensive tweaking (we'll cover this in the keys).
Will Sunday mark the end of the Chiefs' three game streak without a touchdown? It better, or 4-8 is just around the corner.
Here are Five Keys to a Kansas City Chiefs' victory:
1. Start Kyle Orton: From the outside looking in, none of us know exactly what level of understanding Kyle Orton has of the playbook, or how quickly he's jelled with his offensive teammates -- specifically his receivers, or if he is 100% physically ready after spending several weeks on the bench. That being said, Orton needs to start on Sunday. Orton wasn't brought on board to sit behind Tyler Palko, and Palko has done little to inspire confidence that he's capable of leading this offense effectively. I know Palko works hard, comprehends the game, and studies film extensively, but his physical limitations are increasingly evident and he simply doesn't have enough skill to start at the NFL level. Orton has proven over time he can be an above average NFL starter, and he needs to get his shot as the go-to guy in Kansas City. If Orton knows half of the playbook in Kansas City, then the Chiefs need to put an emphasis on executing that half and repping them extensively in practice. If he knows the whole playbook (unrealistic for any player who's been around for a week), then even better. The bottom line is Orton -- by every measure we can gauge from the outside -- gives the Chiefs a better shot to win, and starting him on Sunday is a must.
2. Screens and Matt Forte in the passing game: Forte has been tremendous throughout 2011, residing near the top of total yards from scrimmage for most of the year. He's a crafty runner with very good vision, ability to weave near the line of scrimmage and find daylight, and he also possesses the speed to run on the perimeter.He's going to get his on the ground, but the Chiefs need to keep their eyes pealed for Forte as a receiver, notably on screen plays. Forte is extremely adept at catching the football, and the Bears do a nice job spacing the field and creating room for Forte to run on screens. Defensive linemen need to be careful not to simply run up field without regard for the backs, linebackers need to detect Forte's release, and everyone has to tackle extremely well against Forte in open areas. He's strong and slippery, and the kind of guy who can turn a screen into a score at any given time. The Chiefs need to ensure this doesn't happen on Sunday.
3. Force quick throws: Caleb Hanie obviously isn't of the same ability as Jay Cutler, so the Chiefs have an advantage on that front heading into the game. But Hanie does have the same supporting cast around him that Cutler had, and the Chiefs need to make sure his receivers aren't able to do what they normally would like. The Bears are a downfield passing team, and their primary deep-threat is Johnny Knox, who averages an astronomical 22.2 yards per catch. Beyond Knox, the Bears have three other receivers who average over 14 yards per catch; for comparison, the Chiefs have half as many 14+ yards/catch guys (Breaston and Bowe are the lone two). Forcing Caleb Hanie to throw quickly negates the ability of receivers to get down the field, which is where the Bears receivers create most of their separation. That requires a mix of rushing the passer well, playing physically at the line of scrimmage, and mixing up the looks against Hanie. The more the Chiefs can throw at the youngster, the more confusion and disruption they'll generate.
4. Perimeter passing game: This ties in to Orton starting, as the ability of the Chiefs passing game dramatically increases if he plays versus Palko. The Chiefs are a largely middle-of-the-field passing game. This generates from both their offensive system, and also the inability of their receivers to consistently beat man coverage and create space. With Palko under center, it further inhibits the Chiefs from using the perimeter of the field on out-breaking routes due to his poor arm strength. Orton has the arm to make these throws, and the Bears secondary is an area that should be tested. The Bears rank 30th in the NFL in terms of passing yards allowed, and although some of their individual players in the secondary have played up to their abilities, it's a group with creases and cracks to expose. The safety play is just average, and although Major Wright had three interceptions in November, there still exists a lack of consistency in the back end and the Bears are susceptible to being torched. The Chiefs haven't thrown for more than 261 yards in any single game this season, but a breath of fresh air in Orton might be precisely what it will take to get over that hump and throw the football proficiently.
5. Don't kick to Devin Hester: Obvious? Yes. Important and worth repeating? Yes. The Chiefs cannot afford to, under any circumstances, kick to Devin Hester. Special teams coaches have played with fire all too often against Hester this year, and he's burned them in a big way. The Bears thrive off of Hester's returns, and I am sure they will be anxious for him to make a big play with Jay Cutler down and after last week's defeat. It's up to both Ryan Succop and Dustin Colquitt to ensure that Hester doesn't find the football, even if that means a squib kick by Succop or a 35-yard punt out of bounds by Colquitt. The Bears have won every game in which Hester has scored on a return touchdown in 2011, and he is in many ways their X-factor and most dangerous weapon. You suspect that the Chiefs can contain Caleb Hanie and the offense enough to keep this game low-scoring, and the last thing the Chiefs want to do is have Hester turn the tides with one play.