Week 1 game previews are pretty much guesswork. I think last year I predicted a 30 point victory over the Raiders heading into week 1, only to see Philip Rivers drag the team to a close victory and the team barely escape Oakland alive. So take the below preview for what it's worth: analyzing matchups based upon the beginning of preseason games and a 2009 season in which both teams were very different.
Running the ball
Kansas City has spent a lot of money (and high draft picks) and stopping the run. The key to Scott Pioli's Patriots teams always seemed to be the big, talented defensive line, and it would appear he's building the Chiefs in the same mold. With that being said, are the kids at the point yet where they can be relied upon to stop the league's best running backs? Let's look at how the starters did against them in the preseason:
Outside of the Tampa Bay game, and that is a team with a terrible offensive line and a starting RB (Ward) so bad that he was cut, the run D hasn't been spectacular. Their LBs have some good pass-rushers, but no great run-stopped, and to be really stout against the run they're going to need Ron Edwards to turn into a really good Nose Tackle.
Let's take a quick look at how Mathews fared in his preseason games (by the way, if you haven't noticed, I'm pretty much pretending that the 4th preseason game never happened because it was so useless to everybody).
I'm a little sad, but excited, that the kid hasn't gotten into the endzone yet. Sad because he's run really well and I don't want him to think he'll have issues getting in, excited because I know how driven he's going to be to score 6 for his team in Week 1. Still, even without a score Mathews has shown a consistent ability to get tough yardage, make big plays and generally ignite a running attack that has been dead for two years.
Add a coach who wants to prove his new offensive philosophy to the team and the viewers at home to an offensive line with something to prove and a running back who has a desire to be dominant and you have a Chargers team that is going to do everything it can to try to run the ball down the throat of a Kansas City defense that has not been very good at stopping the run.
If we travel back to last season, when the Chiefs' defense was roughly the same in terms of personnel, you will notice that they ranked 31st in rushing yards given up per game and also in rushing yards given up per attempt. This was one of the league's worst rushing defenses. Heck, even LaDainian Tomlinson wasn't that bad against them. To think that Ryan Mathews could be effective against them does not take much stretching of the imagination.
Passing the ball
With one of the league's best passing attacks in 2009, the Chargers turned out to be a poor matchup for the Chiefs and their 26th worst passing defense. Let's take a look at how Philip Rivers fared on those two games:
El Capitan - 39/58 (67.2%), 558 yards, 5 TDs, 0 INTs.
Isn't that just the picture of efficiency? That, my friends, is why the Chargers won each game by more than 4 touchdowns.
So, what has changed since then? Well, remove Vincent Jackson and Marcus McNeill. Add in rookies Eric Berry and Javier Arenas. Is it enough to move the completion percentage down one point? Perhaps. Is it enough to take away 1 TD and replace it with an INT? Maybe, if you ignore the fact that this is one of the league's smartest QBs going up against players that will be in a regular season NFL game (on prime time) for the very first time.
Now, I've been dancing around this for a while, but I am more confident in the 2010 Chargers offense than I was with the 2009 offense. With the 2009 offense, even if the team was facing a good secondary (like the Bengals) they were still forced to go to the air to win the game and a handful of those victories could've been losses if the ball had bounced another way or the team had been less disciplined.
The 2010 Chargers offense is a chameleon with fangs, ready to turn into whatever weapon works best and strike with force. Can't stop the run? Get ready for a 3-headed beast of Mathew, Mike Tolbert and Darren Sproles. Can't stop the deep pass? Malcom Floyd, Buster Davis and Patrick Crayton would very much like to show you how fast than can run. Can't defend Antonio Gates? Well, that pretty much puts you in the same boat as everybody else, but that doesn't mean that Gatesy and Rivers won't have fun pointing it out. Can't stop the short pass against big, physical receivers? Legedu Naanee and Buster Davis will be having an exhibition on how to catch balls in traffic about 7-10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
My point is this: in terms of big plays, this offense may have taken a step back. However, in terms of consistency I believe it took a big step forward. That includes the passing offense as well, and I think (even if it takes a full half) the Chargers will find out where the weakness of this Chiefs defense is and attack it.