This is a special week. The holiday season is in the air. The Chargers won in a special Thursday Night game. The playoffs are near. The race for the AFC West Division Title is heating up. The pressure is on the Kansas City Chiefs to keep winning if they want to stay ahead of a Chargers team that has won the last 4 division crowns. This week, that task takes place down I-70 in St Louis where another western division-leading team awaits as the next obstacle in the Chiefs' stretch run.
Since showing the two teams' DVOA splits worked so well for the Chargers on Thursday, let's do it again here. Here's a refresher on the Chiefs season so far:
And here's how the 6-7 St. Louis Rams are doing this year:
Those numbers can provide a pretty tidy picture of what we're in store for Sunday morning. The Chiefs are a team flirting with being very average, but do not have many strengths outside of a running game. The Rams are a bottom-feeding team that doesn't have a clear way to beat you, but can slow your running game down. One can draw an easy conclusion from that analysis: the Chiefs will win, but it won't look terribly impressive. However, that kind of analysis isn't any fun and more importantly creates a bleak picture for Chargers fans who are ready to root the Rams onto victory. So let's see if we can dig a little deeper.
First on the agenda is to talk about the 600 lb gorilla in the room: Will Matt Cassel start and how effective will he be?
My gut reaction to the first question is that Matt Cassel will start and he'll be somewhat effective, but will lean on his running game more than usual. He has had some limited reps in practice this week, and we haven't heard any quotes about how much pain he is in. That's a good indicator that they are getting him ready to play. As I talked about in an article last weekend, Matt Cassel doesn't have anything to worry about this injury other than pain. Physically, he should be healthy enough to do most of the things a QB needs to do. The wound shouldn't be any more detrimental to his movement than having a bruise would be.
However, the pain is something that will be an issue. Just like a well placed deep bruise, it's going to hurt every time he tries to use the muscles in the area. There's no amount of pain meds that keep you coherent and unable to feel that pain. That being said, we've seen athletes fairly recently (Ben Roethlisberger and, in baseball, San Francisco Giants OF Andres Torres) come back from these injuries quickly and play well through any pain they are experiencing.
The biggest thing for me will be seeing what happens when a pass rush is coming hard on a key 3rd down. Does he stand in the pocket and deliver his best possible pass to Dwayne Bowe as he's breaking away from a defender? Does he guard himself a little and get hit as he throws? Or does he revert back to what he did when he was an unsure rookie and tuck the ball in and get sacked? Playing through pain can play a big part in a QB's legacy. We'll see how it all shakes out with him.
Or maybe we won't. Maybe we see Brodie Croyle again with another very conservative game plan. If that's the case then they are really missing an opportunity to attack a Rams pass defense that has not had a good 2010 season (with the exception of their game against the Chargers ... sigh).
* * *
The Rams offense has a veteran RB who has made Pro Bowls during his career, and still seems to be young enough to have effective years left. That, however, does not appear to be the case with Steven Jackson.
To start the season, the Rams were completely ineffective running the ball, but first found life against the Chargers with a 12.4% DVOA performance. They were then able to run well in 3 of their next 4, with the lone outlier being a putrid performance against Carolina. However, since then, their struggles in that area have returned. They seem to have it in them to run effectively, but they also can be completely shut down. KC has shut down running games before, but only once in the last 5 weeks (against Seattle). It could go either way here. The smart money is probably on KC holding the Rams to something close to 0.0% DVOA, but that's anything but a given.
The Chiefs pass defense is not a unit that is likely to shut anyone down. They've only done it 4 times this year. Two weeks ago against Denver was their best performance and the other three good ones came against Buffalo in week 8, Indy in week 5 and San Francisco in week 4. At the opposite end of the spectrum they've allowed 3 teams to pass at will against them. Arizona did it in week 11, Denver really did it in week 10 and Houston did in in week 6. They've also allowed 4 other teams to have good passing days with San Diego doing it last week and Oakland, Jacksonville and Cleveland doing it earlier in the year. It's pretty likely we see the Chiefs give up at least a good chunk of yards through the air, but there is also a chance they give up more than that.
The Rams passing offense is buoyed by the likely offensive rookie of the year, QB Sam Bradford. However, the talent he has to throw to is some of the worst in the league. That shows up in their passing DVOA as they rank as one of the worst in the game moving the ball through the air. Their few good games have been against some of worst defenses in the league. However, with the exception of last week and back in week 5 against Detroit, they are usually somewhat competent. The eyes of Missouri will be watching the right arm of Sam Bradford in this game. He proved at Oklahoma that he can perform in big games, we'll have to see if that continues.