In the span of one year, the Kansas City Chiefs went from feeders to the ranks of the prestigious.
The Buffalo Bills would love to follow suit.
Kansas City opens defense of its surprise 2010 AFC West title with Sunday's encounter with the long-suffering Bills, who'll be striving to start off this season with considerably better results than the last one.
After winning a grand sum of 10 games over the previous three campaigns, the Chiefs matched that entire total by putting together a 10-6 regular season in head coach Todd Haley's second year at the helm. The formula was simple yet undeniably effective, with Kansas City relying on a prolific two-headed rushing attack while taking care of the football with a judicious purpose.
The Chiefs averaged a league-best 164.2 yards per game on the ground, with the diverse backfield duo of speed demon Jamaal Charles and veteran bruiser Thomas Jones combining for over 2,360 yards between them. Quarterback Matt Cassel did his part as well, committing just eight turnovers in directing an offense that gave the ball away a mere 14 times prior to the playoffs, the second-lowest number in the NFL.
Cassel initially came into this contest with a questionable tag after cracking a rib in Kansas City's preseason finale, but was able to practice during the week and should be able to start on Sunday.
The Bills are coming off an overall unsuccessful 4-12 season, the franchise's most losses since 2001, but were able to display some encouraging signs over the course of the second half. After beginning the Chan Gailey with eight consecutive defeats, Buffalo split its final eight tests to head into 2011 with a more positive outlook.
That record would have been more attractive had the Bills not suffered three overtime setbacks during the course of the year, including a 13-10 loss to the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium in late October.
Buffalo also uncovered some hidden talent along the way, with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick throwing for 3,000 yards and 23 touchdowns after entering the season as a backup to the since-released Trent Edwards, while wide receiver Steve Johnson broke through with an 82-catch, 10-touchdown output after being used sparingly by the previous coaching staff.
If the Bills are to avoid a seventh straight losing season, however, they'll have to improve a defense that surrendered the fifth-most points in the league and ranked dead last against the run last year. Steps were taken to upgrade the group during the offseason, with Buffalo selecting talented defensive end Marcell Dareus with the third overall choice in this past April's draft and signing veteran linebacker Nick Barnett to a three-year contract.
Kansas City's first order of business will be to get an offense that was dormant at the tail end of last season back on track. The Chiefs mustered a meager 201 total yards in the regular-season finale, then were limited to 161 yards and eight first downs while turning the ball over five times in a forgettable 30-7 home loss to Baltimore in the AFC Wild Card Playoffs.
That decline coincided with the departure of coordinator Charlie Weis, who left to take the same post at the University of Florida. Offensive line coach Bill Muir has since been elevated to that position, though Haley -- the primary play-caller for Arizona during the Cardinals' run to the Super Bowl in 2008 -- will take a more active role in the game plan this year.
Buffalo holds a 21-17-1 advantage in its all-time regular-season series with Kansas City, but the Chiefs were able to close the gap with last year's above- mentioned overtime decision. The Bills had won three straight from Kansas City prior to that result, which included victories in Arrowhead Stadium during both the 2008 and 2009 seasons.
In addition to their regular-season edge, the Bills have prevailed in two of three lifetime postseason bouts with the Chiefs. Buffalo was a 30-13 home winner in the 1993 AFC Championship, won by a 37-14 margin at home in a 1991 AFC Divisional Playoff, and was a 31-7 home loser in the 1966 AFL Championship.
Gailey, who served as the Chiefs' offensive coordinator in 2008, is 0-2 lifetime against his one-time employers as a head coach, having dropped a 20-17 decision to Kansas City while piloting the Dallas Cowboys in 1998 in addition to last season's setback. Haley is 1-1 versus Buffalo and won his only head-to- head meeting with Gailey last season.
WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL
Buffalo will rely on the skills and smarts of Fitzpatrick (3000 passing yards, 23 TD, 15 INT), a Harvard graduate who showed himself to be a capable quarterback in the first real opportunity to be a starter in his six-year career, and the creative mind of Gailey, as the overall talent level is far from frightening. After trading two-time 1,000-yard receiver Lee Evans to Baltimore during the preseason, the Bills will need to find a reliable counterpart to Johnson (82 receptions, 1073 yards, 10 TD) in order to prevent opponents from rolling coverage towards Fitzpatrick's favorite target, though slotman Roscoe Parrish (33 receptions, 2 TD) was having a strong 2010 season before missing the final eight weeks with a fractured wrist. Donald Jones will get the first crack at the job, but the undrafted second-year pro has only 18 career catches to his name. Assistance could come from the running backs as well, as both top rusher Fred Jackson (927 rushing yards, 31 receptions, 7 total TD) and dangerous youngster C.J. Spiller (283 rushing yards, 24 receptions, 1 TD) are capable pass catchers. Their ability to be safety valves could be important, considering Fitzpatrick will be operating behind an offensive line that's littered with castoffs and underachievers. Free-agent signee Brad Smith, a wide receiver and impact kick returner with the Jets, adds a new wrinkle to the offense, as Gailey plans to use the former college quarterback as a Wildcat option and in special packages.
Fitzpatrick will be attempting to navigate a Kansas City secondary that's young but highly gifted, having held opposing quarterbacks to the third-lowest completion rate (54.9 percent) in the league and placing eighth in pass efficiency defense during last year's surge. Strong safety Eric Berry (92 tackles, 2 sacks, 4 INT) immediately emerged as a playmaker and stabilizing force as a rookie in 2010, earning a trip to the Pro Bowl as a result, while fourth-year cornerbacks Brandon Flowers (65 tackles, 2 INT, 14 PD) and Brandon Carr (57 tackles, 1 INT, 25 PD) have proven to be cornerstones in a short span. They're aided by the constant pressure provided by Pro Bowl outside linebacker Tamba Hali (52 tackles), who led the AFC with 14 1/2 sacks last season, and situational rusher Wallace Gilberry (23 tackles, 7 sacks). The Chiefs' defensive line received an extensive overhaul during the offseason, with 2010 starters Ron Edwards and Shaun Smith leaving as free agents and the team signing 12-vet Kelly Gregg (38 tackles with Ravens) to be an anchor against the run from his nose tackle position.
WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL
Haley will look to get the ball in the hands of Charles (1467 rushing yards, 45 receptions, 14 total TD) early and often come Sunday to take advantage of the 2010 All-Pro's game-breaking capabilities. That strategy worked to perfection in last year's meeting with the Bills, with Charles piling up 238 yards from scrimmage (177 rushing, 61 receiving) on 26 total touches as the focal point of the offense. The steady Thomas Jones (896 rushing yards, 6 TD, 14 receptions) will also get his work in as a change-of-pace alternative for a ground assault that amassed an impressive 274 yards against Buffalo a year ago. Though Cassel (3116 passing yards, 27 TD, 7 INT) showed himself to be a trustworthy game manager during Kansas City's AFC West title run, the Chiefs ranked just 30th in passing offense (185.5 ypg), mainly due to the lack of a consistent outlet opposite No. 1 receiver Dwayne Bowe (72 receptions, 1162 yards, 15 TD), the NFL's 2010 leader in touchdown catches. The Chiefs may have addressed that problem with the signing of ex-Cardinal Steve Breaston (47 receptions, 1 TD), who eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark while playing under Haley in Arizona in 2008, though the season-ending loss of young tight end Tony Moeaki (47 receptions, 3 TD) to a torn ACL during the preseason was a blow.
The Buffalo defense was a major liability in 2010, surrendering a porous 169.6 rushing yards per game and 4.8 yards per carry while coming up with a subpar total of 27 sacks, so it's no wonder that several changes were made to the unit over the summer. The Bills believed they've bolstered the first area of concern by landing the gifted Dareus, who'll line up next to Pro Bowl nose tackle Kyle Williams (77 tackles, 5.5 sacks) at left end, and Barnett (24 tackles), a tackling machine in Green Bay who's a more athletic replacement than free-agent departure Paul Posluszny. The team will also be counting on a contribution from oft-injured outside linebacker Shawne Merriman in the pass- rushing department, though the former Chargers' All-Pro has missed 30 games over the last three years with an assortment of medical issues. The return of veteran inside linebacker Andra Davis (41 tackles, 1 INT) from a torn labrum that limited to just six games last season should also help make Buffalo tougher against the run.
KEYS TO THE GAME
In a matchup between the NFL's best rushing team from last season and the one that was the worst in the league at containing the opponent's ground game, it goes without saying that aspect will be a central component of Sunday's contest. If the Chiefs run the ball with authority like they did in last year's clash, they'll have success, while the Bills will be in a very tough spot if their defense can't perform better in that facet.
Though preseason results aren't always indicators of how a team will do when the games actually count, Kansas City really struggled to move the football effectively during the warm-up period, averaging a league-low 10.5 points over its four outings. That's a bit worrisome when considering how the Chiefs were shut down over the latter stages of last season.
Home sweet home. The Chiefs went 7-1 at Arrowhead Stadium during the 2010 regular season and held the opposition to 14 points or less in all but one of those victories. Buffalo, on the other hand, won just twice on the road in Gailey's debut, which could give Kansas City a distinct advantage here.
When comparing the 2010 records of these two participants and adding in the fact that the one with the superior mark is it home, one might expect this game not to be that competitive. Think again. The Bills played the Chiefs right down to the wire in Arrowhead last season, and Kansas City still has to prove it can work out of its recent offensive funk, especially with a quarterback that's not at 100 percent right now. Buffalo has plenty of problems of its own, however, and it's highly debatable whether its defense can show enough progress to offset the team's shaky situation on the offensive line and uncertainty in the receiving corps. The Chiefs have the better running game and pass rush, and should be able to utilize those strengths to come up with a win that may not be so easy to obtain.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Chiefs 17, Bills 14