KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Kansas City Chiefs remember not-so-fondly the way they started last season, dropping five of their first six games and spending the rest of the year digging out of the hole.
This year, they’d rather start the way they finished.
Andy Reid and Co. carry an NFL-leading 10-game regular-season winning streak into Sunday’s opener against the San Diego Chargers. In fact, the only loss they’ve had since October came in the AFC playoffs, when they lost on the road to the New England Patriots.
"We played some good teams, I’m not going to short-change the teams we were playing," Reid said this week, "but we settled down as it went and we all did better."
So much better that Kansas City went 11-5 and won its first playoff game since January 1994.
The sudden about-face came despite losing star running back Jamaal Charles to a torn ACL in his right knee, and with a series of injuries hobbling star pass rusher Justin Houston.
And it proved instructive to a team that largely returns intact this year.
"You have to start fast," Chiefs wide receiver Jeremy Maclin said. "If we started fast, we wouldn’t have been in the position we were in for the playoffs."
The Chargers would love to be in any playoff position.
After winning their opener against the Lions, and beating the Browns in Week 4, they went on to lose six straight games and missed the postseason for the second straight year.
Lack of production from first-round draft pick Melvin Gordon and the rest of the ground game contributed to their downfall, along with a series of razor-thin losses. But perhaps most troubling was the play of the Chargers’ porous defense, which they hope to have shored up by signing nose tackle Brandon Mebane and drafting defensive end Joey Bosa third overall.
Even though there is some uncertainty whether Bosa will play Sunday , the Chargers still think their defense — and by extension the entire team — is better than the 4-12 finish a year ago.
"The record sticks with you forever," said Chargers coach Mike McCoy, now in his fourth year, "but we’ve got a good football team and now we have to go do it."
Like last season, the Chiefs could still be without Charles and Houston on Sunday.
Charles has been slow in coming back from surgery following his Week 5 injury last year, and Reid called it "a stretch" that he will be on the field against San Diego. Houston is out for the foreseeable future following surgery to repair his own ACL in February.
Not that Houston’s absence, or the fact All-Pro safety Eric Berry missed the entire preseason due to a contract dispute, is making the Chargers feel any better about facing what was one of the league’s premier defenses a year ago.
"What did we score, shoot, six points against them last year?" Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said, reflecting on a 33-3 rout in San Diego and a 10-3 in Kansas City. "I believe in our defense, but I think it is going to take more than a field goal this time."
As the AFC West rivals prepare to kick off the season, here are some things to know:
DIVISION DOLDRUMS: The Chargers have lost eight straight games against AFC West foes, and their only two wins in two years have come against winless Raiders teams.
"I think it has a chance to be one of the more salty, tough divisions in the league, I really do," said Rivers, who is starting his 13th year in it. "Four or five years ago it was regarded by many to be a weak division. And now, shoot, it’s arguably one of the best."
BURSTING BACKFIELD: Even without Charles, the Chiefs have a trio of capable running backs in Charcandrick West, Spencer Ware and Knile Davis. West and Ware in particular proved to be a solid one-two punch in Charles’ absence during the second half of last season.
SOLID O-LINE: The Chargers’ offensive front was a mess last season. Tackle King Dunlap was sidelined by injuries and most of the rest were ineffective. But now that they’re healthy, and with the inking of center Matt Slauson, expectations are once again high for the San Diego offense.
HALI, WAIT AND SEE: Pass rusher Tamba Hali skipped most of training camp and all of the Chiefs’ preseason games to protect his knees, which underwent surgery in the offseason. The veteran will be counted on to pressure Rivers with Houston and fellow linebacker Josh Mauga out with injuries.
"I think our approach to 91 is going to be the 91 we’ve seen the last decade," Rivers said. "Maybe he won’t be, but you have to expect that."
SPEAKING OF OFFENSE: Both teams have new coordinators. The Chargers brought back Ken Whisenhunt after 23 unsuccessful games coaching the Titans, while the Chiefs turned their attack over to Brad Childress and Matt Nagy following Doug Pederson’s departure for Philadelphia.
In both instances, the transition has been relatively seamless.
"Obviously we had a good start in ’13, got our way into the postseason, won a playoff game," Rivers said. "We built and did some things in the two years (Whisenhunt) was gone that we liked and we kept, and he brought back some of his own ideas and meshed things together."