The Kansas City Chiefs will lean on a journeyman quarterback, a running back who’s spent most of his career on special teams and a tight end who has a hard time catching when the play at New England on Monday night.
Not exactly what general manager Scott Pioli had in mind when he put this team together.
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The Chiefs have been decimated by injuries this season, particularly on offense, where quarterback Matt Cassel, running back Jamaal Charles and tight end Tony Moeaki have gone down with what are likely to be season-ending injuries.
Tyler Palko will be under center against the Patriots, making his first career start. He’ll hand off to Jackie Battle, a special teams standout thrust into the role of the feature back. And if the Chiefs’ struggling offensive line gives Palko enough time to throw, his best option off the line of scrimmage is Leonard Pope, who has all of 16 catches for 115 yards this season.
No wonder the Kansas City offense is among the worst in the NFL.
Coach Todd Haley maintains confidence that this hodgepodge collection of backups can keep the defending AFC West champions in contention. The Chiefs (4-5) are in a three-way tie behind the Oakland Raiders (5-4) in a division lacking any true favorite.
”Obviously last week’s result was disappointing,” Haley said of a 17-10 home loss to Denver. ”We’ve learned from it and we’re continuing to work hard to be a better team, to play better, to be more consistent, and that has to start this Monday against New England.”
Much of the spotlight will be on Palko, who has thrown 13 passes in his NFL career. But he’s only the trigger-man for an offense that hasn’t done much.
Kansas City ranks 27th in the league in total offense, and Cassel had the passing offense ranked 28th before he went down with an injury to his throwing hand against the Broncos. Cassel had surgery late Monday and is likely out for the season.
The Chiefs’ rushing offense, the league’s best a year ago, has struggled without the game-breaking Charles in the backfield. Kansas City has three rushing touchdowns, better only than the Browns.
The Chiefs have given up 22 sacks, nine of them coming the past two weeks – by comparison, Buffalo has allowed 10 sacks the entire season. Wide receiver Jon Baldwin, the team’s first-round draft pick, has eight catches for 123 yards in his injury-shortened debut – by comparison, fifth-round draft pick Denarius Moore of Oakland has 23 catches for 396 yards.
The result is an offense that has scored just 141 points, 27th among the 32 NFL teams.
”The last time we played the Kansas City Chiefs was in 2008, opening day, and where that team was then to where it is now, they’re a much, much better football team,” New England coach Bill Belichik said. ”They’re sound, they’re tough, they have a lot of explosive players on both sides of the ball, and they have a lot of schemes that are hard to prepare for.”
The complexity of those schemes may be dialed back a bit without Cassel at quarterback.
Haley said he is confident that Palko will be ready to go, especially given an extra day of preparation. Like Cassel, Palko is a drop-back passer who does many of the same things, the most significant difference being that he’s left handed.
”Some things are going to change,” Haley said, when asked how the game plan might be altered. ”I don’t think we can dramatically make a whole bunch of adjustments, other than little tweaks here and there.”
That’s not to say wholesale changes would be a bad idea.
The Chiefs only managed a field goal against the then-winless Dolphins two weeks ago, a home loss that came on the heels of a confidence-boosting Monday night win over San Diego. Then came last weekend’s humbling loss to Denver, one in which the Chiefs gained 258 yards of total offense.
If it wasn’t for Palko leading the 2-minute offense to a field goal in the closing seconds, that total would have been even more meager.
Now, the Chiefs will go against a defense that is ranked last in the league against the pass but still managed to shut down the Jets on Sunday.
”The guys on the team are expecting me to execute and go out and do my job,” Palko said, ”and have nothing change from when Matt’s gone down and me stepping in
”Coach Belichick, he’s proven that he’s a defensive genius and I wouldn’t expect anything less,” Palko added. ”I’m sure he’s not feeling sorry for himself because he’s got some guys out. He’s got an untested quarterback and I’m sure he’s not going to take it easy on me.”