Say your prayers, Chiefs fans: If Hali and Houston are gone for good, this season is toast
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- When either Tamba Hali or Justin Houston was on the field Sunday, the San Diego Chargers scored three points. After both were gone, they scored 38.
Pass the rosary beads, kids. Whatever favors you need to cash in with the football gods, this is the time to collect.
Because the likely fate of the 9-2 Kansas City Chiefs -- the postseason fate, almost certainly -- rests on a pair of Monday morning MRIs.
"It's hard," linebacker Derrick Johnson said after his mates suffered their first home loss of the season, a 41-38 kidney punch at the hands of Philip Rivers and the Chargers. "Shoot, I feed off of Tamba and Houston. Two Pro Bowl guys, All Pro guys. When they're not in the game, maybe the defense is not as good."
And maybe Miley Cyrus is a little wacky.
A 17-point San Diego fourth quarter sunk the day. But two second-quarter injuries could torpedo what was setting up to be a historical, magical season. On the first play of the period, outside linebacker Hali (nine sacks) appeared to get his ankle rolled, suffering a sprain or strain that required him to leave the field on a cart. With about 1:45 left until halftime, the Chiefs' other stud pass rushing outside linebacker, Houston (11 sacks), sprained his elbow in a pile while trying to take down Chargers scatback Danny Woodhead.
Over the next four minutes and 28 seconds -- going into and coming out of halftime -- a 14-3 Chiefs lead turned into a 17-14 deficit. Just. Like. That.
"This game hurt more than Denver (the week before)," Johnson said. "Denver, they got the best of us last week. They beat us. This team, they capitalized on the mistakes we had. They didn't beat us.
"Just gotta win. I mean, I'm a defensive guy, and we let our team down today."
And he was right. The Chargers, of present, are hardly a defensive juggernaut, but the Chiefs' offense in the second half returned nearly every serve Rivers and company lobbed their way. Save for that last touchdown, a 26-yard rainbow up the left boundary from Rivers to Seji Ajirotutu with 24 seconds left to play, a lollipop that somehow split safety Quintin Demps and cornerback Sean Smith.
"(The coverage) was straight," Smith said afterward. "It's just (that) he made a play. That's all it was." The 38 points were the most scored by a Kansas City team since Week 12 of 2010. And the 41 points allowed were the most the club had surrendered since Week 1 of 2011. And now? Now you hold your breath.
There are five players this team couldn't afford to lose for any length of time and still hope to keep this battleship afloat. You could argue whether Jamaal Charles or Alex Smith are No. 1 or No. 2, respectively, and maybe you already have. But Houston and Hali are on that list, too, and prominently. To suddenly blow one tire, unexpectedly, is bad enough. But to pop two? In the same race? As good as this defense is, it's not good enough to lose two Pro Bowl pass rushers in the same game and expect it not to sting. Cripes, did this one sting.
"The next guys come in and we expect them to step up and make plays," coach Andy Reid said. "There's no excuse there." No, but there is reality. And the reality is that Frank Zombo is not Tamba Hali. And Dezman Moses is not Justin Houston. That's not to knock the understudies, or to throw them under the bus in any way. That's just how good -- how stinking important -- Hali and Houston have been to this 9-2 start. "I'm a professional," said Moses, who played in all 16 games for the Green Bay Packers last fall, starting six and recording four sacks. "I've had a starting role before, I'm going to prepare like a starter this week. If I am or I am not, I'll be ready."
Chances are, he'll have to be. And here comes Peyton Manning, a division in the balance. Wonderful. "You see it, but you have to reload," punter Dustin Colquitt said. "Justin was back out telling those guys, 'This is what I normally do here.' So they're coached up immediately if they can't play." Nobody quit. Nobody pouted. Few heads seemed down, given the circumstances, though the number of crossing routes and rub routes this defense is seeing is clearly starting to bother rookie cornerback Marcus Cooper.
"We don't feel sorry for ourselves," Smith said. "Obviously, you know, you can't replace a guy like that. But the next guy does have to step in and do his job right." The coaches have to do their jobs, too. Did Reid need to use a timeout with 1:28 to go, with his team knocking on the door at the Chargers' 5-yard line? Did he get too cute in the red zone? And how do you explain the coverage breakdowns that allowed San Diego to take the ball back, down 38-34, and march, methodically, 78 yards over the next 58 seconds? "Seventy-seven yards with 1:22," Johnson said. "We'll take that any day." With a healthy Chiefs defense, sure. With the one that finished Sunday’s game, the one without Houston and Hali, Lord only knows. You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter (@seankeeler) or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.