Back then, the Kansas City Chiefs were riding high at 7-3 and heading into a Thursday night primetime game with a team that had begun its season with 10 consecutive losses.
Coming out of Christmas, though, the moods aren’t quite so cheerful.
A loss to the woeful Raiders triggered what’s since been a one-win holiday season nightmare, leaving Coach Andy Reid’s team near flat-lined when it comes to a potential playoff berth after this weekend’s regular-season finale with the visiting San Diego Chargers.
“We don’t necessarily control our own destiny, and the whole ‘what-ifs’ and ‘what do we need to have happen,’ it’s easy to get distracted,” quarterback Alex Smith said. “The thing will be to focus in on the Chargers, a division game, them coming in, and we need to take care of our business.”
Now it’s even easier to get distracted because Smith will not be around Sunday.
The veteran signal caller will miss the regular-season finale with a lacerated spleen, suffered during the third quarter of last week’s 20-12 loss to Pittsburgh.
“I felt great athletically, running around, throwing,” Smith said. “Just kind of had this constant deal going on and thankfully, Doc kind of urged me to get the test.”
Chiefs trainer Rick Burkholder said that Smith’s injury does not require surgery, but usually takes six weeks to heal.
“Once you started hearing how serious it is, you start knowing the implications can come of this as far as not playing.” commented Smith. “That’s the last thing you want to hear.”
Chase Daniel will get the start at quarterback in a game the Chiefs need to win – along with a Baltimore loss to Cleveland and a Houston loss to Jacksonville – to reach the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time in nearly 20 years.
“We’re not even looking at it like that,” Chiefs wide receiver Dwayne Bowe said. “We’re just trying to get better at what we do, and if the chips fall like they may that’s great.”
Foundering on third down has been a significant reason for Kansas City’s lack of success.
The Chiefs had converted 48 percent of their drive-prolonging opportunities through 10 games, but have plummeted to just 25 percent in the last five. Additionally, they’ve turned the ball over seven times in the last four games after giving it up only 10 times in the first 11.
“We just have to play as a team. Sometimes we find a way to play as a unit, sometimes we don’t,” linebacker Tamba Hali said. “Most of these games we lose, it’s not because the other team is whipping us. We shoot ourselves in the foot sometimes and we don’t know how to bounce back from it.”
Also hurting during the late-season stretch has been a previously prolific run game. Kansas City remains 10th in the league with an average of 120.5 ground yards per game, but it’s managed just 79 yards per game and just two rushing touchdowns overall in the last five.
Jamaal Charles has failed to exceed 52 yards in three of his last four, though he’s averaged 5.6 yards per carry and scored six times in his last seven games against San Diego.
The Chargers have surrendered 125 rushing yards per game for the season and allowed a ridiculous 355 rushing yards in Week 16 against San Francisco, but still managed to rally from a 21-point halftime deficit for a 38-35 overtime victory.
It was the highest rushing total ever allowed by a winning team.
It also boiled the postseason down to a simple proposition – win, and you’re in – which matches the scenario they faced in 2013, when a 27-24 defeat of Kansas City in Week 17 turned the trick.
Quarterback Philip Rivers kept the dream alive against the 49ers with a second-half/overtime effort that included 24 completions in 40 passes for 273 yards and three touchdowns. The final TD tied the game with 29 seconds remaining, and San Diego won with a 40-yard field goal in the extra session.
“It says a lot about him,” Chargers coach Mike McCoy said. “A lot of other teams, not just the quarterback, would have folded the way they played the first half. Philip’s one of the fiercest competitors and toughest competitors I’ve ever been around.”
Rivers has simultaneously been battling what’s been reported as a bulging disk in his back. His practice time last been limited in recent weeks, and his passer rating has dipped from 109.9 in the initial eight games to 81.4 in the last seven.
But in his last five games against the Chiefs, the rating is 112.1 and he’s got 12 TDs against four interceptions.
“We’ll do what’s in the best interest of Philip Rivers and our organization,” McCoy said. “Philip’s as tough as there is in the business. Philip will play on Sunday.”