(Sports Network) - Once the 2009 NFL free agency period and Draft are in the books next spring, the pundits will formally begin searching for their next potential rags-to-riches story.
Every year the league seems to produce a team that comes out of nowhere to climb the NFL ladder, and identifying who that club or clubs will be has become a kind of sport within the sport.
The pundits usually whiff on locating the rising stocks, however. I mean, did anyone think the Dolphins and Falcons, who combined for a 5-27 record last year, were primed for runs toward the postseason in 2008?
Still, there will be an easily identifiable group of also-rans to choose from when the next would-be Cinderella candidates are chosen, and the Kansas City Chiefs should be prominent within this group.
Kansas City, which snapped a seven-game losing streak with a 20-13 win at Oakland this past Sunday, is 2-10 and might not win again in 2008. The defense has been historically horrific in a number of categories (an aside: which of the Chiefs' six sacks on the year has been your favorite?), and four different quarterbacks have thrown passes for a team nearly certain to come away with another top-five pick in next April's Draft.
Still, there are several promising developments that could lead an observer to make a case for Kansas City's possible quick ascendancy to competitive status.
A few of the major ones:
1. Tyler Thigpen. For a second-year player thrown into the fire behind a questionable offensive line, Thigpen has performed extremely well and looks like he might indeed be the consistent quarterback the team has lacked since Trent Green's career as a viable starter was carted off the field against Cincinnati a few years back. The 24-year-old picked up his first win as a starter on Sunday, and in his previous five games went for 235-yards-plus in all but one contest, while throwing multiple touchdown passes four times. He looks like he gets it, and as Thigpen accrues more time in the offense and watches his supporting cast gain more experience around him, he figures to get even better.
2. A maturing roster. The bad news is that the Chiefs have had to play a bunch of young players this year, both by design and due to injuries. By 2009, that will be the good news. In addition to Thigpen, players like left tackle Branden Albert, defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey and four highly-touted defensive backs - Brandon Carr, Brandon Flowers, Maurice Leggett and DaJuan Morgan - will have enough experience to be truly counted upon.
3. Another high draft pick. Kansas City is going to be picking early again in the 2009 Draft, and unless Thigpen plays terribly over the final month, the team is almost certain to focus its energies on a thin defensive front seven. The most obvious need here is for a pass rusher, and 6-7 Georgia Tech standout Michael Johnson might be a target. A bona fide middle linebacker to build around would also be nice, and Ohio State's James Laurinitius would be such a player at the center of the defense as well.
4. The AFC West. This division is bad, and there's no reason why the Chiefs can't rise up and contend quickly given its weakness. The Chargers are aging and look set to bring Norv Turner back next year, so they could very well finish with double-digit losses in 2009. The Raiders are the Raiders. And the Broncos, who are going to win the West by default this year, still have a lot of work to do before they're a true contender in the AFC. Why can't Kansas City step into this vacuum and compete in a division where 9-7 could come with a division title?
5. Coaching Staff Continuity. There have been some calls for Herm Edwards' head from frustrated Chiefs fans, but dumping him at the end of the year wouldn't be very fair given the rebuilding process with which he was saddled. The players continue to work hard for him, and he should get at least another year to turn it around. Offensive coordinator Chan Gailey also deserves a second season after breathing some life into an offense that has gone from 14.1 points per game a season ago to a very respectable 23.5 per contest over its past six games. With so many coaching changes due around the NFL, the Chiefs could actually stay ahead of the curve by not making a move going into 2009.
BRONCOS: The 2008 AFC West that looked to be building toward a momentous Week 17 battle between the Broncos and Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium is now, for all intents and purposes, over.
Denver (7-5) can clinch the division as early as this week with a win over two-win Kansas City and a San Diego loss to Oakland on Thursday night. If the Broncos are unable to close things out in Week 14, there's a good chance a win at Carolina on Dec. 14 - which would be the team's fourth consecutive victory away from Invesco Field at Mile High - will do the trick.
Then again, the Broncos are only two weeks removed from a 21-point home loss to the Oakland Raiders, and this week's opponent, Kansas City, has already beaten Denver once this year.
Should San Diego win games in which it will be the favorite in each of the next two weeks, and Denver falters against Kansas City and Carolina, things could get a little tense in the Rocky Mountains.
So, as the Broncos' 34-17 win at the favored New York Jets this past Sunday showed, you just never know which way the wind will blow, a point Denver head coach Mike Shanahan is trying to impart to his young team.
"The season is far from over with," said Shanahan on Monday. "We have seen teams bounce back very quickly. The thing that we are going to do is hopefully concentrate on the job at hand. We have Kansas City in our backyard and we have to worry about our business. We know what San Diego is capable of doing. We have seen them play some excellent games. To assume it is over is a big mistake for our football team and the rest of the NFL."
CHARGERS: Of all the negative on-field stories in the NFL this season, the consistently poor play of the Chargers has perhaps been the most stunning.
A consensus favorite to run away with the division this season, one year after going 11-5 and advancing to the AFC Championship Game, Norv Turner's club has instead endured a precipitous fall from grace that has all but eliminated the team's chance to return to the postseason.
San Diego's 22-16 home loss to the upstart Atlanta Falcons last Sunday was the team's fifth defeat in its last six games, with the only victory over that span a narrow 20-19 affair over the two-win Kansas City Chiefs.
The Bolts are 4-8 in their second season under Turner, and after averaging more than 11 wins per season between 2004 and 2007, are now just one defeat away from their first losing record since going 4-12 in 2003.
A sharp decline in production from future Hall-of-Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson has been San Diego's most identifiable problem during the campaign.
After rushing for at least 1,200 yards in each of his first seven seasons in the league, Tomlinson (794 yards) is on pace for just 1,059 in 2008. The perennial All-Pro's 3.7 yards per carry are the fewest since his rookie season of 2001, and he is on pace for fewer than 10 touchdowns after averaging better than 18 per year over his first seven seasons.
The 29-year-old Tomlinson, who has repeatedly claimed that his health is not an issue, comes off a week in which he was held to 24 yards on 14 carries by the Falcons, and has reached 100 rushing yards just twice all season.
The San Diego defense has not done the team many favors either. The Chargers enter Week 14 ranked 27th in the league in total defense (367.6 yards per game), 31st against the pass (260.6 yards per game), and only one team has allowed more than the team's 21 touchdown passes surrendered.
All of which has Turner still looking for the answers that have remained so elusive this year.
"I watched the [Atlanta] tape and there are certainly a lot of areas that we need to play better but there's no lack of effort...You go out and win one and the whole outlook changes and that's what we are starting to prepare to do today in a short week [against the Raiders on Thursday night] and coming off a tough loss," Turner said. "It will be a challenge."
RAIDERS: Two Sundays ago, the Raiders went to Denver and shocked the NFL world by laying a 31-10 pasting on the first-place Broncos.
Of Oakland's three wins this season, two have come against probable playoff teams, with the other of those coming against Brett Favre and the New York Jets back to Oct. 19th.
So, while the Raiders will go into San Diego as a massive underdog in a Thursday night matchup that the NFL Network probably wishes it could reconsider, coming out of Qualcomm Stadium with a win doesn't necessarily test the bounds of believability.
After all, the Raiders led the Chargers for much of their Bay Area meeting on Sept. 28, actually taking a 15-3 lead into the fourth quarter before falling apart late in an eventual 28-18 loss.
A win in San Diego would be the team's first since 2002, and would snap a 10- game losing streak to the Chargers dating back to a 34-31 overtime triumph in 2003. A triumph would also pull the Raiders into a tie for second place in the AFC West, not that such a standing means much in the league's worst division.
"I've said this for a few weeks. Every time we win a game right now is very important for us," said interim head coach Tom Cable on Monday. "For us to go down there and win would be huge just like it would have been huge to win two in a row. I don't know if anything is ever greater than what is next, I think they are all important. It would be a nice win in San Diego for sure, against another rival and divisional opponent. Right now, the most important thing is to find ways to win games."