A middle of the pack defense, an offense with some talent, but woefully inept coaching and quarterback play holding them back -- stop me if you've heard this story already.
The Kansas City Chiefs are, for all intents and purposes, the 2010 Carolina Panthers. They tried their hand with the up-and-down California quarterback named Matt (Cassel), they made a change to the Notre Dame quarterback who unpredictably slid in the draft (Brady Quinn); all the while fans are wondering why their inept offensive coordinator didn't just feed the ball non-stop to their immensely talented running back Jamaal Charles. Want to know the best part? Like we experienced with Jeff Davidson, Chiefs' OC Brian Daboll also came from a tradition of failure, as he was the offensive mind in Cleveland from 2009-10.
It's hard not to feel for one of the NFL's most storied franchises, because their fan base deserves better than this. Scott Pioli was supposed to install a dynasty, and it has been a disaster. The Chiefs, like the Panthers, will almost certainly be looking for a new general manager in the off-season -- provided ownership knows what's best for them.
This may be a dysfunctional opponent on Sunday, but don't let the record fool you, especially on defense. This is a unit with a lot of talent, and a few play-makers; they just haven't put it together yet.
X-Factor: Cam Newton
In Monday's game against the Philadelphia Eagles we named Cam Newton as the potential difference maker, and this week he will be too. It's hard to imagine that twelve weeks into the NFL season the Panthers are about to face only their third 3-4 defense of the year. It's been a long string of 4-3 teams, and seeing another three-man front actually helps Carolina's second-year quarterback.
For the vast majority of teams the 3-4 represents a conundrum for traditional, statuesque, pocket passers. Strong rushes off the edge tend to goad most quarterbacks into responding to perceived pressure, which in-turn causes ill advised passes. Cam Newton is an anomaly, as the Panthers QB responds better to pass rushers in open space, like 3-4 outside linebackers, rather than traditional 4-3 ends who come out of their stance off the edge.
Against 3-4 teams the Panthers have allowed an average of two sacks per game, against 4-3 teams that jumps to 2.88. 2012 has been a small sample size, but we saw this in 2011 also as Newton's best performances came against teams running 3-4 schemes.
Where Cam does struggle, however, is with pressure up the middle. This has been his Achilles heel during his first two years. If a defense has a strong defensive tackle presence who can collapse the pocket, Cam looks lost. He's a rare player who would rather a rusher come off his blindside, than be in his face -- and this is largely due to his mechanics. Newton doesn't adjust enough, so when an interior lineman is bull-rushed into his pocket, that's when the back-foot throws, and bad decisions come into play. Thankfully for Carolina, nobody on the line is a true threat. Tyson Jackson is KC's best right now, and rookie Dontari Poe looks utterly lost in the NFL.
Carolina run offense vs. Kansas City run defense
When you see Kansas City's run defense, think Carolina's. The two units are remarkably similar, typified by their shockingly close performance. The Chiefs are allowing 126.1 yards per game on 4.5 yards per carry, the Panthers are allowing 126.2 yards per game, also on 4.5 yards per carry.
In both cases the problem has been their defensive lines, specifically the aforementioned tackle spot. On both teams they have immensely talented linebackers; the Chiefs have Derrick Johnson (92 tackles), the Panthers have Luke Kuechly (105 tackles), while Justin Houston and Tamba Hali are arguably the best 3-4 OLB pairing in the NFL you never hear about, combining for 15 sacks and 84 tackles -- they just need help.
The primary issue for the Panthers has been how the running backs are used. There's no one answer for why the Panthers are struggling, but if Jonathan Stewart misses Sunday's game with an ankle injury, and DeAngelo Williams is relied on to be the feature back, there's no telling what kind of success the Panthers will have. The difference maker, yet again, will be Cam Newton, and his ability to make the Chiefs pay with his legs. Kansas City haven't seen a dual-threat QB this year, and it will be fascinating to see how they respond.
Ultimately, this is the 18th ranked run offense vs. the 24th ranked run defense. It's close, but Carolina edge out ahead.
Carolina pass offense vs. Kansas City pass defense
This is where the game will get really interesting. Kansas City's pass defense is a mixed bag. They allow one of the league's lowest completion percentages, and are ranked 10th in yards allowed per game; however, they also are 29th in the NFL in QB rating against (101.4), and are tied 30th in passing touchdowns allowed with 22.
Allowing Brandon Carr to leave was a stunning display of hubris on Scott Pioli's part, applying New England 'next man up' principles to a team without a lot of defensive talent. With Carr, the Chiefs had arguably the best secondary in the NFL, without him they're ho-hum. Brandon Flowers is very good, and his match-up with Steve Smith should be great to watch, and while Javier Arenas has good ball skills, his 5-9 frame may struggle against Brandon LaFell.
The wild card is Eric Berry. On pace for 87 tackles and nine passes defended, he is an elite safety in the NFL, but since his 2011 injury he doesn't look to be the same player who was projecting to the Ed Reed/Troy Polamalu stratosphere. That doesn't mean he can be written off though, and Cam Newton tends to struggle against athletic safeties who can react quickly. Berry has the size, speed, and strength to cover Greg Olsen, and that should be another fantastic duel to watch on Sunday.
Again, we see a talented passing offense in Carolina going up against a talented (but less so) secondary in Kansas City.