KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Kansas City Chiefs dug themselves into a 1-5 hole beginning the season a year ago, and veteran linebacker Derrick Johnson wants nothing to do with another slow start.
“I think responding to adversity and starting fast,” Johnson said when asked that his team’s defense needs to prove Sunday against the San Diego Chargers in the season opener at Arrowhead Stadium.
The Chiefs kickoff the season with soaring confidence and sky-high expectations. The team finished last year 11-5 and won the franchise’s first playoff game in 22 years. Now the Chiefs aim to extend the season further into January.
Quarterback Alex Smith said everyone feels the sense of anticipation climbing toward the start of the new campaign.
“I feel really confident,” Smith said. “I think this group is really confident in what we’re doing, our preparation, our development, where we’re at right now.”
The Chiefs expect to open the season without running back Jamaal Charles. The All-Pro recently returned to practice after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in week five of the 2015 season. But the Chiefs list Charles as doubtful, and coach Andy Reid called him unlikely to play against the Chargers.
That means Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West must carry the load in his absence, just as they did last season.
Both running backs expect to get opportunities, but Ware likely opens as the lead back Sunday.
“You could probably say that,” Reid said referring to Ware as the starter, “but it depends on the personnel group so don’t hold me accountable.”
The Chiefs defensive challenge rests with containing a rejuvenated Philip Rivers. The Chargers quarterback suffered through a frustrating 4-12 season last year, including a sweep at the hands of the Chiefs by a combined scored of 45-6.
But Rivers feels invigorated with a strong supporting cast this season.
“We feel like we’re coming in with a healthier group this year at running back, tight end and receiver,” Rivers aid. “We’re coming in with a little more juice than we finished the season with last year.”
Rivers anticipates facing a Chiefs defense with question marks. Linebacker Justin Houston will miss at least the first six weeks of the season continuing his recovery from knee surgery in February. The Chiefs also lost cornerback Sean Smith from last year’s team via free agency and linebacker Josh Mauga to a season-ending hip injury.
Linebacker Tamba Hali and safety Eric Berry did not play in the preseason. But Rivers still respects the threat the Chiefs pose on defense.
“They’re all pros and we know that even though they weren’t there for all of training camp, guys like that can be what they’ve been in the past,” Rivers said. “With their defense, on opening day at Arrowhead Stadium, I think it’ll be a heck of a challenge.”
Chiefs defensive tackle Dontari Poe says the team’s defense puts pressure on itself to start fast and fill in the gaps until the personnel changes gel.
“You just have to get ready for a team,” Poe said “One person can’t do it, one person can’t be off their game. Everybody has to be ready.”
The Chiefs lead the long-running AFC West rivalry against the Chargers with a 56-55-1 record, including 33-23 at home. The team owns four wins in a row against San Diego by a combined margin of 85-33.
The last time the two teams met in season opener proved memorable. The Chiefs opened a renovated Arrowhead Stadium with a 21-14 Monday night victory, highlighted by an electric 94-yard punt return by rookie Dexter McCluster.
The Chiefs stand as a touchdown favorite over the Chargers.
Chargers safety Darrell Stuckey played at Kansas (2006-09), where he compiled 178 tackles, 10 interceptions and 26 passes defended. Stuckey grew up in Kansas City, Kan., and played at Washington High School.
Starting Chargers cornerback Brandon Flowers spent his first six seasons in the NFL with the Chiefs after the team selected him in the second round of the 2008 draft.
Flowers suffered an injury-plagued 2015 season, and finished the season on the injured reserve list. He played just 11 games, the fewest of his career, and finished without an interception for the first time in his eight-year career.