STATS LLC — Despite heading into the season without the eighth-leading rusher in NFL history and their leading receiver from a year ago, Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers expect to be just as prolific offensively as they were in 2009.
The new-look offense gets its first test against a Kansas City Chiefs team it had little trouble scoring against last season.
Rivers looks to lead the Chargers to a sixth straight win over the Chiefs when the AFC West rivals meet Monday night at Arrowhead Stadium.
San Diego is coming off a fourth straight division title after going 13-3 to finish with the second-best record in the AFC. The Chargers were a trendy pick to make the Super Bowl entering the playoffs but were upset 17-14 by New York in the divisional round.
Rivers was the catalyst of an offense that led the AFC with 28.4 points per game, throwing for a career-best 4,254 yards and 28 touchdowns, but he’s going to have to make do this year without two of his top playmakers.
The Chargers released LaDainian Tomlinson, who rushed for 12,490 yards and 138 touchdowns in nine seasons with San Diego, in February and replaced him with rookie Ryan Mathews.
Vincent Jackson, the team leader with 1,167 receiving yards and nine touchdowns last year, is also gone. The unsigned wide receiver has been suspended by the NFL for the first three games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.
“Nobody in here can deny the fact that we’re better with them, but at the same time we believe we can also get it done,” Rivers said.
The Chargers should have a good chance of getting off to a fast start against a Chiefs team they outscored 80-21 in winning both meetings last season. Rivers threw for 585 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions, and tight end Antonio Gates had 173 receiving yards and two TDs.
While Gates, who had 79 receptions, a career-best 1,157 receiving yards and eight touchdowns a year ago, will still be Rivers’ primary target, Malcom Floyd is expected to get more looks in Jackson’s absence.
The Chargers are most excited, however, about the prospects of Mathews, who showed glimpses of his speed and power in the preseason.
San Diego selected Mathews with the 12th pick in April’s draft after he led the FBS with 150.7 rushing yards per game last year at Fresno State.
“Ryan gives us explosive plays,” coach Norv Turner said. “He’s got great speed and he’s going to crank off some 10-, 15-, 20-yard runs.”
Mathews gets his first shot against a Kansas City defense that was 31st against the run last season, allowing an average of 156.5 yards.
The Chiefs went 4-12 last year and in an attempt to improve a unit that allowed an average of 26.5 points — fourth-worst in the NFL — coach Todd Haley hired Romeo Crennel as defensive coordinator.
“We’re going to try to emphasize not letting them run the ball on us,” said Crennel, the head coach at Cleveland from 2005-08. “And if we can stop the run, that will help the passing game as well.”
Another former New England coordinator that also failed as a head coach was brought in to shore up the offense.
Charlie Weis, the Notre Dame coach from 2005-09, inherits a unit that was 23rd with an average of 18.4 points and 25th with 182.6 passing yards per game last season. He admitted that his main job was to “fix the quarterback.”
Matt Cassel passed for 2,924 yards with 16 touchdowns and 16 interceptions last season, his first in Kansas City. He had 275 yards with two TDs and four interceptions in the two games against the Chargers.
“The No. 1 thing that a quarterback has to do is lead the team,” Weis said. “It’s pretty obvious that (Cassel) is doing a much better job of leading the team.”
Cassel is joined in the backfield by Jamaal Charles, who rushed for 658 yards in the final four games last season. He had 1,120 yards while making 10 starts, and his average of 5.9 yards per carry was tied with Dallas’ Felix Jones for the best in the NFL.
In his lone start against the Chargers last season, Charles rushed for 93 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries in a 43-14 loss Nov. 29.
The Chiefs, whose 10-38 mark since 2007 is the worst in the AFC, haven’t lost six in a row in this series since 1979-81.