KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Chiefs began preparing Wednesday for their biggest game in years without their starting quarterback.
The Chiefs also face the possibility that Matt Cassel won't play Sunday against the Chargers in San Diego. Cassel had an appendectomy Wednesday.
The Chiefs (8-4) can take a huge step in winning their first AFC West title since 2003 by beat the Chargers (6-6), the four-time defending division champions. Brodie Croyle would start at quarterback against the Chargers if Cassel is unavailable.
Croyle, who took the first team snaps in practice on Wednesday, hasn't played this season. He is 0-9 as an occasional starter for the Chiefs in 2007, 2008 and 2009.
"I've just got to prepare the same way I always do,'' Croyle said. "It's no different than any other week.''
Things are certainly different for the Chiefs. They could also be without Cassel for the following week's game against the Rams in St. Louis and perhaps beyond.
But Cassel could conceivably play against the Chargers. Matthew Lublin, a general surgeon at St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., said perhaps 90 percent of appendectomies are performed through laparoscopic surgery.
If Cassel had that type of surgery, it wouldn't be out of the question he could play against the Chargers, Lublin said.
"If he feels up to it, I certainly don't see any reason he couldn't play,'' Lublin said. "In any surgery, you're really recovering from the scar. It's a small scar he'll have since I assume it was done laparoscopically.
"He's not at a risk of popping or bursting or breaking anything or having any complication from surgery. It's really a matter of his pain threshold and how he feels. If he feels OK, I think he would be able to play.
"I'd be very impressed if he felt good enough to play Sunday. But I would not say it's out of realm of possibility.''
The Chiefs have yet to publicly rule Cassel out of Sunday's game. Coach Todd Haley at first declined to disclose the reason for Cassel's absence from practice, saying only that an illness had kept him away.
"This time of year, nobody feels 100 percent,'' Haley said. "That's why it's so important to continue to have everybody ready at all times.
"We need our guys to practice. They have to practice to play. That's my policy. That's our policy. How much practice time they need to have to play is determined by me ultimately and whether we think our guys are ready to go. Any time you miss any amount of practice time is not good. Obviously, there's limited (practice snaps) and limited time you have to install and get work on the things you're doing.''
The Chiefs later released a statement saying Cassel had an appendectomy, that the procedure was successful and they expected Cassel to return to work this week.
That statement can mean a lot of things, but the Chiefs are evidently intent on confusing the Chargers and their preparations for Sunday's game. Earlier in the day, the Chargers were aware Cassel had not practiced but were ready to see him in the game Sunday.
"It's different with every team and every guy,'' San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers said. "If you have to miss (practice), it's better to miss early in the week than late. I'm not there but from what I've know here about Matt, he'll be well-prepared either way.''
The episode may have caught the Chiefs by surprise. Cassel made a couple of appearances at community events on Tuesday on behalf of the Chiefs.
He was at Gardner Edgerton High School for the presentation of the Thomas A. Simone Memorial Award. He also made an appearance at the Ronald McDonald House for the Shadow Buddies Foundation.
Cassel was playing about as well as any quarterback in the AFC and played himself in recent weeks into consideration for a spot in the Pro Bowl. In the last four weeks, Cassel passed for 991 yards, 11 touchdowns and no interceptions.
Now things may fall to Croyle, who said he gets about two to four first-team snaps in practice each day as Cassel's backup.
"You have to prepare for that moment,'' Croyle said. "You never know when it's coming. You always have to be mentally in it and you always have to be mentally ready to go.
"No situation can surprise you. You just have to be ready to go when they say it's time to go. You step in there and hopefully don't miss a beat.''
In a sign the Chiefs were preparing for Cassel's absence, they signed Tyler Palko off their practice squad to be Croyle's backup.
"It's actually a coincidence,'' Haley said. "It really is. We had to make a move in another area and we were able to get somebody up and that determination was madeæ.æ.æ. in (Tuesday) night's staff meeting. That's when we made the determination who would we thought would best serve us.
"We've been a little on the edge with two quarterbacks the entire year and really had a chance without there being a clear-cut guy we felt could come in and be on the game-day roster.æ.æ.æ. The fact you can use a third emergency quarterback was the determining factor. At least it was a body we could get to the game to serve a purpose.''
"Developing quarterbacks in this league is a critical, critical factor to being a good team year in and year out. It's not something you can sleep on or miss.''
Palko played for the Chiefs in the preseason, completing 24 of 42 passes for 215 yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions.
"You have to work extra after practice,'' Palko said. "I've been working with our quarterback coach. It's not equal as far as game speed but it's the work you can get done. Anything you can do to try to stay ready.''