KANSAS CITY, Mo. —Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson tuned in to Thursday night's game between the Chargers and 49ers, but maybe not for the reason you'd expect.
"I always watch football when I get a chance to," Johnson said.
Not that it would have helped, as the Chargers overwhelmed the 49ers 34-7, but Johnson should have been pulling for San Francisco. San Diego's victory turned up the pressure significantly on the Chiefs for Sunday's game against the Rams in St. Louis.
The Chiefs still control their own destiny in the chase for the AFC West championship. If they win their final three games, they'll win the division.
If the Chiefs (8-5) lose to the Rams, they'll cede control of the division race to the Chargers (8-6), who control the tiebreaker against the Chiefs. The Chiefs would then be in the unenviable spot of needing help from the miserable Bengals (2-11), losers of 10 straight games, or the equally dismal Broncos (3-10). The Chiefs would need one of those two bottom-feeders to beat San Diego in one of the Chargers' final two games.
That adds a playoff feel to Sunday's game that would have been missing had the Chargers lost to San Diego and given the Chiefs some margin for error.
"I think it's been that way for a while around here," said quarterback Matt Cassel, still recovering from last week's appendectomy and listed by the Chiefs as having a 50-50 chance of playing Sunday. "We're in a tight division race, and we know it. We know that the games continue to get bigger and bigger, and it starts with the Rams."
Other than his weekly practice of describing the Chiefs' upcoming game as the biggest of the season, coach Todd Haley tried not to make too much of this weekend. He stood by his usual plan of dividing the long season into four-game quarters, saying the goal is — as usual — to get the Chiefs to three wins in the quarter.
But the importance of some games speaks for itself.
"Anytime you're in December and you're playing, and you're in the (playoff) mix, they're big games," Haley said. "We keep them in the present tense as best we can.
"The focus is (where) it is each week. That's the reason why early in the year you break the season up into quarters and we have a specific goal for each quarter of what we want to accomplish. That won't change. Now the games will get bigger, but the focus is on this four-game season.
"Our goal (for the quarter) is to get to three (wins), figuring if we get three, good things will happen. We remind the players of that each and every day. Our coaches talk like that, and I talk like that. I hear more and more players talk like that."
In this case, three wins for the quarter will mean the first AFC West championship for the Chiefs since 2003 and their first playoff appearance since 2006. The Chiefs started the quarter with last week's 31-0 loss to the Chargers in San Diego.
The Chiefs are in the middle of their third two-game road swing of the season. They were swept in the first two, by Indianapolis and Houston in October, and by Oakland and Denver last month.
After losing to the Broncos, the Chiefs briefly dropped from first place for the only time this season. They quickly regained it by winning the next week over Arizona.
The Chiefs are aware that this time, they might not get back to first place with another two-game losing streak. The Chargers are playing well and have an incredibly weak remaining schedule.
"You've got to be a pro about it. You've got to take advantage of your situation," Johnson said. "We still control our destiny, meaning we should stay in our lane and worry about what we have to worry about and win the game we have to win; and that's this week in St. Louis. Big game for us.
"We all know our situation regardless of win or lose by any other division opponent. If we win, we don't have to worry about that. There's not going to be any kind of wild-card team coming out of our division. We need to win our division."
Cassel update — The Chiefs didn't say Friday whether Cassel will be healthy enough to play Sunday at St. Louis, and Haley indicated that Cassel could be a game-time decision.
"It's probably going to go right up to the wire," Haley said, "of exactly what we're able to do."
For the third consecutive day, Cassel was a limited participant in practice. He was listed as questionable, meaning there's about a 50-50 chance he'll play.
Cassel underwent an appendectomy last week, and he was unable to play against San Diego. Haley said the Chiefs will have a medical professional with them Sunday before making a decision on whether Cassel can start.
"This isn't your run-of-the-mill injury," Haley said. "We do have to lean on the doctors a bunch in making sure that the right thing's being done."