LaDainian Tomlinson won the MVP last year as his San Diego Chargers joined the ranks of the NFL's elite. Three games into the new season, a repeat performance of either seems very unlikely.
Faced with the prospect of their first three-game losing streak in nearly four years, the Chargers hope to take advantage of the punchless Kansas City Chiefs when the AFC West rivals meet Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium.
After winning a franchise-record 14 games last season, the Chargers (1-2) were picked by many to reach their first Super Bowl since 1995. Although a surprising 24-21 loss to New England in the divisional playoffs prevented that from becoming a reality, San Diego was expected to be a top contender for a championship again this year.
While there is still plenty of season left, the Chargers have already fallen behind unbeaten teams New England, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh in the race for the best record in the AFC. San Diego is one of three 1-2 teams in the West, which Denver leads with a 2-1 record.
"Of course it's a wakeup call, because you don't want it to continue in a downward spiral from 1-2 and then you find yourself 1-5 and then all of sudden it's over," Tomlinson said. "We have to definitely find a way to win one game."
Far from the team's only problem, Tomlinson's ineffectiveness is the biggest issue currently facing the Chargers.
Tomlinson set NFL records with 31 touchdowns and 186 points last season, winning his first rushing title with 1,815 yards. This year, however, he has managed only 130 yards and one score in three games after he had 300 yards and three TDs at the same point last season.
Most indicative of his struggles is a dismal 2.3 yards-per-carry average that ranks 45th in the NFL.
"I don't know if there's a problem yet," Tomlinson said. "I can't put my finger on one particular thing, but obviously, there are some things that's going on that I don't even know. It's just not happening right now."
Tomlinson was limited to 62 yards on 22 carries in Sunday's 31-24 defeat at Green Bay, giving the Chargers the same amount of losses they had all last season.
As poor as they have played in three games, there is reason for optimism with the Chargers being 1-2 for the third time in the last four seasons.
They began 2004 with two losses in three games before finishing 12-4. In 2006, San Diego was 4-2 and faced St. Louis without star linebacker Shawne Merriman, but a 38-24 victory in that contest started a 10-game winning streak.
"We can talk all we want about what kind of team we have when you're 6-0," quarterback Philip Rivers told the Chargers' official Web site. "Every team is great and the chemistry is great when you're 6-0. But when you're 1-2, that's when you find out. This is the week we'll find out about us. I think we'll be right in our thinking of who we are."
San Diego has won nine consecutive regular-season home games since a 23-7 loss to Denver on Dec. 31, 2005. The Chargers haven't lost three straight overall since Nov. 16-30, 2003.
Although they are coming off their first win of the season, an anemic offense is making every game a struggle for the Chiefs (1-2), who rank 31st in the NFL in scoring (8.7). Only Buffalo (8.0) has been worse.
Much like the Chargers with Tomlinson, the Chiefs' offense revolves around star running back Larry Johnson, who also has struggled this season.
Johnson, who finished second to Tomlinson with 1,789 rushing yards last year, has rushed for 140 yards on 50 carries, a dismal 2.8-yard average.
Unlike Tomlinson, though, Johnson was expected to start slowly after a 25-day holdout helped make him the highest-paid player in team history.
"Being an admirer of another running back, I do feel (Tomlinson's) frustration," Johnson said. "I don't feel sorry for him, but I do understand his pain. Hopefully, we'll get back on track the next couple of weeks."
Kansas City, one of two teams in the league without a rushing touchdown this season, is next-to-last in the NFL with 64 rushing yards per game.
After producing only 56 first-half total yards, the Chiefs had little choice but to open up their offense in the second half of Sunday's 13-10 win over Minnesota. That led to their only sustained drive of the game, capped by Damon Huard's 16-yard touchdown pass to rookie Dwayne Bowe with 9:23 remaining.
The win, however, wasn't enough to make Johnson happy with the direction of Kansas City's offense and he made his feelings public Monday.
"I learned a long time ago about coaches. They're always going to do what they want to do. It's usually an ego thing rather than trying to be better or trying to get better or trying to listen to input," he said. "It's just hard to change a coach's perspective or change an offensive coordinator's plays when this is what they've been used to doing ever since they came into the league."
Coach Herm Edwards also wasn't shy about admitting how close he came to pulling Huard on Sunday and replacing him with mostly untested Brodie Croyle.
"I'm a pretty patient guy, and I sat there and waited," Edwards said. "In my mind, I let it go for a couple more series and then if it doesn't get going, I have to do something to get it going. You don't like doing that, but that's why you have patience."
Huard is 23rd in the league with 549 passing yards and a 77.5 passer rating.
The Chiefs have lost their last three visits to San Diego.