The Kansas City Chiefs and the Denver Broncos each had a disappointing first half of the season. The beginning of the second half doesn't look much more promising for either of the AFC West rivals after both teams lost a key offensive player to an injury last weekend.
Kansas City running back Larry Johnson and Denver quarterback Jay Cutler are both uncertain for Sunday, when the Broncos and Chiefs meet at Arrowhead Stadium.
Johnson, one of the NFL's top three rushers in each of the last two seasons, sprained his right foot against Green Bay last weekend and is highly questionable for this game, Kansas City coach Herm Edwards said Tuesday. Edwards added that he's not sure how much time Johnson might miss.
"He's got a swollen foot right now so that's not good," Edwards said. "The severity of it, I don't know because I'm not the doctor. As far as I know right now, it will be very difficult for him to play this week."
Cutler, meanwhile, was carted off the field after taking a helmet to his lower left leg last Sunday against Detroit. Tests showed that his leg isn't broken, but it is badly bruised and coach Mike Shanahan said he didn't know if Cutler would practice much this week or be under center Sunday.
"There's no stress fracture. There is a bruise. It's badly bruised," Shanahan said. "We'll see what the recovery time is."
The injuries come as major blows to the Chiefs and Broncos, who are hoping to overcome their sluggish starts and take advantage of the weak AFC West.
Despite ranking near the bottom of the league in total offense, the Chiefs (4-4) are tied with San Diego for the division lead. The Broncos (3-5) have lost five of six, but are just one game back.
"I don't think a wild card is coming out of this division this year," said Edwards, whose team is 29th in the league with 15.5 points per game and 30th with 286.3 total yards a contest.
That offense could struggle even more without Johnson, who had topped 100 yards in three of his last four full games before the injury. If he's unable to play, the Chiefs will rely on a platoon of Priest Holmes and rookie Kolby Smith.
The 34-year-old Holmes, Kansas City's leading rusher from 2001-2004, has only seven carries for 17 yards in two games this season -- his first since suffering head and neck injuries in 2005.
"Priest Holmes obviously won't be the featured back. We're going to have to do it by committee," Edwards said. "Kolby Smith is going to be used. I'm not going to sit here and say Priest will carry the ball 30 times. That wouldn't be fair to Priest."
Even with its top running back injured, Kansas City could get an offensive boost on the ground against a Denver defense that allows 161.5 rushing yards per game - most in the NFL.
The Chiefs, though, will also need improved play from Damon Huard, who has thrown nine interceptions and just eight touchdown passes. He had two of each as Kansas City lost 33-22 to the Packers at home. The Chiefs fell to 2-2 at Arrowhead Stadium, where they had gone 13-3 over the previous two seasons.
"Damon's done a decent job," Edwards said. "My whole deal now is if we're going to win this division or have a shot at it, we've got to score more points. There's no doubt about it."
Denver would turn to Patrick Ramsey if Cutler is sidelined. Ramsey completed 29 of 46 passes for 262 yards, one touchdown and one interception in a 44-7 loss at Detroit last Sunday - the team's worst since it was shut out 42-0 by New Orleans in 1988.
"If you play at the level we did, you get embarrassed," said Shanahan, whose team has lost two games by 37 points or more for the first time since 1967. "I've been embarrassed a couple of times this year. Now, we find out what we're made of."
Denver's Travis Henry had just 31 yards on nine carries against Detroit and didn't play in the fourth quarter because of a knee injury. Henry has rushed for 126 and 124 yards in two career games against the Chiefs, and is expected to start Sunday.
The home team has won nine straight regular-season games between these clubs. Kansas City won 19-10 last Nov. 23 for its fourth straight victory over Denver at Arrowhead.
That win became significant at the end of the season, when the Chiefs and Broncos finished with identical 9-7 records. The Chiefs advanced to the postseason and the Broncos were eliminated because Kansas City had a better record within the division.