Meaningless games are nothing new to Kansas City. The Chiefs have been playing them for years.
Now comes a meaningless game that just below the surface is actually packed with nuanced significance. Win or lose, it could have a bearing on how long the Chiefs last in their first foray into the postseason since 2006.
It's true their regular-season finale against Oakland on Sunday has nothing to do with whether they make the playoffs. After clinching their first AFC West title since 2003, the Chiefs are in, guaranteed to host a postseason game for the first time since that season.
But beating the archrivals from Oakland would give KC the No. 3 seed while losing could make it seed No. 4. That would send the Chiefs to No. 1 seed New England for the second round if they're able to get that far -- something they would prefer to put off as long as possible.
Besides, there's such a thing as momentum, something players and coaches hold precious any time, but particularly when a young and inexperienced team is headed into the postseason. A victory would give them a three-game winning streak as well as an 11-5 record.
"This game is definitely not meaningless to the Chiefs players," said linebacker Derrick Johnson. "It's a game that you need to win to have a good taste in your mouth going into the postseason. We've accomplished a lot and you don't want to let yourself down, let the team down, let the fans down by going out there and not doing well. We need to do well."
The Raiders (7-8), who beat the Chiefs 23-20 in overtime Nov. 7, will be out to make bittersweet history as well as beat their old rivals for a fifth straight time. Now 5-0 in the AFC West, they could wind up unbeaten in their division but still miss the playoffs, which the league says never has happened. The Chiefs would be division champs with a 2-4 AFC West record.
"We're not going to the playoffs but we still have something to play for," said Pro Bowl cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. "They said that no one has swept the division and not gone to the playoffs, or it's happened but it maybe happened about 40 years ago or so. But for us to have that accomplishment and be undefeated, say that we own the division, it would be huge for us. The mindset is still go in there and play just as hard as you would if we were in the playoffs."
Tom Cable, who took over as head coach four games into the 2008 season, may also need a win to keep his job.
"I don't know," Cable said. "Again, I don't think about that. I think it determines if we can get it to 8-8 and 6-0 in the division. That's really our goal so that's what we're trying to do. We're focused on that."
Cable brings an overall record of 16-27 into the game. The fact the Raiders had three players voted to the Pro Bowl along with four alternates is proof, he says, of improvement on his watch.
"I think that people are recognizing that we're better. I think that people recognize that we're a more talented team," he said. "Obviously, that shows that guys went out and performed at a pretty high level. Would like to see more, but that will happen. As you start to win more and you become a playoff team, those kinds of things will happen more and more. I'm proud of all of them, but I just think it says, 'Hey, we're better and we have guys playing better."'
One player with plenty of individual honors on the line is Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles. He's 56 yards behind Houston's Arian Foster for the NFL rushing title and is averaging 6.39 yards per carry. Jim Brown's NFL record, set in 1963, is 6.40.
In their overtime victory against KC, the Raiders held Charles to 53 yards on 10 carries.
"He's a change-of-direction-guy, and he's very explosive in and out of the hole," said Cable. "But the thing he can do is start one way and go back the other very quickly. Reminds you of (Tennessee's) Chris Johnson that way a little bit. He may not have the top-end speed that Chris does, but in terms of change direction in and out of the cut, he's exceptional."
The Raiders will also be out to ruin the Chiefs' perfect home record. After going 1-7 at home during a 4-12 campaign in 2009, the Chiefs are 7-0 in Arrowhead Stadium.
"I think our team in general is just a different team and we have a mentality at home now that nobody is going to come in and beat us in our home stadium," said quarterback Matt Cassel. "It is fun to have the fans back and excited about football again, and it is also fun that we have been able to win the division championship and bring that back to Kansas City and get that excitement going. It is fun to see this town excited about it. When I go out in public and people are yelling, screaming and excited about us again, that is fun."