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Scouting the Alex Smith-led Chiefs

Even Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith would agree that Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is the best pocket passer in the AFC West.

Smith said he studies Rivers, a master of subtle movements, to sharpen his own pocket game.

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Where Smith has the edge on Rivers and many other NFL quarterbacks is his playmaking ability on the move.

Toss in mastery of the West Coast offense and a rare prowess for avoiding interceptions, and Smith will pose challenges, again, for the Chargers when they open their season Sunday (10 a.m. Pacific) at Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium.

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"You love the way he takes care of the football," Chargers coach Mike McCoy said. "He doesn't turn it over very often. Makes good decisions. He can make plays with his feet. That's the one thing that'll drive you nuts with him. You think you've got great coverage, and all of a sudden, you're undisciplined in the run lanes, and all of sudden, there he goes."

Quarterback purists dock Smith points for his uneven long-ball accuracy and sketchy ability to "throw receivers open."

The scoreboard offers a firm rebuttal.

The Chiefs are 30-16 in Smith's starts, a .652 win rate, and have earned playoff berths in two of his three seasons in Kansas City.

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A rout of the Houston Texans in January was the Chiefs' first postseason victory since Joe Montana led them in January 1994.

"Alex Smith, he doesn't get a whole lot of credit. They always say he's a 'manager'. But the dude wins," said Chargers tight end Sean McGrath, who was a Chiefs starter three years ago in Smith's first season with the team.

Gone are the days when the Chargers could count on the Chiefs, a rival since 1960, to trot out a suspect quarterback who was vastly inferior to Rivers.

The flowering partnership between head coach Andy Reid and Smith, an alumnus of Helix High who rooted for the Chargers while growing up in eastern San Diego, has come at the Bolts' expense.

The Chargers have finished behind the Chiefs in all three seasons – Kansas City won the playoff tiebreaker in 2013 after both teams went 9-7 – since Chiefs General Manager John Dorsey hired Mike Holmgren disciple Reid and acquired Smith from the San Francisco 49ers for a pair of second-round draft picks.

Going into Sunday, the Chargers have lost four consecutive games to the Chiefs for the first time since the early 1990s.

While Kansas City's stout defense has played a big role in the surge, the Reid-Smith tandem has brought stability to a franchise that historically has underachieved at football's most important position.

"As his career has gone on," McCoy said of Smith, "each year, he's gotten better."

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Smith started 75 games for the 49ers, who made him the No. 1 overall draftee in 2005.

In his 46-start tenure with the Chiefs, he has improved upon his career norms in several categories: passer rating, yards per pass attempt, interception rate and touchdown percentage.

Because he's a more willing and effective runner since he persuaded Reid to adopt zone-read plays that Smith had mastered at Utah under Urban Meyer, defenses are less inclined to stunt their pass rushers, which makes like easier for Smith's blockers. Defenders must account for Smith's ability to run around end, so Chiefs running backs benefit from the restrained backside pursuit.

Smith has averaged 5.7, 5.2 and 5.9 yards per rush with Kansas City.

At 32, he's having far more football success than former 49ers teammate and protege Colin Kaepernick, 28, who supplanted him in 2012 and led San Francisco to a Super Bowl.

Chiefs challenges

The Chiefs will be without two linebackers -- superstar edge man Justin Houston (knee) and inside playmaker Josh Mauga (hip) -- who have caused the Chargers numerous problems.

Running back Jamaal Charles (knee) and edge defender Tamba Hali (knee) are working back from injuries and likely not in full football shape. Safety Eric Berry, a four-time Pro Bowler, missed training camp due to a contractual impasse.

Best player

Travis Kelce's talent is "stupid," said McGrath of Kansas City's No. 1 tight end, a former teammate. That's high praise.

Kelce, 26, has hurt the Chargers as a run blocker, pass-catcher and a rusher after catching the pass.

Noise, bottom line

Antonio Gates said crowd noise will force the Chargers to be adept at silent communication, long a staple of the Rivers-Gates tandem. Dealing with a "physical, in your face" defense will be another test, said Gates.

The Chargers should be able to move the ball consistently, though, giving them a real chance to win as a 7-point underdog.

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