It's a big AFC West showdown in a division that figures to be really close
The AFC West is going to be a hotly contested division, so both the Chiefs and Chargers will want to start fast in Week 1 of the 2018 NFL campaign. Kansas City went 10-6 last year and lost in the first round of the playoffs, while LA went 9-7 and suffered a boatload of close losses. Los Angeles cannot afford to start 0-4 once again like it did in 2017. The Broncos are greatly improved, and the Raiders could be trouble.
The injury bug has already taken a few nibbles out of the Chargers roster with tight end Hunter Henry and cornerback Jason Verrett most likely out for the season. Still, Philip Rivers is back, and Melvin Gordon had a very good season last year. He's a durable running back who can be used in multiple ways. The venerable Antonio Gates has signed a deal and will return for another season with the Chargers. LA's defense is going to be very strong as well despite the loss of Verrett. Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram are very good at collapsing the pocket, and Casey Hayward is a very good cornerback.
The biggest unknown for the Chiefs is at quarterback with Patrick Mahomes, who has had a roller-coaster preseason. He started by throwing a bunch of interceptions in practice, but then showed off his arm in the games themselves. The usual cast of characters is back, with Kareem Hunt at running back, Tyreek Hill out wide and Travis Kelce at tight end. The question marks are on the defensive side of the ball, where Marcus Peters has departed.
Last year, KC swept this series, winning 24-10 in LA and 30-13 at home in December.
Kansas City at Los Angeles
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 9 at 4:05 p.m. ET
Spread: Chargers -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Pressure on Mahomes
Patrick Mahomes has played in just one NFL regular-season game, a 27-24 win at Denver last December. Mahomes threw for 284 yards in the victory but also had an interception. He faced a team that had packed it in and was ready for the offseason, so it might not have been most revealing test for him. The signal caller had two touchdown passes to one interception in 43 preseason attempts, but the level of competition steps up with the Chargers defense. KC threw for only 345 yards in its two victories over the Chargers in 2017. Can the Chiefs offensive line keep Mahomes upright and in the pocket, or will he have to make off-schedule plays? There's no doubting how much of a cannon he has, but can he make decisions under pressure?
2. Home-field advantage
The Chargers are the home team, but at times home didn't feel that way for them in 2017. The StubHub Center only holds around 27,000 people, and last year it felt like a road environment for them at times, as Los Angeles lost its first three home games before winning the final five. The Chargers need to recapture the passion that they inspired in San Diego, and I just don't know if that will come in Los Angeles. Chiefs fans travel quite well, so their presence will be felt in the stands. The Chargers need to start fast and keep those folks quiet.
3. No more interceptions
Philip Rivers threw six interceptions in two games against the Chiefs in 2017. Keenan Allen and Tyrell Williams are a solid duo of wide receivers, and now Antonio Gates has returned to help out as well. Former Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters has gone to the Rams and is being replaced by Kendall Fuller, who comes over from the Redskins. Outside of Eric Berry, KC's secondary is vulnerable, so I think Rivers can take advantage of that, especially with some tempo. He's got to worry more about pass rusher Justin Houston, although Houston has just 21 sacks the last three seasons after registering 22 in 2014.
Home field is very important in conference games; you've got to defend your turf if you hope to win the division. I'm very concerned about the back end of the Chiefs defense and think that the Chargers can take advantage of it. That said, Mahomes is a complete wild card in this one, especially if he gets some better chemistry with Sammy Watkins. Watkins has been a disappointment for a lot of his NFL career but is still a deep threat when healthy. It's easy to say, but I think the quarterback who plays better in this one will lead his team to victory. I think that player will be Philip Rivers, so I'm going with the home team.
Prediction: Chargers 27, Chiefs 20
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.