In what is shaping up to be a wildly competitive AFC West, the Chargers and Chiefs are set to face off Sunday in a key divisional matchup.
This is actually the second times these teams will face off at Arrowhead Stadium in 2021, as Los Angeles won their Week 17 matchup 38-21 last season. Of course, the Chiefs were resting Patrick Mahomes before the playoffs, but these rivals will be very familiar with each other.
There's even more importance on this game because the loser will fall to the bottom of the AFC West. The Broncos and Raiders started the season 2-0, while the Chiefs and Chargers dropped tough games last week after season-opening wins.
Kansas City doesn't have too much to be ashamed of, since the Ravens are tough to beat at home. But it has to sting that if Clyde Edwards-Helaire didn't fumble a crucial fourth-quarter carry or the team had stopped Lamar Jackson on 4th-and-1 at the end, they would have defeated the Ravens for a fifth straight time.
The Chargers suffered similar heartbreak at home against Dallas with plenty of mental mistakes. Los Angeles had a 1st-and-goal on the Cowboys' 7-yard line in the closing minutes but had to settle for a game-tying field goal with under four minutes to go. Dallas ate up the rest of the clock, marching down the field for the game-winning field goal.
The Chiefs have dominated this series lately with a 12-2 record since 2014. But can the Chargers make it two straight wins at Arrowhead? Let's break down the keys to the matchup.
Los Angeles (1-1) at Kansas City (1-1)
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 26 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Chiefs -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Chiefs keep forcing Justin Herbert into mistakes?
The Chargers were a popular preseason breakout pick because of Herbert, their second-year quarterback. He has lived up to the hype by passing for 337 and 338 yards in the first two games — the third- and fourth-highest single-game totals of his career. However, he's already thrown three interceptions after tossing just 10 in 15 games last season.
That could be a problem on Sunday, as the Chiefs are tied for fifth in the NFL with three interceptions. Two of those were this past Sunday by All-Pro safety Tyrann Mathieu, and he returned the first one for a touchdown on the opening drive of the game.
Herbert has mostly been mistake-free in his two previous games against the Chiefs. He only had one interception in 64 total pass attempts. And — those three picks aside — he seems to be making better decisions lately.
According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, Herbert has cut his percentage of bad throws down from 18.0 percent last season (10th-worst) to 10.5 percent in 2021 (seventh-best). With ball hawks like Mathieu, L'Jarius Sneed, and Daniel Sorensen in the secondary, Herbert will need to keep up that improved accuracy.
2. Can the Chargers take Tyreek Hill or Travis Kelce out of the game?
One of the Ravens' great successes last week against the Chiefs was minimizing Hill's impact. They gave him double-coverage and help from safeties, which ultimately limited him to three receptions on four targets for 14 yards. Baltimore tried the same thing on Kelce, but he broke through for 109 yards and a touchdown on seven catches.
And therein lies one of the great problems in stopping the Chiefs. They have one of the fastest players in the league in Hill and perhaps the best "slot receiver" in Kelce, and it's really hard to stop both. Double both and someone else is bound to get open.
Getting beat by Mecole Hardman Jr. and Byron Pringle is preferable to getting burned by Hill's speed or dominated by Kelce's size, but that starts with focusing on one of Kansas City's main pass catchers.
The Chargers were especially burned by long plays last season. They allowed 10 plays of 40 or more yards, which tied for seventh-most in the league. Meanwhile they had more of a mixed bag against tight ends, giving up the 11th-fewest yards (764) but fourth-most touchdowns (10). Perhaps slowing Hill down will be the bigger and more important challenge as it relates to Los Angeles' defensive game plan.
3. Who has the edge on third down?
Sunday's game has high-scoring potential because of the quarterbacks, but these teams have also been especially hard to get off the field this season. The Chargers (61.3 percent) and Chiefs (50.0) rank first and fourth, respectively, in third-down conversion rate, and both of those figures would have led the NFL last year.
Naturally, that means that these teams are likely headed for some regression. No team has converted even half of their third downs over a full season since the 2011 Saints. And the Chiefs showed how volatile even a successful offense can be last week.
Against the Ravens, Kansas City was just 1-for-6 on third downs while allowing the Ravens to convert on six of 11 attempts (plus that infamous fourth down). A total inability to run the ball — or slow Baltimore's ground attack — didn't help. Despite out-gaining Baltimore by more than a full yard per play, the inability to convert cost the Chiefs the time of possession (24:01 to 35:59) and ultimately the game.
Neither team has been particularly strong defensively in this area, either, this season. The Chargers have the eighth-worst third-down defense (45.0 percent) while Kansas City is tied for ninth at 44.4 percent. Whoever steps up here will likely have the edge ultimately.
Expect some big numbers in this game with overpowering offenses. And in a shootout, it's hard to bet against Mahomes, who has only lost back-to-back games twice in his career. At home following a tough loss, the bigger question is probably whether or not the Chiefs cover the spread.