First place in the AFC West will be on the line Saturday night in Arrowhead Stadium
It’s hard to believe that at one point, the Los Angeles Chargers were 0-4 while the Kansas City Chiefs were 4-0. One team appeared headed towards a top pick in the 2018 NFL Draft; the other was barrel rolling through the competition, toppling the Patriots on opening night.
But here we are, three weeks remaining in the regular season and it’s the Chargers, not the Chiefs, holding all the momentum. A 7-2 surge by the Bolts has them over .500 for the first time this season; a 2-6 slump by Kansas City took them from AFC darlings to the precipice of missing the playoffs.
Now, both teams match up in a playoff-like atmosphere for the right to control their own destiny. The winner will likely wind up your AFC West champion; the loser, at 7-7, will probably need help to avoid missing the postseason altogether.
Keep in mind the Chargers have made this comeback before. In 1992, a team coached by Bobby Ross and led by quarterback Stan Humphries (a duo that would one day make the Super Bowl) stumbled out to a 0-4 start. But after that, the team caught fire, winning 11 out of their final 12 games to make the playoffs at 11-5.
To date, that’s the only team in NFL history to pull that type of turnaround. Can the Chargers pull a repeat performance 25 years later?
Los Angeles at Kansas City
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 16 at 8:25 p.m.
TV Channel: NFL Network
Spread: Chargers -1
Three Things to Watch
1. Hunting a return to greatness
Kareem Hunt started the year as the new face of the NFL. His outstanding opening night performance against the Patriots highlighted a red-hot start that peaked in Week 3 against the Chargers. In that one, Hunt rushed for a career-high 172 yards and a touchdown as the Chiefs won comfortably 24-10.
But as the season wore on, the Chiefs hit their slump and defenses learned how to attack Hunt at the line of scrimmage. In the last eight games, Hunt has just one 100-yard rushing performance while averaging 2.8 yards per carry. He’s looked very average against a team that for a month forgot its formula on how to win.
The good news is that slump appears to be over. Last week against Oakland was the game Hunt broke through, torching the Raiders for 116 yards including his first rushing touchdown since... you guessed it, Week 3 against Los Angeles.
Can Hunt harness the momentum and bring it into this week? The Chargers defense remains vulnerable, ranked just 29th in the NFL while allowing 124.8 yards per game.
“It is just huge to go out there and get a big-time win and keep it going,” Hunt said Sunday to USA Today after eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark this season. “Now, we just have to keep doing what we are doing.”
While the Chargers also have a solid run game, facing off against a Chief rush defense worse than their own (30th) it’s Hunt that will make the difference. In that case, Philip Rivers is used to carrying the Chargers' offense in a variety of circumstances. We’ve seen with the Chiefs and Alex Smith (above, right) as of late their options are limited if the run game doesn’t get off the ground.
2. San Diego’s defense vs. Alex Smith
Chief among Kansas City's decline has been the poor play of Smith under center. It’s been a shocking fall from grace this season for a guy who still has the second-best QB rating in the NFL (104.2) after a red-hot start.
But after a clean slate in the first eight games of the season, going interception-free, Smith has thrown five picks in the last five games. He’s thrown for just seven touchdowns during that span, four of them coming in a losing effort against the Jets. The quarterback has looked out of sync, disjointed with an offense so out of rhythm head coach Andy Reid gave up play-calling duties in hopes of jolting the unit out of its slump.
That poor play should leave the Chargers licking their chops. The Chiefs' offensive line is one of the NFL’s best but they’re going up against a defense tied for fifth with 37 sacks. Joey Bosa (11.5 sacks, fifth in the league) is going to break through at some point and pressure Smith.
And when the Chargers do hound the quarterback, they’re adept at forcing turnovers. Sixteen interceptions rank third in the NFL, as does their plus-11 turnover margin. Fifteen of those picks have come during this 7-2 streak, including five against rookie Nathan Peterman a few weeks back against the Buffalo Bills.
Smith is no Peterman. But he’s shown during the past month he’s also vulnerable. If the Chargers pressure him into a few mistakes, those 10-14 points could make the difference in a close game.
3. The Keenan Allen show
There are so many feel-good stories to point to during the Chargers’ nine-game surge. There’s a defense allowing just 14.6 points per game. There’s the ingenuity of first-year head coach Anthony Lynn, positioning himself as a dark horse Coach of the Year candidate if the team makes the playoffs. Rivers, at age 36, is quietly having one of his best seasons.
But it’s Allen (right) stealing the show. A lock for Comeback Player of the Year, this wide receiver has charged back from a torn ACL to speed past opposing defenses with ease. The past four weeks alone for Allen have been Pro Bowl-worthy: 39 catches, 547 yards, and four touchdowns. Those totals are higher than anyone on the entire Cleveland Browns.
Allen’s return to form has forced opposing defenses to focus on him, double teams that open up the field for other targets. It’s revealed other young weapons in fellow wideout Tyrell Williams and tight end Hunter Henry, developing within their first three seasons in the league. Henry’s play the last few weeks, in particular, has made potential Hall of Famer Antonio Gates feel like an afterthought.
But it’s Allen, recovering so quickly from an injury that often takes wide receivers two years to be 100 percent, who deserves the most credit. If he breaks open against a Chiefs secondary weakened by injuries, watch out.
Two weeks ago, the Chiefs didn’t have a chance. A slumping, undisciplined team that seemed to be on the verge of the biggest collapse in Andy Reid’s coaching history.
But the Raiders win proved crucial to restoring order. The Chiefs still possess one of the NFL’s best rookies in running back Kareem Hunt, a high-octane offense that rarely turns the ball over and a quality special teams unit.
That may be the extra point that makes the difference. Harrison Butker is having a Pro Bowl season, making 28 of 30 field goals and a perfect 20-for-20 on extra points. Compare that to the Chargers, who are on their fourth kicker this season after missing a total of eight field goals.
In fact, if it wasn’t for Younghoe Koo, who missed three of his first four kicks in the NFL, you could argue the Chargers would be 9-4 and cruising to the AFC West title. But little moments make a big difference.
That gives the Chiefs a regular season opportunity Reid typically doesn’t miss out on. Keep in mind Kansas City has won seven in a row against the Chargers, the longest such streak in franchise history, which should give this team confidence heading in. Add in the home-field advantage of Arrowhead, where the Chiefs are 4-2 this season and that gives them the ever-so-slight edge in this one.
Prediction: Chiefs 31, Chargers 28
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.