In a year filled with parity, few teams have turned as red hot as the AFC West-leading Kansas City Chiefs. Their six-game win streak is second-best in the league right now to the New England Patriots, trampling their opponents with an average victory margin of 16.3 points. Kansas City (9-4) has risen from under .500 to the No. 3 seed in the conference, in position to secure home-field advantage throughout the postseason if a few games break their way down the stretch. It was a run deemed unthinkable after an uncharacteristic 3-4 start to the season.
And it's a streak that could all come crashing down on Thursday night if the Los Angeles Chargers have anything to say about it.
The Chargers boast an 8-5 record of their own, placing them one game behind the Chiefs in the division. A win against their AFC West rival gives them the division lead, knocking Kansas City down to wild-card position, and puts the Chargers in position to fight for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. They've already beaten the Chiefs once this season, 30-24 at Arrowhead Stadium, and could sweep them for the first time since 2013 — Andy Reid's first year as Chiefs head coach.
The drama speaks to how tight this division and conference is, as the top 10 AFC teams are separated by just two games with four weeks left to go in the season. Wild swings are expected, making every matchup make-or-break for two squads that could finish anywhere from the No. 1 seed to missing the postseason altogether.
So can the Chargers step up behind quarterback Justin Herbert and stop the Chiefs dead in their tracks? Or will Reid and Co. keep marching on in search of their third straight Super Bowl appearance?
Thursday Night Football: Kansas City (9-4) at Los Angeles (8-5)
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 16 at 8:20 p.m. ET
TV: FOX/NFL Network
Spread: Chiefs -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Which offense will be more explosive?
The Chiefs' fourth-ranked offense is clicking on all cylinders, both on the ground and in the air. Six rushing touchdowns in the last three games have come from a variety of sources: tight end Travis Kelce, backup running back Derrick Gore, and quarterback Patrick Mahomes (just his second this year).
But it's the return of Clyde Edwards-Helaire (three rushing TDs in three weeks) after an MCL sprain that has produced more balance to the offensive scheme. Once again, this team just has so many weapons that can beat you: Helaire and Darrel Williams on the ground, Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill in the air. Mahomes has actually continued to underperform, throwing just two total TD passes the past three weeks, but can light up the defense for a deep throw at a moment's notice.
What's changed with this group over the past two months is how they've limited mistakes. According to Pro Football Focus, the Chiefs didn't have a single dropped pass in their 48-3 thumping of the Raiders on Sunday, the first time that's happened since Week 1. They're averaging just one turnover per game during their win streak; opponents are averaging less than three points per game off those turnovers.
But in the Chargers, the Chiefs find themselves with an opponent that can match their firepower. The league's sixth-ranked offense actually edges out the Chiefs in passing yards per game, Herbert throwing 11 TD passes in just the past four games. During that stretch, they've outscored the Chiefs offense 132-130 while piling up more net yards (1,676 to 1,525).
Near picture-perfect against Kansas City in September (26-for-38, 281 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs) one could argue Herbert has even more weapons to work with now. Case in point: Jalen Guyton, who failed to catch a pass in the September game. He's come alive with seven of his 21 catches this season in just the last two weeks, posting 177 yards and two touchdowns for a team that's also capable of throwing deep.
Guyton filled a key role with Keenan Allen sitting out due to COVID-19 protocols. He's expected to play Thursday along with Austin Ekeler, who suffered an ankle injury against the New York Giants but could have returned to the game according to head coach Brandon Staley.
2. Points from an unexpected source … the defense?
Here's a stat that might raise your eyebrows: Mahomes has just as many TD passes the last three weeks as the Chiefs have defensive touchdowns (two). A Teddy Bridgewater pick-six put their game against the Denver Broncos away in the fourth quarter; then, last week, they started the game with a 23-yard fumble return for a TD against the Raiders.
It's a unit that's overcome a difficult start (still ranked 24th in the NFL) to make an impact where it matters: turnovers and pressuring the quarterback. They've forced 16 of their 23 takeaways during this winning streak, a total that ranks tied for sixth in the league, forcing a season-high five against the Raiders. And 16 of their 24 sacks have come in just the last six weeks.
The Chargers are running into a buzzsaw there, although their middling defense played perhaps its best game of the year against the Chiefs in September. They forced four turnovers (two fumbles, two picks) and held Mahomes to just 5.5 yards per attempt. The question for their defense is whether they'll be able to mount a challenge to Edwards-Helaire on the ground; their 29th-ranked rushing defense gave up 100 yards to the second-year back in September. Also, keep an eye on whether safety Derwin James Jr. suits up; he was inactive against the Giants due to a hamstring injury.
3. Extra points … literally
In a high-scoring game where every point matters, you can't help but be reminded of the Chargers; kicking woes. They signed veteran Dustin Hopkins less than two months ago, releasing Tristan Vizcaino after he missed five extra points in the team's first six games. But Hopkins has missed two in his own right, including one against the Eagles in November that left them trailing during the second half.
Harrison Butker from the Chiefs, typically one of the more reliable kickers in the game, is also having his share of problems. He's botched two PATs in just the last three weeks and is 20-for-23 on field goals this year. That doesn't seem like a lot but it's actually his worst percentage for any season (87 percent) since joining the team in 2017.
Both teams have the firepower to score every time they have the ball on offense. It's a game that can and will be decided by one turnover. While Herbert has been exceptional for the Chargers, he's also thrown eight interceptions in the last eight games, two more than Mahomes.
It's the type of extra mistake that'll beat you when it comes to a battle between two of the sport's top teams. Reid knows how to win in December, and he's poised to teach a young up-and-comer, Staley, a lesson on how to do it.
Prediction: Chiefs 37, Chargers 34
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.