Chiefs, Chargers face off in a high-stakes AFC West showdown on Thursday night
The Kansas City Chiefs will host the Los Angeles Chargers for an all-important AFC West showdown to kick off Week 15 action in the NFL. And there will be far more than bragging rights at stake when these division rivals square off for the second time this season, this time on Thursday in primetime.
Kansas City has already clinched a playoff berth by way of surviving Sunday’s 27-24 overtime slugfest at home against the Ravens. The Chiefs also boast the best record in the AFC at 11-2 and hold a tiebreaker over the visiting Chargers with a superior record within the division. That means Kansas City can lock up the AFC West title with a win on Thursday Night Football. A Chiefs’ victory also guarantees a first-round bye in the playoffs and draws them one step closer to solidifying the top seed in the AFC, which secures home-field advantage throughout the postseason. But it could be a tall order to fend off a hungry Los Angeles team that is still well within striking distance.
The Chargers escaped a closer-than-expected 26-21 affair against the Bengals on Sunday for their third win in a row, improving to 10-3 on the season. A victory that has them sitting in prime position for a wild-card spot with the second-best record in the AFC behind Kansas City. However, the Chargers want the division title for themselves, along with all the spoils that come with it. But in order to put themselves in a position to make that possible, they will have to do something they have not done since 2013 — beat the Chiefs. A task made more daunting on the road at Arrowhead Stadium, where Kansas City has not lost a regular season game since November 2017.
The Chiefs scored a 38-28 victory over the Chargers in Los Angeles back in Week 1, their ninth in a row in the rivalry. Kansas City leads the all-time series 61-55-1.
Los Angeles at Kansas City
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec 13 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Chiefs -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Patrick Mahomes
Whether you love Mahomes or love to hate him, you must agree that the dynamic second-year quarterback makes for must-see TV. You also would be hard-pressed to find a more qualified candidate for NFL MVP honors. Mahomes leads all NFL quarterbacks with 3,400 passing yards and 43 touchdown passes heading into Week 15. And he continues to terrorize opposing defenses on a weekly basis.
The top-ranked Ravens’ defense became Mahomes’ latest victim, surrendering a season-high 377 passing yards and a pair of touchdowns on Sunday. And now, the red-hot Mahomes will turn his attention to the Chargers’ seventh-ranked pass defense, which allows 224.8 yards per game. A defense that Mahomes has already faced once, throwing for 256 passing yards and four touchdowns back in Week 1. However, Thursday night’s rematch could prove to be slightly more challenging.
For starters, Mahomes did not have to face the wrath of Joey Bosa in the season opener. Since returning from a foot injury in Week 11, the elite pass rusher has already racked up four sacks and six QB hits in just four games. Mahomes will be more limited in terms of weapons this time around as well. Wide receiver Sammy Watkins is out with a foot injury and star running back Kareem Hunt is no longer with the team.
While top wideout Tyreek Hill is expected to play on Thursday night, the heel injury he suffered against the Ravens on Sunday is somewhat concerning. It will be very important for Mahomes and the Kansas City passing attack to have Hill up to speed for this critical matchup. The dynamic playmaker was a one-man wrecking crew against the Chargers back in the first meeting, accumulating a ridiculous 268 all-purpose yards (169 of those receiving) and three touchdowns. Hill has scored at least one touchdown in each of his five career games against Los Angeles as well.
2. Philip Rivers vs. the Kansas City pass defense
Mahomes won’t be the only quarterback in Thursday night’s matchup enjoying a standout 2018 season. Rivers, the wily old veteran, is on pace for his best season in an already fruitful 15-year career. He’s thrown for 3,638 yards, and his 29:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio is among the best in the league. Rivers also ranks among the best in the NFL with a QB rating of 114.5 and a stellar 8.9 yards per pass attempt.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the best track record against the Chiefs. But despite losing to them for the ninth straight time in Week 1, Rivers did have one of his best performances, passing for a season-high 424 yards and three scores with just one interception. The good news is that the Kansas City pass defense has not improved that much. In fact, the unit is dead last in the NFL against the pass at 281.8 yards per game allowed.
That said, the Chiefs' defense does shine in one key area — the pass rush. They have racked up the second-most sacks (42) in the NFL through 13 games, led by defensive end Chris Jones (11.5 sacks) and outside linebacker Dee Ford (11). Justin Houston, who has missed much of 2018 with injury, also is a force to be reckoned with in that regard. Additionally, a struggling secondary could get a much-needed boost if All-Pro safety Eric Berry (heel) is able to make his long-awaited debut on Thursday night. So, while this matchup bodes well for Rivers, the crafty veteran will have some obstacles to overcome.
3. The run game
The early weather forecast is calling for a chance of rain, cold temps, and high winds in Kansas City on Thursday night. That doesn’t bode particularly well for either one of these high-powered passing attacks if that forecast holds true. It does mean that the run game could loom large in this matchup. Unfortunately, neither one of these rushing attacks is in the best shape heading into the Week 15 game on just four days’ rest.
Chargers' lead running back Melvin Gordon was expected to return for this matchup after missing the last two games with a sprained MCL. But that appears to be very much in question at this point, if not unlikely. And while backup running back Austin Ekeler has fared well in Gordon’s stead, he is even more doubtful with a neck injury and a possible concussion. That could leave most of the heavy lifting to rookie Justin Jackson on Thursday night. Jackson has rushed for 139 yards and one touchdown on 27 carries this season to go along with five catches for 61 yards.
Kansas City’s predicament may be even worse, and this is where the Chiefs will sorely miss Hunt. Newly appointed feature back Spencer Ware has been adequate, averaging 4.8 yards per carry on the season, but he’s no Hunt. And Ware is now dealing with hamstring and shoulder injuries that have his availability for Thursday night in question. In the likelihood that Ware is unable to go, Damien Williams and the recently re-signed Charcandrick West will have to carry the load in a scenario that is far from ideal.
It seems ill-advised to bet against a Kansas City team that is undefeated at home and tied for the best record in the NFL. It’s even more far-fetched when you look at the ridiculous numbers Patrick Mahomes and this offense have put up this season. However, there’s a lot to like about the equally hot Chargers heading into Thursday night’s high-stakes divisional tilt. Los Angeles is 5-1 in away games this season, and the Chargers have come away victorious in nine of their last 10 matchups regardless of location. Philip Rivers has unquestionably played his best football on the road this season. And unlike the Chiefs, the Chargers are very well balanced and solid on both sides of the football. If the weather forecast comes to fruition, it will probably have a bigger impact on Kansas City as well. That should be enough for the Chargers to narrowly escape Arrowhead Stadium with the upset to end a nine-game losing streak to the Chiefs and draw even in the hotly-contested AFC West.
Prediction: Chargers 28, Chiefs 27
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.