The Kansas City Chiefs have already clinched a playoff berth, but they have an opportunity on Thursday to do more than that: if they defeat the Chargers, they'll clinch the AFC West title. Similarly, the Chargers are pretty close to solidifying their own playoff positioning, but if they defeat the Chiefs on Thursday night, they'll actually clinch a spot.
In all likelihood, we will be seeing both of these teams in the postseason, and that means this Thursday Night Football (8:20 p.m., NFL Network, stream on fuboTV, try for free) matchup could serve as a potential preview of a second-round of AFC title game rematch. The Chiefs, with their 11-2 record, are the current favorites for the No. 1 seed, while the Chargers, at 10-3, are pretty much locked into the No. 5 seed unless they can manage to pass Kansas City over the final few weeks of the season.
The Chiefs have home-field advantage in this matchup and also the mental edge of having won nine consecutive games against the Chargers, but this Chargers team is the best version of the Chargers in quite some time. That said, it will all be decided on the field, so we might as well dig into what to watch out for out there.
When the Chiefs have the ball
The Chiefs are hemorrhaging running backs and wide receivers right now, and have also lost several offensive linemen over the course of the season.
Kareem Hunt, of course, was released in the wake of the truly despicable video that emerged of him shoving and kicking a woman back in February. His replacement, Spencer Ware, was injured during the Chiefs' win over the Ravens last week and is unlikely to play on Thursday night. Sammy Watkins sat out a couple games but was gearing up to return last week, only to re-injure himself in practice and now he's unlikely to play for the rest of the regular season. Cameron Erving left the last game with a knee injury, so you can add him to Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and Jordan Devey among the Chiefs' injured linemen.
Despite all that, well, Patrick Mahomes and company just keep rolling right along. They scored 27 points last week against one of the best defenses in the NFL, and that was the second-lowest point total they've had all season. Their two losses this year have come to the Patriots and Rams, two of the five best teams in football, and they scored 91 points in those two games combined. On the year, Kansas City is averaging an NFL-best 6.9 yards per play and 40 yards per drive, while they have scored a touchdown or field goal on 53.5 percent of their drives and averaged 3.15 points per drive, and both of those figures rank second-best in the league behind only the Saints. They are just about as efficient and explosive as an offense gets, as exemplified by the No. 1 overall ranking in Football Outsiders' DVOA.
The Chargers have been one of the NFL's better defenses despite playing without Joey Bosa for most of the season, and the way they match up with Kansas City, especially through the air, could provide for some intriguing clashes.
Per Football Outsiders, the Chargers rank 31st in DVOA against No. 1 receivers. That's really good news for Tyreek Hill. The Chargers, though, rank No. 1 in DVOA against tight ends. That's really bad news for Travis Kelce. They rank No. 1 against short passes, which could throw off much of Kansas City's timing-based patterns in their quick-game offense ... but they also rank No. 1 against deep passes, which could leave them vulnerable to getting beat deep by Hill or Kelce or Chris Conley or Demarcus Robinson. It doesn't help that Mahomes is arguably the best dangerous passer in football, having completed 56 of 110 passes for 1,638 yards, 12 touchdowns, and eight interceptions on throws traveling 15 or more yards in the air.
The key will be getting pressure on Mahomes in such a way that he can't actually extend the play and find someone downfield, but the Chargers have only the 25th-best adjusted sack rate in the league despite possessing a pair of dynamic pass rushers in Bosa and Melvin Ingram. (Ingram ranks sixth in the NFL in hurries and 13th in total pressures, according to Sports Info Solutions.) If given enough time, Mahomes will tear up any secondary -- even one as strong as that of the Chargers.
He's got a passer rating of 116 or better when throwing to all of his top targets: Hill, Kelce, Watkins, and Conley. His passer rating on throws from a clean pocket, per Pro Football Focus, is 138.3, which is so absurd that I had to check the page 12 times just to make sure it was real. When under pressure, however, his rating drops all the way to 67.6, which ranks 22nd in the NFL among qualified passers. Mahomes' best skill when pressured, however, is simply avoiding being sacked. Per PFF, he's only been sacked 12 percent of the time he's been under pressure. Among 38 qualified passers, that is the second-lowest rate behind only that of Andrew Luck.
It's difficult to say what the Chiefs' running game will look like, as they're likely to lean on Damien Williams, Darrel Williams, and Charcandrick West to carry the ball. Damien Williams has played second-fiddle to Ware the past couple weeks, and seems likely to take on the lead role with Ware out. The Chargers' run defense is not quite as strong as its pass defense, but it's hard to count on anything from the Kansas City run game given that they're working with their third, fourth, and fifth-string running backs.
When the Chargers have the ball
Speaking of working with third, fourth, and fifth-string running backs, the Los Angeles Chargers! Melvin Gordon seems incredibly unlikely to play given that he suffered a grade 2 MCL sprain just two weeks ago. Austin Ekeler has already been ruled out with a stringer. That means rookie Justin Jackson will play the lead role in the backfield, while fellow rookie Detrez Newsome will presumably back him up and work in on occasion.
That would seemingly be a problem, but Jackson has looked fantastic when given the opportunity to run the ball, and the Chiefs' run defense might be the worst in the NFL. Kansas City ranks 32nd in overall run defense DVOA, as well as 28th in the percentage of runs stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage and 32nd in success rate on third or fourth down with two or fewer yards to go. They also rank 31st or 32nd in Adjusted Line Yards (which assigns credit to an offensive line based on a percentage of yards gained per carry) on runs to left end, up the middle, right tackle, and right end.
In other words, pretty much any team that wants to run on the Chiefs can probably do so. The issue is that most teams go down by too many points, too early, to really take advantage of those opportunities, because nobody can stop the Chiefs' offense. If Eric Berry is back on the field for the first time this season, as is expected, the Chiefs' run defense should see a significant bump, but it's difficult to imagine that he'll clean up all the issues, both because there are so many of them and because he's playing his first game since last year. If the Chargers can keep things close, though, they should be able to find significant success on the ground, and that will help Philip Rivers and company through the air.
The perimeter matchups between the Chargers' receivers and Kansas City secondary are intriguing in their own right. The Chiefs generally play sides with cornerbacks Steven Nelson and Orlando Scandrick, while Kendall Fuller plays in the slot. That means the Chargers should be able to engineer whichever matchups they want for the Williams' on the outside (Tyrell and Mike), while Keenan Allen will spend much of the evening tussling with Fuller on the inside.
Rivers is playing about as well this season as he ever has, but he may have to lean on the Williams' more in this game than he has throughout the year. Allen is still his No. 1 target, by far, but the second and third most-targeted receivers on the team are Gordon and Ekeler, and both are unlikely to play. Working without those check-down and swing and screen options changes the Chargers' offense, but the Chiefs are so vulnerable over the middle of the field that Rivers should still be able to work the ball to Allen and Antonio Gates, which should loosen things up outside for the Williams' to try getting down the field on Kansas City's smaller corners.
All of this makes me think the Chargers should be able to move the ball and put some points on the board. Working without key components of the offense, though, they just won't be able to put up quite enough to come away with a win.
Prediction: Chiefs 33, Chargers 27