Do the Chiefs have any chance of stopping Philip Rivers and the red-hot Chargers?
Rivers has been the NFL's best quarterback over the last four weeks
No team in the NFL is hotter right now than the Los Angeles Chargers.
The Steelers have a longer winning streak, but the Chargers have essentially blown the last four teams they've played off the field, beating the Bills, Cowboys, Browns, and Washington by a combined score of 131-53. The Chargers defense, led by Melvin Ingram, Joey Bosa, Casey Hayward and company, has been strong all season; but over these last four wins the offense has joined them as an elite unit.
Averaging 18.6 points per game prior to the streak, the Chargers have ripped off 32.8 per game while powering their way into the thick of the AFC West race. They're currently tied with the Chiefs with a 7-6 record, but sitting behind Kansas City in the standings due to the head-to-head tiebreaker.
If the Chargers manage to beat the Chiefs this coming Sunday, though, they'll take firm control of the division lead over the final two weeks of the year.
Per Sportsline's Stephen Oh, they have only a 47 percent chance of doing so, even though betting markets have the Chargers as a 1.5-point favorite as of this writing (six of our eight experts are picking the Chargers to win straight up, while five of eight are picking them with the spread.) A win in this game is wildly important, as it gives the Chargers a 94 percent chance of making the playoffs. Meanwhile, a loss would drop them all the way down to 18 percent. Similarly, the Chiefs have a 95 percent chance of getting in with a win, but only a 31 percent chance of getting in with a loss. It's safe to say Sunday's showdown is important for the Chargers to win.
In order to do so, the offense will have to stay hot. Kansas City's offense broke out of its slump over the last two weeks, hanging 57 points on the Jets and Raiders. The Chargers' pass defense is exceptional, but their run defense is less so, which means the Chiefs' recommitment to Kareem Hunt could once again pay off. If the Chiefs want to pound the ball inside and control the clock in order to keep the red-hot Charger offense off the field, that would be a wise strategy.
Because on the other side of the ball, there has to be a major question about whether Kansas City has a hope of stopping this Chargers machine right now. The Chiefs enter this game ranked 28th in yards allowed, 15th in points allowed, and 27th in defensive efficiency, per Football Outsiders' defensive DVOA (defense-adjusted Value Over Average, which adjusts performance for down, distance, and opponent.)
The Chiefs have been especially vulnerable to No. 1 receivers, allowing them to rack up 91.9 yards per game, according to Football Outsiders. It's safe to say that's not ideal when you're about to run up against Keenan Allen, whose last four games have gone like this: 12 catches for 159 yards and two touchdowns against the Bills; 11 catches for 172 yards and a touchdown against the Cowboys; 10 catches for 105 yards and a touchdown against the Browns; and six catches for 111 yards against Washington. The Chiefs will get Marcus Peters back for this game after he sat out last week due to a suspension, but Allen has been frying every corner in his path.
Given Allen's recent performance, it should come as no surprise that Philip Rivers is playing out of his damn mind right now. Like the team, Rivers got off to a bit of a slow start to 2017, but he's with a scorching-hot month.
During games played from Week 11-14, Rivers ranked fourth in completion percentage and touchdowns, and first in yards per attempt, interceptions, and passer rating. His hot streak has pushed him into the top overall spot in DVOA.
Where Rivers has really shined over the last month is on throws down the field. Pro Football Focus divides throws into four buckets: behind the line of scrimmage, 0 to 9 yards, 10 to 19 yards, and 20 yards or more. From Week 1-10, Rivers was dreadful on passes thrown 20 yards or more beyond the line of scrimmage. He completed just eight of 34 such throws for 289 yards, four touchdowns, and three interceptions. That worked out to a 65.0 passer rating, which ranked 21st in the league during that time.
Check out what's happened since:
Rivers has completed more deep passes from Week 11-14 than he did during Week 1-10, despite attempting only half the number of passes. His completions have totaled more yards and half as many touchdowns in only four games vs. nine. Unsurprisingly, that 147.3 passer rating on deep throws over the last four weeks leads the NFL.
The Chiefs have been somewhat vulnerable to deep passes this season, especially those thrown down the middle of the field -- no surprise given that they lost safety Eric Berry to a torn Achilles during the first game of the season. Rivers is 3 of 4 for 155 yards and a score targeting that area of the field over the last four weeks. He's also been piping hot throwing over the middle on short and intermediate passes, completing 49 of 58 passes for 526 yards and three scores on throws 19 yards beyond the life of scrimmage or shorter.
Chiefs inside linebacker Derrick Johnson has done strong work in coverage this season, but safety Daniel Sorenson and slot corners Philip Gaines and (more recently) Steven Nelson have been picked on repeatedly. With as hot as Rivers is running right now, it seems likely that he'll be able to fire shots over the middle of the field to Keenan Allen, tight end Hunter Henry, and his backs coming out of the backfield. With Tyrell Williams and Travis Benjamin stretching the defense down the outside, it's going to be incredibly tough for Kansas City to figure out a way to stop the Chargers from putting up points. Their best bet will be to try to keep Rivers off the field by controlling the ball with the run game.
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