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Chargers vs. Chiefs for the division lead: What to watch for

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What we’re watching for the Chiefs host the Chargers for AFC West lead.

1) Will the pass rush pick up where they left off last week? The Chiefs got contributions from across the front seven against the Raiders. Chris Jones set the tone early, Houston and Hali met at the QB, and Jarvis Jenkins even registered a sack. Against the Chargers in Week 4, Bob Sutton’s defense sacked Rivers twice, and hit him seven times. It’s no coincidence they held him to a 37.2 QB rating and forced three INTs. It’s clear that this entire defense is predicated upon getting pressure. Give Rivers time, he’ll carve up a secondary. Hit Rivers enough, and he’ll cough up the football.

Prediction: Three sacks and at least five hits, and we’ll see Rivers pout and whine after multiple turnovers.

2) Is the running game back to stay? Kareem Hunt may have been the team MVP in the first half of the season. Many thought it was Alex Smith, but we saw what happened to his level of play when the running game struggled. Hunt got going again against the Raiders, and it changed the game. Balance on offense opened things up for Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce downfield. Perhaps more importantly, it helped flip the time of possession in favor of the Chiefs. It’s an old cliche that you have to be able to run the ball to win in December and January, but for the Chiefs, it appears to be a fact. Watch to see if the running lanes are there for Hunt early, and he’s able to drag the rest of the offense along with him.

Prediction: Hunt has 80 yards and a receiving TD this week.

3) Can the Chiefs offense contain Bosa and Ingram? All the talk this week will be about the Chargers dynamic edge rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. Ingram had three of his nine sacks against the Chiefs in their last meeting, Bosa had one of his 11.5. It’s a tough matchup for Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz again this week. But, perhaps we got a hint of how the Chiefs will attack Bosa and Ingram last week. The Chiefs used multiple tight ends (including 3 on one play) to help with Khalil Mack. We also saw the “unbalanced line” look, where Fisher lined up on the right next to Schwartz. Watch for the Chiefs give the defense different protection looks, instead of leaving the tackles on an island all night against two guys that can wreck a game plan.

Prediction: Bosa and Ingram get what’s expected again this week, combining for 3 sacks

4) Can Alex Smith handle the pressure? We’ve established that the Chargers can get after quarterbacks. We often put all of the responsibility on the offensive line to keep the QB from getting hit and sacked. But, Alex Smith hasn’t been sacked 33 times this season because the tackles got beat. Often, he held the ball too long, and ducked or ran into the teeth of the pressure instead of stepping up into a lane and delivering the football on time. Other times, Smith has sensed pressure that wasn’t there, and bailed on a clean pocket. The QB’s ability to navigate in and out of the pocket is key to avoiding drive-killing sacks. Watch to see if Smith can avoid “happy feet” and get the ball out on time this week. It’s arguably more important than how the OTs do against Bosa and Ingram.

Prediction: Smith is responsible for at least two of the sacks or pressures again this week.

5) Arrowhead after dark: Sam Mellinger pointed out on this week’s podcast that the home-field advantage we associate with the Chiefs is most (and perhaps only) evident during primetime games. Playing this week on national television on a Saturday night, with so much on the line... Arrowhead should be rocking. Chiefs fans have extra tailgate time, and for most, no work to wake up for in the morning. The Chiefs have been putting out hype videos and promoting the red-on-red look that Eric Berry loves so much. Hopefully, EB is on the sidelines again, getting the team revved up when and calmed down when each is needed. For those of us watching at home, listen for the crowd and watch how the players feed off of it.

Prediction: This might just be the best atmosphere of the season at Arrowhead, and the Chargers will have a couple of false starts to show for it.

6) Peters returns: The secondary was better last week than expected. It was arguably among their best games of the season. Considering they were without their best player, it was particularly remarkable and encouraging. But don’t get it twisted, they need Marcus Peters. They need his playmaking ability and his competitiveness. They need him out there making Rivers think twice before throwing to his side, and making him pay when he does. Watch to see if Peters comes back with a bigger chip on his shoulder, and if he’s able to take it out on the Chargers.

Prediction: Peters gets at least one interception in his return, and doesn’t make the same mistakes this week.

7) Who wants it more? The importance of this game can’t be understated. You can make the case that the Chargers should be the more desperate team. They essentially can’t make the playoffs if they lose this week. The Chiefs season would be on life support based on records and tiebreakers with a loss this week, but they’d still have a chance. More importantly, though, the Chiefs just found their confidence and energy again last week. They finally stopped a hopeless skid, and got their season back on track. You can bet they’ll be motivated to show that the real Chiefs team is one destined to make a run this season.

Prediction: The Chiefs do what it takes to keep their resurgence going.