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Five things to watch as the Chiefs host the Chargers on Thursday Night Football

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It’s a short week — but a big game — in the Thursday night matchup between two division rivals

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With a chance to wrap up the number one seed in the postseason with a win, the Kansas City Chiefs host the Los Angeles Chargers at Arrowhead Stadium for Thursday Night Football. Here are five things to watch during the game:

1. AFC Western

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

In this space, I typically tell you about how division games are entirely different from other NFL games — how the teams are familiar with each other because they play each other so often and have a lot on the line in each and every game they play against each other.

Multiply that by a factor of three.

This isn’t really a division game. This is a division championship. This is High Noon — or better still, a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western, complete with a twangy Ennio Morricone soundtrack. The protagonists will face each other on a deserted street and only one will live to tell the tale.

Well... it’s not quite that dramatic. The Chiefs can afford a loss to the Chargers and still control their own destiny not only for the AFC West, but also for the number one seed in the playoffs. Right now, there are only a very few scenarios where the Chargers will miss the playoffs entirely — even if they lose to the Chiefs on Thursday night.

Even so, there is a lot on the line.

With a win, the Chiefs clinch the AFC West. Then, with a little help from the Pittsburgh Steelers when they play the New England Patriots on Sunday, the Chiefs will have the number one seed in hand. That would give them two weeks to play what will amount to preseason games to close out the season — and then a week off before another team comes to Arrowhead.

With a win, the Chargers also have a shot at the division title and the number one seed. It’s not completely in their control — they’d have to win out, and the Chiefs would have to lose against the Seahawks or Raiders — but without a win against the Chiefs, the best they can hope for is a wild card spot.

Expect these two teams to leave everything on the field.

2. Pat vs. Phil

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

If this is an AFC Western, the two gunslingers facing off on the deserted street are Philip Rivers and Patrick Mahomes. The wily veteran in his 15th season against the mega-talented newcomer. The father of eight versus the young man who plays Fortnite with his buddies. The pure pocket passer against a kid who will sling it sidearm without looking at the receiver.

The focus will be on these two quarterbacks because you can expect both teams — with limited time to formulate game plans — to just go with their strengths. This is no time for subtlety or strategy. Both teams are likely to come out swinging, trying to get a big lead with big plays early and then hope that their defenses can force enough stops to maintain the lead until the final gun.

When these two teams opened the season against each other back in September, we weren’t quite sure what we were going to see from Mahomes in his second start. We had plenty of reason to be hopeful, but that’s not the same as knowing what we could expect. That will certainly make this quarterback matchup — and this game — very interesting.

3. Pass Rush Exists So Sacks Undermine Resolve of Enemy

Kansas City Chiefs v Oakland Raiders Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

You can expect p-r-e-s-s-u-r-e to be a key factor in this game.

For the Chiefs, it will be about getting pressure on Rivers — a quarterback who is notorious not only for playing less effectively when he is under pressure, but also for sometimes becoming completely unglued under pressure. Rivers will be protected by an offensive line that features solid players like left tackle Russell Okung, right guard Michael Schofield and center Mike Pouncey, but also second-year players Dan Feeney and Sam Tevi at left guard and right tackle.

Facing the Chargers will be the defense that is currently second in the NFL with 42 sacks. With Chris Jones, Dee Ford and Justin Houston, the Chiefs can bring pressure from the interior or from the edge — and defensive coordinator Bob Sutton will be relatively free to utilize blitz packages with little fear that Rivers will take advantage. For all of Rivers’ skills — which are considerable — he is not a quarterback who tends to make defenses regret bringing the heat.

Going the other way, the Chiefs offensive line may be battered, but they remain unbent. Still without right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif — and this week, without left guard Cam Erving — the Chiefs will have rookie Andrew Wylie continuing to sub for LDT, and veteran Jeff Allen taking Erving’s place. Even with all the chaos on the offensive line this season — as players have shuttled in and out due to injuries — they have turned in solid performances, allowing just 23 sacks.

Much of the credit for that must go to Mahomes, who continues to let pressure slide off his back. Unlike Rivers, Mahomes has the ability to avoid sacks and make big plays under pressure. In defensive ends Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, the Chargers have a pair of top-quality pass rushers who will give the Chiefs offensive line a challenge. but with what we have seen this season, unless one of them can completely dominate Eric Fisher or Mitchell Schwartz, Mahomes will have room to operate.

4. Walking wounded

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Both teams are coming into this game with key players hurt.

For the Chiefs, Spencer Ware, Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins — along with the aforementioned Cam Erving — could potentially be unable to play.

Eric Berry is now expected to play — but nobody really knows how much. And Kelvin Benjamin could see the field for the first time as a Chief — and if neither Watkins or Hill can go, that could be important.

For the Chargers, running backs Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler might not play, along with tight end Sean Culkin.

We can expect both teams to keep us in the dark about which players will be available right up until the inactive lists are submitted late on Thursday afternoon. However it plays out, it’s probable that fans of both teams will see some relatively new faces get significant playing time.

5. Weather or not

San Diego Chargers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

At kickoff, the weather will be cold — somewhere near freezing — and at this writing, there is a good chance of rain in the hours before kickoff and as the game begins. If you’re planning to attend the game, please dress accordingly — remembering that there is hardly anything worse than being cold and wet simultaneously.

Pro trip: don’t wear wool gloves.

In such weather conditions, there are usually predictions that teams will tend to run the ball more. But in this game, because there is so much uncertainty in the running back position for both teams, we could expect them to go ahead and run the ball a normal percentage of their snaps. It wouldn’t be unreasonable, however, to think there could be a higher-than-usual number of fumbles in this game.