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Five things to watch as the Chiefs host the Chargers

The regular season finale is still important to win — as long as other NFL teams can help out the Chiefs.

Is it time for the postseason yet?

I’m sure I’m not the only one asking that question. But there’s one week left — and the outcome of the Week 17 game between the Kansas City Chiefs (11-4) and the Los Angeles Chargers (5-10) can determine the team’s seeding in the playoffs.

The Chiefs have the the third seed. But if they win — and the New England Patriots lose to the Miami Dolphins — they become the second seed. If they lose — and the Houston Texans beat the Tennessee Titans — the Chiefs will fall to the fourth seed.

So make sure you’re watching the scoreboard on Sunday. As for the Chiefs game, I have five things to watch:

1. The running back unit

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Chicago Bears Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

All season, the running back position has been in flux because of injuries — and that trend continues leading up to Week 17.

Recently-acquired veteran running back Spencer Ware had to end his second stint with the Chiefs because of a season-ending shoulder injury. While Ware does not have the big-play upside as the other backs, he is absolutely the best pass blocker. That is where his impact will be felt the most.

The running back who will undoubtedly see the most benefit — in the Chargers game and beyond — is rookie Darwin Thompson. We can assume that veteran running back LeSean McCoy’s snap load will be managed for the postseason. The only other back on the active roster is Damien Williams.

Thompson has yet to have the big statistical game — but I believe it could happen on Sunday. The Chiefs ran for 130 yards against the Chargers in their first matchup — their third-highest total of the season — and targeted running backs on 10 of Patrick Mahomes’ 32 attempts. The offense should take advantage of Thompson’s health and fresh legs, using him to get tough yards throughout the game.

2. Mahomes’ confidence in the pass protection

Kansas City Chiefs v Chicago Bears Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

There is an argument to be had about what’s more important for maneuvering the pocket: good blocking or quarterback confidence. The comfort that Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes showed in the pocket against the Chicago Bears supports the latter opinion.

On multiple intermediate throws, Mahomes clearly stepped up behind his linemen — toward his targets — and whipped his passes while showing good fundamentals. He did all this behind a subpar interior offensive line; there was still plenty of pressure coming from the middle of the Chicago defensive front. But Mahomes seemed to navigate it well, recognizing his opportunities to step up.

If Mahomes can continue to feel comfortable in imperfect pockets, the blocking doesn’t need to be substantially improved for the offense to function properly. Mahomes’ injuries may have affected how he felt while dropping back and throwing. But in the last few weeks, he seems to have begun gettting past that mental block. Look to see if that continues against Los Angeles.

3. Maintaining the aggressive run defense

Kansas City Chiefs v Chicago Bears Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Chiefs defense has allowed more than 101 yards rushing just once since that ridiculous Derrick Henry performance during the loss to the Titans in Week 10 — but that game still looms in the minds of Chiefs fans. It doesn’t help that the Titans are one of three teams in play for the sixth seed — and could travel to Arrowhead Stadium for Wild Card weekend.

In recent weeks, the Chiefs defense has obviously been awesome. But the run defense has benefited from playing less-efficient run offenses. Among the last five opponents, the Oakland Raiders had the best rushing attack, averaging 4.3 yards per carry — which is only 18th-best in the NFL. In recent games, the Chiefs offense has prevented teams from sticking to their running game by getting early leads. But the Titans displayed how a better running team can overcome a hot Chiefs start.

There were some signs of concern in the Bears game. There were plenty of chunk running plays that appeared to lack a Chiefs linebacker sealing their gap or coming down hard on the run action. Chicago averaged 4.6 yards per carry — but had to abandon that phase of the game when the Chiefs took a big lead.

Watch to see how the linebackers look against the Chargers running backs Austin Ekeler and Melvin Gordon. This will likely be the worst opposing offensive line the Chiefs defense will see for the rest of the season — so going into the playoffs, it should be a productive tune-up.

4. The secondary meeting the challenge

Kansas City Chiefs v Chicago Bears Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Coming into the season, the Chiefs cornerback group was the biggest question mark on the defense. But with legitimate performances down the stretch, they have turned down the volume on that talk.

On Sunday, cornerback Charvarius Ward continued his great span of play with a tough back-and-forth fight against Bears wide receiver Allen Robinson. Ward only allowed one catch fot 13 yards (on four targets) while guarding Robinson — and got a key a pass breakup, too. He also played well in the last contest against the Chargers; on five targets, the only catch he allowed was a desperate deep pass to receiver Mike Williams at the very end of the fourth quarter.

Cornerback — and maybe now safetyKendall Fuller has re-emerged in the defensive game plan. In recent games, he has not been playing in his traditional position; he played in the box or at free safety during 60% of his defensive snaps against the Bears. Credit should go to defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and defensive backs coach Dave Merritt. They found a way to utilize Fuller’s strength: open-field tackling.

Look to see how the defensive backs handle the Chargers’ always-dangerous group of receivers: wideouts Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, Ekeler and tight end Hunter Henry.

5. Achieving season milestones

Kansas City Chiefs v Chicago Bears Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Here are some statistical milestones that the Chiefs could achieve in Week 17:

  • Mahomes only needs 143 passing yards to reach 4,000 passing yards for the second-consecutive season. He would become one of five NFL quarterbacks to have surpassed 4,000 passing yards in two of their first three seasons.
  • Tight end Travis Kelce is nine catches away from his career high for receptions in a season — and also 131 yards shy of his career high for receiving yards. If he is able to earn six catches against Los Angeles, he would become the first tight end in NFL history to have multiple seasons with 100 or more catches.
  • If the Chiefs are able to beat the Chargers by more than 11 points, they will have the highest point differential of any Chiefs team during head coach Andy Reid’s tenure. If they win by more than 19, they will have the biggest point differential for any Chiefs season since... well, since they won the Super Bowl.

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