Thursday Night Football: AFC West Championship Edition.
That’s basically what this matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs (9-4) and the Los Angeles Chargers (8-5) has become. As 3-point favorites according to DraftKings SportsBook, the Chiefs are looking to win on the road — and avenge their Week 3 loss at home.
A Chiefs win would give them a two-game lead on the rest of the division with three games remaining — while a victory for Los Angeles would even their records and provide them with a tiebreaker over Kansas City. The significance is the schedule remaining: the Chargers will play the Houston Texans and Denver Broncos at home — and then the Las Vegas Raiders on the road.
If the Chargers win their remaining games — including Thursday night — while the Chiefs win their final three, Los Angeles will win the division.
I have five things to watch in the biggest game of the year for either team:
1. The Chiefs’ willingness to run the ball
I’ll get straight to the point: the Chargers have one of the NFL’s worst run defenses, allowing the second-most yards and fourth-worst rate of rushing yards per attempt this season.
The Chiefs know that — and exploited it in Week 3 to the tune of 186 team-rushing yards on 6.2 yards per attempt. It was running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire’s first big game of the year, rushing for 100 yards and catching a touchdown on a screen pass.
Turnovers — including one of his own — ruined Edwards-Helaire’s efficient day, but it can happen again. Not only does he appear to be getting more and more into a rhythm since his return from injury, right tackle Lucas Niang returning to play in a limited role last week would point to a possible start on Thursday.
Niang has been a key contributor in the running game, using his sheer size to create wider running lanes on the right side. If he returns as the starter, the team’s running backs will welcome it.
2. The impact Chris Jones can have
Chiefs defensive lineman Chris Jones is currently on the team’s Reserve/COVID list, making his status for the game unknown. I’m going to play this like a Choose Your Own Adventure:
If Chris Jones doesn’t play: Now on a total hot streak, the Chiefs’ pass rush will be dumped into cold water. I still believe that defensive ends Melvin Ingram and Frank Clark can wreak havoc — while defensive tackle Jarran Reed can continue making plays from the inside — but all of their performances get a substantial boost if Jones plays. If he isn’t in the game, it will allow Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert to feel much more comfortable dissecting the Chiefs’ coverage that will be impacted by the absences of Willie Gay Jr. and L’Jarius Sneed.
If Chris Jones plays: The Chargers are in big trouble. If Jones is playing, the injuries and absences on their offensive line could be the game-deciding matchup. With Jones, the Chiefs can mix-and-match their pass-rushing packages to get the most significant mismatches — like Jones on the edge against Los Angeles right tackle Storm Norton.
Jones would have obliterated Herbert if Hughes hadn't been beaten so quickly by Williams' sluggo.— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) September 29, 2021
Turns that corner really well. One of the best edge rushes I've seen from him this year (against Storm Norton, I know) pic.twitter.com/54Wwg78lzD
Needless to say, Jones’ absence will have a significant negative impact on the Chiefs’ game plan.
But it’s worth noting a revenge factor in the Kansas City defensive line, too: in this game, Ingram — a longtime Charger — will be playing against his former team for the first time.
3. Pass protection redemption
The last time these teams played, the Chargers’ defensive line may have allowed running lanes for Chiefs ballcarriers — but they certainly gave the Kansas City offensive line headaches in pass protection.
Quarterback Patrick Mahomes was pressured on 42% of his dropbacks, completing only six of 18 passes for 72 yards in those situations; five of those pressures forced him to throw the ball away. Overall, he earned a dismal 23.4 passer rating against pressure in Week 3.
But even with that pressure, the Chiefs’ offense was putting up yards, driving up and down the field with ease — until they would shoot themselves in the foot with a turnover; they committed four during the game.
Offensive linemen Trey Smith and Lucas Niang also have some revenge to dish out; in individual plays during Week 3, both were handled impressively by Chargers pass rusher Joey Bosa. They’ll be looking forward to a chance for redemption.
4. Absences of L’Jarius Sneed and Willie Gay Jr.
On Wednesday, it became official that cornerback L’Jarius Sneed (personal reasons) and linebacker Willie Gay Jr. (COVID) would miss Thursday’s game.
In Sneed’s absence against the Raiders, the Chiefs moved safety Tyrann Mathieu to the slot position most of the time, bringing in cornerback Rashad Fenton to man that position only in the dime packages where Mathieu had to play safety.
When Mathieu is playing the slot, it means safety Daniel Sorensen is manning a safety position — and we’ve seen that become disastrous against quarterbacks who can throw as Herbert can.
Good route combo to beat 2-high; backside dig occupies Thornhillm takes him away from his Deep 1/4. Sorensen jumps on fake to corner, can't recover on post— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) October 11, 2021
In quarters, you'd like 49 to be more conservative jumping the sideline route, with CB dropping to get under it as well pic.twitter.com/mEdnyhgQdL
In Gay’s absence, the Chiefs will have linebackers Nick Bolton and Anthony Hitchens on the field together in nickel packages — but that will severely hamper the team’s ability to cover routes at the second level. Gay has excelled at that this season — while both Bolton and Hitchens have shown limitations. In base packages, it’s likely that Ben Niemann mans one of the three spots.
5. The A-plus game plan
As I have noted previously, the Chiefs’ offense has been running in cruise control during the last two weeks, trusting their staple concepts to give sufficient production to win — and not showing much more than that.
If head coach Andy Reid was quietly saving up all his creativity for this game... good!
It’s time to pull out all the stops; you can count on a well-designed reverse to be executed within the first two drives. You can bank on a screen pass — one that initially looked like it was meant to go two other directions — to go for 20 yards. You can bet that a short-yardage conversion will be made with a direct snap to a skill player.
At least, this should be the case. With the question marks on the team’s defense, the Kansas City offense needs to shift into turbo mode. If the Chiefs can cleanly execute an A-plus game plan, they’ll have a great shot at winning — even if the defense has a rough day.