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5 things to watch as the Chiefs play the Chargers on Sunday Night Football

The latest primetime game between these two rivals will go a long way towards deciding the AFC West.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Los Angeles Chargers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL can’t get enough of this matchup.

For the third consecutive contest between the Kansas City Chiefs (7-2) and Los Angeles Chargers (5-4), the broadcast will be in primetime; Sunday Night Football will show the battle between the first and second-place teams in the AFC West, happening at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California.

The Chiefs enter the weekend as five-point favorites on the road, per DraftKings SportsBook. That line is representative of these teams’ recent head-to-head battles: the average scoring margin has been five points over the last three games between them.

The stakes are pretty high as well: the Chiefs could have a four-game lead on the Chargers in the divisional standings with a win, earning the head-to-head tiebreaker on top of a much better win-loss record.

Los Angeles should be throwing everything out to try and keep their playoff hopes alive. I have five things to watch:

1. Finding room in the pass game

Los Angeles Chargers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

In the season’s first matchup, the Chargers held the Chiefs to their lowest single-game passing yards total, forcing Mahomes into questionable throws multiple times with effective pressure and coverage. Tight end Travis Kelce was shadowed and held to his least impactful game of the year.

There were worries about both the pass protection and the wide receivers’ ability to get open following the win, and each of those things has seemingly improved over the season — but their second chance at passing this test became much harder with the news that both wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster and Mecole Hardman will miss the game.

It makes this week a huge opportunity for wide receivers Kadarius Toney, Justin Watson, and rookie Skyy Moore to prove themselves. The roles of Kelce and wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling won’t be adjusted because of injury, so the three reserve pass catchers will get the next-man-up treatment for the injured players’ roles.

2. Pounding the rock

NFL: SEP 15 Chargers at Chiefs

The pass game needs to be better than it was in the Week 2 matchup, but the run game need to help out the short-handed group — and the Chargers have been susceptible to impactful rushing attacks.

Only one team allows a higher average of rushing yards per attempt than Los Angeles, who have allowed more than 200 yards rushing to three of their last five opponents. In Week 2, the Chiefs weren’t exploiting that facet of the game — until a 52-yard run in the fourth quarter helped seal the victory.

The explosive run came from under center, allowing running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire to get downhill and take advantage of the aggressive blocking responsibility of the offensive line. They could stand to lean on those plays a little more against a defense that is soft up the middle.

This time, the primary back on those plays will be Isiah Pacheco — and that could lead to bigger results on average for those run calls. Either way, the injuries at wide receiver may require the Chiefs to lean on this part of the offense more than usual.

3. Limiting Mike Williams and Keenan Allen

Los Angeles Chargers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The final injury report has Chargers wide receivers Mike Williams and Keenan Allen as questionable to play.

Their presence is a huge part of this game. The Chargers can lull defenses to sleep by chipping away with runs and quick throws — but it sets up the one-on-one opportunities down the field that we saw Williams take advantage of in Week 2. Allen is the best of the team’s receivers at getting open against man coverage or finding room between zone defenders.

The Chiefs’ cornerback room looks different than it did in Week 2, now without Rashad Fenton but with Trent McDuffie back on the field. Outside cornerbacks like McDuffie will need to be locked in on passes downfield, giving themselves a clean opportunity to prevent a catch — but slot cornerback L’Jarius Sneed could have a rough time with Allen’s route running.

I’m curious to see if they trust McDuffie to cover Allen from the slot at all; McDuffie’s skillset is a better matchup for Allen than Sneed’s is.

4. Heating up Justin Herbert

Los Angeles Chargers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

In the first half of the Week 2 game, the Chiefs could get no pressure on Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert — who had time to load up in the pocket and make big throws down the field. In the second half, the Chiefs’ defensive line did a better job of getting hands on him before or as he threw.

That needs to continue in this game, taking advantage of the Chargers’ backup at left tackle and hampered starting right tackle. Herbert can maneuver pressure well and negate it at times. He’s an intelligent player, many times, he’ll check down or throw away rather than risking a more negative play.

The Chiefs need to force him into those conservative throws, not letting him have the time to find Williams or Allen on longer-developing pass patterns. Even if it doesn’t turn into a big many sacks, consistent pressure may be even more important.

5. The return of Frank Clark

Kansas City Chiefs v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Last time we saw Chiefs defensive end Frank Clark play football, he was earning a safety by beating San Francisco 49ers left tackle Trent Williams, one of the league’s most respected players at the position.

Clark seemed to get into a groove right before he was suspended for two games, and it will be intriguing to see if he picks up where he left off. He was already a staple piece against the run, but can the improved pass rush that we saw against the 49ers continue?

On top of that, he was starting to be used in different alignments situationally — like rushing from the inside on third down, letting defensive tackle Chris Jones bounce out to the edge.

Clark is a very key piece to Kansas City’s rotation of defensive linemen, and getting him back raises the floor of how much they can impact a game as a group. If he’s as impactful as he was in San Francisco, it raises the ceiling too.

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