On Sunday afternoon, the Kansas City Chiefs (5-1) are welcoming the Los Angeles Chargers (2-3) to Arrowhead Stadium for the first significant AFC West game of the season. Kickoff is set for 3:25 PM Arrowhead time; DraftKings Sportsbook had the Chiefs as 5.5-point favorites entering the weekend.
The last four games between these teams have been decided by six points or fewer, Kansas City with a 3-1 record. If you combine all four games, the Chiefs have outscored the Chargers by six points total. There’s no reason to believe this game will be any more lopsided than the others — especially with Los Angeles desperate to improve on their losing record.
I have five things to watch in what I believe will be the most intense game of the season yet:
1. The Chiefs’ pass protection
The Chiefs allow the fewest sacks per dropback in the NFL, but Sunday will be as tough a challenge as any the pass protection has faced this season.
Los Angeles’ headliners for the pass rush are veterans Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack; the duo has combined for 10 sacks this season, but Mack had the bulk of them in a monster game against the Las Vegas Raiders. Chiefs’ offensive coordinator Matt Nagy knows more than most how dominant Mack can be.
“I know a couple guys on that team,” Nagy reflected as former head coach of the Chicago Bears. “Number 52, who had six sacks in one game; I’ve seen some of those firsthand, I’ve been on the sideline. He’s a dominant player, their front line really creates havoc and helps out the back end.”
The big names are spelled by exciting rookie outside linebacker Tuli Tuipulotu, who has two sacks this year while generating pressure constantly. All three will be coming off the edge almost exclusively, so this will call on the offensive tackles to step up — and the coaching staff to aid them when they need help.
2. Getting Chargers to third and long
The Chargers’ offense has found success against the Chiefs in recent games: Los Angeles scored 24 and 27 points in last year’s matchups, respectively, more than Kansas City has allowed in any game this season.
Chiefs’ defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo recognized that as he prepared for this week, and one area of the game stood out to him.
“We’re going to try extremely hard to make sure that the third downs are longer,” Spagnuolo emphasized to reporters on Thursday. “I looked at it, we played them twice and had 33 – if I did my math right – 33 third downs, 20 of them were third-and-one or two. That’s tough. I think there were eight that were third-and-seven plus.”
Third and short is not only easier to convert than third and long, but the Chargers are also aggressive in attempting fourth-down conversions. A more manageable third down gives their play calling more flexibility, knowing they have another down to work with.
“They are an aggressive team, we know that,” Spags asserted. “We’ll be working on fourth-down plays today. Our guys are on top of it, and hopefully if they do it, we can stop it.”
3. Travis Kelce versus Derwin James
During last year’s matchup in Arrowhead Stadium, Chiefs’ tight end Travis Kelce found space for a big catch and run into the red zone — eventually tackled by a bodyslam from Chargers’ safety Derwin James.
It might be the only memorable moment James has had in the long-time battle between him and the elusive Kelce.
Justin Watson helped spring Kelce on the game-winning play by executing the mesh -- slightly disrupting Derwin James' pursuit angle in man coverage— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) November 23, 2022
It cuts off James' angle to make a quick ankle tackle, he's too flat because of Watson and 87 runs away from him #Chiefs pic.twitter.com/UY5aKzLDuP
The future Hall of Famer tends to have big moments against the AFC West rival, including a game-winning touchdown last year, beating James on a shallow crosser as he guarded him in man coverage.
This matchup will be a key one for both sides. If Los Angeles can improve their ability to blanket Kelce, it should allow opportunities for the Chiefs’ wide receivers to shine: the Chargers are allowing the second-most yards per pass attempt in the NFL currently.
4. Matchups for Chiefs’ coverage
The Chiefs will focus on pressuring Chargers’ quarterback Justin Herbert with their front, but he will get the ball out quickly to his playmakers. A lot of the defensive performance will rest on the shoulders of the back seven.
The key matchup will be wide receiver Keenan Allen against either cornerback Trent McDuffie or L’Jarius Sneed because the Chiefs shouldn’t feel the need to shadow him with Sneed. McDuffie may actually be the better individual matchup due to Allen’s quickness and shiftiness; Allen also spends two-thirds of his snaps in the slot.
The safeties and linebackers will also need to be locked in their matchups, especially in the red zone. Tight ends Gerald Everett and Donald Parham have combined for four touchdowns this season. At the same time, running back Austin Ekeler is back from injury — and has three plays of at least 28 yards in the two games he has played this year.
5. Winning in the margins
That counters a Chiefs’ defense that has excelled in nearly all aspects this season, aside from intercepting passes. The three total is tied for the sixth-fewest in the NFL. Takeaway opportunities will be rare in this game.
Special teams will also be very important; Special teams coordinator Dave Toub is preparing to contain an electric returner.
“(Derius Davis) is outstanding, the rookie they have,” Toub told reporters on Thursday. “We had him rated one of the highest grades we could give a punt returner. He’s got that ability – but he is a rookie, and he’s made a couple of mistakes but not many. When he gets the ball in his hands, he can bounce it on you really quick and change angles really fast... we respect him big time.”