The first game to take place in 2024 will be the finale of the 2023 regular season for the (10-6) Kansas City Chiefs and the (5-11) Los Angeles Chargers. The AFC West foes will kick off inside SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California, at 3:25 p.m. Arrowhead time.
According to DraftKings Sportsbook, the Chargers are favored by 3.5 points.
The Chiefs have the AFC's No. 3 seed clinched, meaning quarterback Patrick Mahomes and other starters will not take the field. Veteran Blane Gabbert will start instead, looking for his first win as a starter since 2018.
He will face a Chargers team that fired head coach Brandon Staley after an embarrassing 63-21 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders three weeks ago. It was one of the seven losses Los Angeles has suffered over the last eight games.
I have five things to watch in the final tuneup before postseason play in Kansas City:
1. Milestone watch
There are multiple Chiefs with milestones within reach going into Week 18:
- Tight end Travis Kelce is 16 yards away from 1,000 receiving yards this season, which would extend his NFL record for tight ends to eight consecutive seasons.
- Wide receiver Rashee Rice is 62 yards away from 1,000 receiving yards. He would become the 26th rookie wide receiver in NFL history to reach that century mark and the first in Chiefs' history.
- Running back Isiah Pacheco is 65 yards away from 1,000 rushing yards this season.
- Defensive tackle Chris Jones needs half of a sack to reach 10 for the season, hitting a contract incentive worth $1.25 million.
Pacheco should not take a snap: there's no guarantee he will reach that mark even if he plays the full game, and his health is vital to the team's success in the playoffs; he is questionable to play after being limited in practice this week.
Rice popped up on the injury report with a hamstring injury this week; he was ruled out on Friday.
Travis Kelce needs 16 yards to extend his streak of 1,000-yard seasons— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 4, 2024
Calling my shot that #Chiefs get him them in one play: show a rollout with Kelce running the crosser, then pivot back against the flow of the D into space
This is from the 2021 preseason pic.twitter.com/YG5FWfHZWI
For Kelce, if the 1,000-yard mark is that important to him, the Chiefs should use one play on the opening drive to get him there: a similar route as this one from the 2021 preseason. If it doesn't quite gain 16 yards, scheme up a shovel pass to gain the rest.
2. Felix Anudike-Uzomah
On Thursday, Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo acknowledged the resting of starters for Sunday's game. Among the names he was looking forward to seeing more of, rookie defensive end Felix Anudike-Uzomah came to mind.
"I think he's developed well," Spagnuolo described of this year's first-round pick. "He's still very young, George [Karlaftis] is young too, we have some young guys there. I've seen him mature and grow in the meetings. I'm always asking guys questions. I give them homework tapes at night and then ask them the next day, and Felix, he's been on it. That tells me something."
After starting the season with a forced fumble, half a sack and four quarterback hits over five weeks, Anudike-Uzomah has played 10 or fewer snaps in every game since. That aligns with the return of defensive end Charles Omenihu from suspension.
"We've never had a problem putting Felix in," Spags noted. "It's just been more the fact that George and Charles and Mike (Danna) have been playing pretty good."
Look for the rookie up front, especially on pass downs. That's where he would be utilized with the starting defense in the playoffs.
3. Justyn Ross
Wide receiver Justyn Ross is likely the most anticipated reserve player for the Chiefs' offense. After a first half of the season that featured three catches for 34 yards, Ross was placed on the Commissioner Exempt List following his arrest for two misdemeanor charges.
He has only one catch for two yards since his return, but Blaine Gabbert expressed his excitement to see more of Ross on the field this week. Even special teams coordinator Dave Toub mentioned Ross when previewing the game.
"I'm actually excited to see some of the guys on offense," Toub told reporters on Thursday. "Ross, you know he's going to get a lot more. That's one guy that – I just got done watching walkthrough – he was a guy that I thought I can't wait to see how he does in the game getting a lot of reps."
Watch for Ross when the ball's in the air, especially in the red zone: that's where the starting offense could use him in the postseason.
4. Testing Chiefs' defensive depth
There will be many less-familiar names stepping up on defense outside of just Anudike-Uzomah. Spagnuolo went down the list Thursday:
- Linebackers Jack Cochrane, Cam Jones, and Leo Chenal
- Safety Deon Bush
- Defensive ends B.J. Thompson and Malik Herring
- Defensive tackle Neil Farrell
Special teams aces will have their work cut out for them, fulfilling the usual duties for that unit while also playing on defense. That affects all three linebackers, which Spags does see as a challenge.
"I'll be praying nobody gets hurt," Spags acknowledged. "It's a blessing and a curse, in my opinion. It's a blessing to be in this position; it's just tough navigating wanting to win the game and stop people when you have some different moving parts."
5. Opportunity for running backs
If Pacheco doesn't dress, that only leaves Clyde Edwards-Helaire and La'Mical Perine as the available running backs on the active roster. Keoantay Ingram, who was elevated from the practice squad to the gameday roster in Week 17, is also a possibility.
It would be valuable for the team to allow Perine and Ingram opportunities to get more plays under their belts in case of a postseason injury. Perine has gotten one carry all year after an outstanding preseason. Ingram has not seen the field in Kansas City after gaining 100 yards from scrimmage over eight games with the Arizona Cardinals.