The Kansas City Chiefs (11-2) meet the Los Angeles Chargers (10-3) on Thursday night at Arrowhead Stadium in one of the NFL’s most-anticipated games of the year.
It’s full of hype, intrigue, and wonderment of what ridiculous moment either of these teams may give us at any given time. Both teams rank among the Top 5 in the league in scoring and feature MVP candidates at quarterback, and they each have players on the defensive side that can alter a game at any moment.
It’s also a game that really matters as both teams not only have a division title within their grasp, but also the potential of representing the AFC as the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.
The Chiefs have already played in a few of these marquee matchups under the lights this season—with memorable prime-time games against the Patriots, Broncos and Rams giving viewers all they could handle.
Nobody’s going to soon forget Patrick Mahomes’ furious second-half comeback against the Patriots, or his left-handed pass against the Broncos to extend a key fourth-quarter drive, or the shootout against the Rams with the two teams combining for 105 total points in a back-and-forth affair that was one for the ages.
But this game on Thursday night against the Chargers carries a different tune than those other three games as there are only three weeks left in the regular season, and it’s also at Arrowhead Stadium—one of the NFL’s premier venues for prime-time matchups.
The atmosphere will be electric, and the energy will be palpable as the Chiefs look to stay atop the AFC playoff picture.
It’s all on the table as the Chiefs seek their 21st win in their last 22 games against divisional opponents, which includes a streak of nine-straight wins against the Chargers—a stat they’ve been reminded of often this week.
Here are five things to watch Thursday night:
1. What kind of performance do we see from Patrick Mahomes?
Mahomes—the odds-on-favorite and current front-runner for the NFL’s MVP award—leads the league in passing yards (4,300) and touchdowns (43), and he’s just 292 yards shy of breaking the Chiefs’ franchise record for most passing yards in a season (Trent Green, 4,591, 2004).
The complete list of records’ broken and those still within reach this season for Mahomes is long and distinguished.
And in the four divisional games against the AFC West this year, Mahomes has completed 62.5 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns and just one interception.
Every week, Mahomes has given us multiple plays and throws that for any other player would garner an all-time highlight-reel type of response, but they’re almost commonplace for the 23-year-old gunslinger with 14 career starts under his belt.
Mahomes’ first-year campaign is perhaps the NFL’s top storyline of the entire season. He brings ratings and a flair to the game that the league hasn’t seen in a while—tossing no-look passes like it’s backyard football, and then crediting his teammates after the game for the ridiculous play that was made.
It’s the Chiefs’ “new normal.”
It’s basically turned the season into a traveling carnival show that allows other fans from across the country the chance to see this kid in person—almost like a “Cirque Du Soleil” show but one that isn’t scripted and one in which you don’t know what’s going to happen that next night—that’s really just one way to describe this wild ride for the Chiefs this season.
But all that doesn’t mean that Thursday night won’t be met with a huge challenge, and a different one than the Chiefs’ faced in Week 1 as the Chargers recently got back their All-Pro force player, Joey Bosa, who missed the first chunk of the season with a foot injury.
Mahomes finished that first meeting against the Chargers 15 of 27 for 256 yards with four touchdowns.
But Bosa and fellow edge rusher Melvin Ingram make up one of the most-dangerous pair of pass rushers in the entire NFL, and it’s their ability to get after the quarterback, particularly with a multitude of games, twists and stunts up front, that make facing this defense a challenge—especially on third down when they line up next to one another.
Mahomes has been praised all season for his ability to recognize what defenses are trying to do to him, which was never more evident than last week against the Baltimore Ravens, who came after him with more blitzes (24) than he had seen all season. He completed 19 of 24 for 204 yards and a touchdown in those instances, per Pro Football Focus.
With Bosa and Ingram, the Chargers haven’t necessarily had to send extra guys to get pressure as they rank among the bottom teams in the league in percentage of plays in which they blitz, but it’s still something to watch on Thursday night as to how Mahomes handles the pressure up front.
2. Can the Chiefs limit Derwin James’ impact?
Derwin James—the Chargers’ rookie safety who lines up everywhere for that defense—has been one of the best in the game through the first three-quarters of the season. He joined an already-talented defensive backfield with cornerbacks Casey Hayward and Desmond King, who currently ranks as Pro Football Focus’ top cornerback this season.
James ranks as Pro Football Focus’ No. 3 safety—amassing 88 total tackles, 3.5 sacks, three interceptions and 12 passes defensed.
Whether it’s out in the slot, coming off the edge or inside the box like a linebacker, James’ unique talents have allowed him to be used creatively by Chargers’ defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, who has long been known as one of the better defensive minds in football.
James has been targeted 47 times and allowed just 31 receptions for 231 yards with one touchdown this season, and has the sixth-lowest passer rating against among safeties in the NFL this year.
The Chiefs will always need to know where James is lined up.
3. Can the Chiefs keep up their home success going vs. Philip Rivers?
In his last four games against the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium, Rivers has completed 59.7 percent of his passes for an average of 256 yards per game with just two touchdowns to six interceptions.
“He’s one of those guys that is a great prep guy,” Chiefs’ defensive coordinator Bob Sutton explained of Rivers. “He forgets nothing. He remembers every pressure you’ve ever run on him. He’s an amazing dude. He studies the game really hard. You see him on the field, he’s got energy. He likes to jack jaw a little bit, but that’s one of the things you appreciate about him.”
The Chiefs will hope to see Dee Ford, Chris Jones, Justin Houston and company mixing it up with Rivers early and often on Thursday.
Ford currently leads all NFL edge rushers with 69 quarterback pressures this season, while Jones ranks fourth among defensive linemen with 53, per Pro Football Focus.
Both players have already established career-highs in sacks as Jones (11.5) and Ford (11.0) both rank in the Top 12 in the NFL that category—helping the Chiefs as a team rank second in the league in sacks (42.0).
They are one of only two sets of teammates (the Broncos’ Von Miller and Bradley Chubb are the other) to both be ranked inside the Top 12 in sacks.
4. Will weather play a factor?
It’s going to be cold and there’s a decent chance for rain (just under 50 percent), which if it did happen, would bring a whole new dimension to the game.
The Chiefs’ game last week against the Ravens was their first real “cold” game of the year—coming in under 40 degrees at kickoff.
And as of Wednesday afternoon, the temperature at kickoff for Thursday night is set to be 38 degrees, with a “feel” of 30.
This would be the Chargers first game of the season with a temperature under 40 degrees, so there’s that.
5. How will the depth of each team be tested?
The Chargers could be without their top two running backs on Thursday night as Melvin Gordon (knee), who has missed the last two games, is listed as “questionable,” and Austin Ekeler (neck/concussion) has already been ruled out.
Those two players combined for 14 receptions for 189 yards out of the backfield in the meeting back in Week 1, although a chunk of those yards came in the second half with the Chiefs up by a couple of possessions. But this season, they have accounted for more than 40 percent of the Chargers’ total offense.
If Gordon can’t go or is limited, the next-guy-up for the Chargers would be rookie Justin Jackson—the 2018 seventh-round pick out of Northwestern. He has carried the ball 27 times for 139 yards (5.1 ypc) with one touchdown this season, adding five receptions for 61 yards as well.
The Chiefs have already ruled out receiver Sammy Watkins, who is dealing with a foot injury, and both running back Spencer Ware and offensive lineman Cam Erving are listed as “doubtful.”
The Chiefs’ mid-season free agent pickups of offensive lineman Jeff Allen and running back Charcandrick West, who both had prior experience with the Chiefs before re-joining the team, could prove important on Thursday. Allen stepped in at left guard once Erving went down against the Ravens, and West could find his way into the mix with Damien and Darrel Williams.
It’ll also be worth watching to see if receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who signed just last week, finds his way onto the game day active roster for the Chiefs on Thursday. The coaches have praised his ability to pick things up quickly and have made repeated comments about how good of shape he’s in right now.
And the big news of the week is whether or not we’ll see the season debut of All-Pro safety Eric Berry, who has been out since training camp with a sore heel and just started practicing a couple of weeks ago. He’s officially listed as questionable.
If Berry does end up playing it’ll be a boost for the Chiefs’ defense simply for the guys up front to see one of the best in the league roaming behind them.
Either way, there’s no denying that Arrowhead Stadium is the place to be on Thursday night.