8:25 PM EST, NFL Network – Line: Chargers -1, Over/Under: 46.5
The AFC West could very well be decided tonight, as bitter rivals traveling in very different directions meet as the struggling Kansas City Chiefs host the red-hot Los Angeles Chargers at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri for a rare Saturday Night Matchup. Everyone is searching for momentum heading into December, and you would be hard-pressed to find a team with more of that precious commodity than the Chargers (7-6, T-1st in AFC West), who after a dismal 0-4 start to the campaign have rounded into form winning seven out of their last nine outings, including each of their last four games. Plain and simple, this was a team that was left for dead after their poor start, with only one team in the history of the league having ever qualified for the Playoffs after an 0-4 beginning to the term, which was ironically this same franchise, which did so all the way back in 1992 en route to an 11-5 finish. Perhaps it’s that symmetry that gives them hope that they can in fact return to the Postseason for the first time since 2013, for in Anthony Lynn’s first season in charge they’ve gotten better as the year has progressed. During Los Angeles’ current Four-Game Winning Streak, they’ve absolutely dismantled their competition, outscoring the likes of the Buffalo Bills, Dallas Cowboys, Cleveland Browns, and most recently the Washington Redskins by a combined 131-53, or in other words an average of 19.5 points per Game. Philip Rivers (62.8%, 277.8 Y/G, 7.37 NY/A, 23 TD, 7 INT) has looked revitalized after leading the league in Interceptions thrown for the second time in three years, experiencing a statistical spike across the board, which can be traced to the one benefit that he hasn’t received in a handful of years: quality protection. Simply put, after years of porous Offensive Lines headlined by turn-style Linemen marred by injuries, the 36-Year Old has remained largely clean, posting the lowest Sack Percentage of his 14-Year Career (3.1%), and also the lowest in the NFL thus far. Consider this: Rivers has been sacked an average of 37.0 times per season dating back to 2010, but has only eaten dirt Fifteen times in 2017, which would put him on pace to set a new career-low for the veteran Quarterback. Though he’s long been one of the most prolific passers in the league, he hasn’t always been the most efficient, but that’s all changed with a new Coaching Staff and a healthier Supporting Cast around him. The healthy return of Keenan Allen (83 REC, 1,143 YDS, 5 TD) has certainly helped improve matters, after the Pro Bowl Receiver missed virtually the entirety of the 2016 campaign with a torn ACL suffered in the Season Opener. And then there is the Defense, which has quietly evolved into something of a juggernaut over the last two months. Arguably Lynn’s biggest acquisition was hiring former Jaguars’ Head Coach Gus Bradley to coordinate this unit, which is flush with young talent after a pair of very successful Draft Classes. With the Regular Season nearly in the books, the Chargers have allowed just 17.3 Points (2nd Overall) on 325.1 Total Yards (10th Overall), including 200.3 Yards against the Pass (3rd Overall) on 5.5 Net Yards per Attempt (2nd Overall). Pressure has been the key here, folks, for Los Angeles has amassed a healthy Thirty-Seven Sacks (5th Overall), parlaying into Twenty-Two Turnovers (6th Overall), which has given Lynn’s charges a stellar Plus-22 and Plus-11 Differential in those respective categories, ultimately defining their run of success. Furthermore, only one team has been stingier in the Red Zone, where the Chargers have relinquished a Touchdown on a scant 37.9% of their opponents’ attempts (2nd Overall). Joey Bosa (57 TKL, 11.5 SK, 1 PD, 4 FF) and Melvin Ingram (46 TKL, 9.0 SK, 1 FF, 2 FR) have been absolute terrors rushing off the Edge, while Tre Boston (63 TKL, 4 INT, 7 PD) and Casey Hayward (35 TKL, 4 INT, 19 PD, 1 FR) have been bonafide ballhawks roaming the Secondary. These guys will likely be relishing the opportunity for another shot at Kansas City, who ran all over them in an earlier 24-10 defeat back on September 24th; the visiting Chiefs rolled up 189 Yards on the ground on that day, despite needing just Twenty-Five Carries to do it, while the Defense harassed Rivers into his worst performance of the season, sacking him twice and intercepting him three times. Over the course of his career, Rivers has faced tonight’s opponent twenty-four times, earning a 13-11 record, completing 62.3% of his Attempts for an average of 246.1 Yards per Game on 7.49 Yards per Attempt, with Thirty-Two Touchdowns in comparison to Twenty-Eight Interceptions, the most he’s thrown against any other team. If the Chargers do in fact escape Arrowhead Stadium with a victory, which they haven’t done since 2013, one would have to favor their chances of winning the AFC West with games against the struggling New York Jets and Oakland Raiders left on the schedule. With all that said, they haven’t beaten Kansas City, regardless of the venue, since that aforementioned meeting at Arrowhead, losing seven consecutive meetings to their division brethren.
Meanwhile, what the hell has happened to the Chiefs (7-6, T-1st in AFC West)? After racing out to a scorching 5-0 start that had many in NFL Circles proclaiming them as the early favorites to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LII, Andy Reid’s charges have largely crumbled in the following weeks, losing six of their last eight games heading into tonight’s pivotal matchup with Los Angeles. The suddenly explosive, prolific Offense that had put the league on notice in the early stages of the campaign has apparently vanished as quickly as it had arrived, replaced by the all-too familiar cautious, dink-and-dunk approach that has earned them near-universal criticism over the previous three seasons. In this case, the numbers don’t lie, folks; in their seven victories, they’ve averaged a very productive 31.3 Points on 393.6 Total Yards, while benefitting from a healthy Plus-11 Turnover Differential, but in their six losses have managed to score just 18.3 Points on 345.3 Total Yards, with a negative Turnover Differential of Minus-4. Further inspection will reveal that the biggest difference between these two outcomes has been the vast disparity in terms of rushing success, or more particularly the play of Offensive Rookie of the Year Candidate Kareem Hunt (260 Touches, 1,435 Total YDS, 7 TD). The Third-Round Pick in April’s NFL Draft began his professional career delivering an offensive onslaught that hasn’t been seen from a Rookie Tailback in ages, averaging 121.8 Rushing Yards on 6.3 Yards per Carry (not to mention 155.0 All-Purpose Yards) throughout that five-game winning streak, but whether due to fatigue or injury, has struggled to maintain such lofty success, averaging just 54.6 Rushing Yards on 3.6 Yards per Carry (82.5 All-Purpose Yards) in the eight games since. The Chiefs, as a result have trampled the opposition on 146.6 Rushing Yards in their seven wins, only to gain a meager 81.8 Yards in their five defeats. Basically, everything they want do offensively is predicated on their ability to run the ball successfully, and if that doesn’t happen, then Alex Smith (67.2%, 269.8 Y/G, 7.06 NY/A, 23 TD, 5 INT), Travis Kelce (73 REC, 945 YDS, 7 TD), and Tyreek Hill (64 REC, 986 YDS, 6 TD) won’t be able to produce any of those big plays that have highlighted so many of their wins this season. This has also had a major effect on their efficiency in the Red Zone, where they’ve found it more and more difficult to hit paydirt, scoring a Touchdown on a disappointing 44.4% of their opportunities in that area of the field (28th Overall). Success on the ground also provides the benefit of rest for a Defense that despite starting the year off strong, has succumbed to attrition in the passing months; though he’s just one man, the loss of All-Pro Safety Eric Berry cannot be overstated, for since he ruptured his Achilles Tendon back in the Season Opener, Reid’s Defense has been in gradual decline. Only four teams have been gashed for more Total Yards than Kansas City, who has relinquished 373.3 (28th Overall), with opponents shredding them through the air on 248.5 Passing Yards (28th Overall) on 6.6 Net Yards per Attempt (24th Overall), while steamrolling them for another 124.8 Rushing Yards (30th Overall) on 4.3 Yards per Carry (26th Overall). Furthermore, they haven’t been able to get the requisite pressure on opposing Quarterbacks, managing just Twenty-Four Sacks (27th Overall), which has made it very difficult for them to get off the field on Third Down, stopping opponents just 42.0% of the time (25th Overall). Granted, a wealth of Turnovers helped mask these deficiencies earlier in the season, but with that proverbial well having dried up, this unit’s weaknesses have been on full display. And with all that said, there is still time left to right the ship yet, for a win tonight, coupled with favorable matchups against the Miami Dolphins and Denver Broncos, would certainly seal the deal on the Chiefs’ second consecutive AFC West Title. After all, since Reid and Smith arrived in Kansas City back in 2014, they haven’t lost to the Chargers, winning seven consecutive meetings by an average margin of 11.7 Points per Game. Furthermore, as we touched upon earlier, their previous meeting in 2017 was an utterly one-sided contest, as Smith (16-of-21, 155 YDS, 2 TD) and Co. made a living on big plays, kicking things off with a 30-Yard Touchdown Pass to the aforementioned Hill (5 REC, 77 YDS, 1 TD), before Hunt (17 CAR, 172 YDS, 1 TD) wrapped things up with a 69-Yard Touchdown Run. Over the course of his career, Smith has been extremely successful against San Diego/Los Angeles, owning a 6-3 record in nine meetings, completing 70.1% of his Passes for an average of 236.6 Yards on 7.82 Yards per Attempt, with Thirteen Touchdowns and Six Interceptions, while rushing for another 150 Yards and Two Scores on Thirty-Three Carries.