8:20 PM EST, FOX – Line: Chiefs -3, Over/Under: 52
Week Fifteen kicks off with a seismic AFC West matchup as the surging Kansas City Chiefs look to take a major step towards securing yet another division title, as the Los Angeles Chargers attempt to sweep the season series in this return leg from SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, California. Don’t look now National Football League, but here come the Chiefs (9-4, 1st in AFC West), who after getting off to a rocky start have caught fire with six consecutive victories vaulting them back into first place within the competitive AFC West. After getting embarrassed in Super Bowl LV, Kansas City stumbled mightily out of the gate in losing four of their first seven contests, with a porous defense and an uncharacteristically turnover-prone offense contributing to their woes but have since performed a complete about-face during this recent stretch of success. So, what has changed at Arrowhead, you ask? Well, during that 3-4 start the attack couldn’t help but repeatedly shoot themselves in the foot with a whopping SEVENTEEN turnovers leading to a miserable differential of minus-10, which was by far and away the most lopsided margin in the league. As defenses continued to employ more and more two-high safety coverages to keep (All-Pro Quarterback) Patrick Mahomes (65.5%, 3,642 YDS, 6.68 NY/A, 27 TD, 12 INT, 57.3 QBR) from relentlessly bombing away downfield, the 2018 MVP accounted for eleven of those turnovers, nine of which were interceptions. Meanwhile, KC’s own defense was getting eviscerated on a weekly basis, yielding an average of 29.0 points on 404.6 total yards, including 275.7 against the pass on a generous 8.0 net yards per attempt with opposing Quarterbacks completing nearly 70.0% of their attempts (67.8%). Furthermore, they were gashed on the ground as well in giving up 128.9 yards on 4.7 yards per carry, which was a big reason that they had been so poor on third down, where (Defensive Coordinator) Steve Spagnuolo’s charges permitted a 48.7% success rate. Ironically, the greatest shift has occurred on this side of the football, with the Chiefs abruptly evolving into one of the NFL’s staunchest units seemingly overnight. Over the last six outings, Kansas City has relinquished just 10.8 points on 311.6 total yards, including 224.3 against the pass on 5.5 net yards per attempt and another 87.3 versus the run on 4.4 yards per carry. A return to health, a change in position, and the addition of a former Pro-Bowl Edge-Rusher has spurred this turnaround. (Pro-Bowl Defensive Tackle) Chris Jones (20 TKL, 6 TFL, 14 QBH, 7.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 FR, 5 PD) has shifted back into the interior of the Defensive Line where he has been a disruptive force for years now, while a healthy Frank Clark (16 TKL, 2 TFL, 15 QBH, 2.5 SK, 2 FF) coupled with the acquisition of (former Charger) Melvin Ingram (7 TKL, 1 TFL, 3 QBH, 1.0 SK, ) has given Spagnuolo a loaded front to wreak havoc in the trenches. During this recent stretch, the defense has amassed a staggering SIXTEEN turnovers, including a season high FIVE in last weekend’s 48-9 rout of the Las Vegas Raiders, while logging sixteen sacks and allowing a vastly improved 27.3% success rate on third down. To put this into perspective, this is a defense that was hit up for thirty or more points in four of their first seven games, only to turn right around and relegate the opposition to single digits in four of their last five outings. Simply put, the Chiefs are back to being a Super Bowl threat because of their defense, which must be a frightening turn of events for the rest of the NFL. On the flipside it has certainly helped that Mahomes & Co have cut down on the rash of turnovers that they were committing, for Kanas City has just six giveaways in as many games of late. It seems that (Head Coach) Andy Reid has finally convinced his young Quarterback to be more patient and take what defenses are giving him, evidenced by an attack that has appeared far more subdued; apart from a pair of outbursts against the Raiders in which they scored a combined EIGHTY-NINE points, the offense has otherwise averaged just 18.5 points per game on 310.5 total yards, including 210.7 via the pass with five turnovers. The key here though is that opposing defenses have been reluctant to get out of those deep shell coverages, with their two meetings with Las Vegas serving as the only matchups in which an opponent has employed two-deep coverage on fewer than 40.0% of their defensive snaps. As Mahomes becomes more comfortable behind a rebuilt Offensive Line that features five different starters than the one that took the field in Super Bowl LV last February, it will be interesting to see if the 26-year-old can continue to play in such a measured, disciplined manner. Of course, this rematch with the Chargers should be very telling. When they met earlier this season in a shocking 30-24 upset at Arrowhead, Mahomes & Co paid dearly for their recklessness with FOUR turnovers, including each of their first three drives of the afternoon before Mahomes was picked off deep downfield with the game tied at 24-24 and just over two minutes left to play, setting up the go-ahead touchdown for Los Angeles. In six starts against the Lightning Bolts, he has gone 4-2 with a completion percentage of 61.2% and an average of 236.2 yards per game with 6.6 net yards per attempt, thirteen touchdowns and four interceptions. Currently leading LA by one game within the division, KC has the opportunity to make that cushion two games with three left to play, along with the possibility of moving into first place in the AFC at large if both the Patriots and Titans meet defeat later this weekend. Something to keep an eye on is the fluctuation of COVID-19 cases around the NFL, and the Chiefs are certainly dealing with it as (mercurial Receiver) Josh Gordon, (young Linebacker) Willie Gay Jr. and the aforementioned Jones all entered COVID-19 protocols earlier in the week.
Meanwhile, after falling into a bit of a midseason malaise the Chargers (8-5, 2nd in AFC West) are making their case for not only a return to the postseason after a two-year absence, but also a division title for the first time since 2009. In order to do that, sweeping the season series with the Chiefs for the first time since 2013 would certainly aid their endeavor. With that said, besting Kansas City has been an elusive task for this team over the last eight years, with just three wins in their last twelve meetings. Though they got off to a torrid start in winning four of their first five outings, Los Angeles would go on to drop three of their next four contests thanks in large part to an inability to both run the football and defend it. Needless to say, the ground game was not their strong suit a year ago and under this new coaching staff helmed by (Head Coach) Brandon Staley their performance in that regard on both sides of the football has continued to be questionable at best. On the season, the Bolts have averaged just 104.9 rushing yards per game (21st Overall) on 4.4 yards per attempt (13th Overall), while yielding a very disappointing 140.7 yards against the rush (31st Overall) on 4.7 yards per carry (29th Overall). However, during that four-game stretch they could muster just 90.0 yards on the ground with their opponents trampling them to the tune of 152.0 yards at 37.3 carries per game. This of course, has led to the worst third down defense in the NFL (49.1%), rising to an untenable 50.0% during that run. Simply put, there has been blood in the water for months now and the opposition has found their point of exploitation. Then again, this is in part due to the rapid ascension of (Sophomore Quarterback) Justin Herbert (67.1%, 3,822 YDS, 6.86 NY/A, 30 TD, 11 INT, 67.5 QBR), who has grown exponentially since taking home Offensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2020; the 23-year-old has improved across the board this season, showing growth in a slew of categories including completion percentage (67.1%), yards per attempt (7.6), yards per completion (11.3), net yards per attempt (6.86), touchdown percentage (6.0%), and passer rating (100.3). Furthermore, he’s learned when to judiciously take advantage of his legs, averaging a stellar 9.1 yards when scrambling due to pressure, which is a significant leap from the 5.1 yards per scramble posted a year ago. Defenses are also pressuring him far less at 20.6% (down from 28.7% in 2020), which is another sign that they’ve recognized that they need to respect his mobility. Case in point: during last weekend’s 37-21 drubbing of the struggling New York Giants, Herbert showed just why he’s been tabbed as the league’s next superstar Quarterback, avoiding the rush to step up and launch a 59-yard missile downfield to (young Receiver) Jalen Guyton (21 REC, 376 YDS, 17.9 Y/R, 2 TD) into the end zone to take a 24-7 lead into halftime. In the end, he was 23-of-31 for 275 yards and three touchdowns as the Chargers kept pace with the Chiefs with one game continuing to separate them heading into tonight’s matchup at SoFi Stadium. At this point, the opposition has chosen to approach defending him as if he were one of the game’s elites, which means doing everything possible to keep him off the field. However, that’s become difficult to do of late now that (versatile Tailback) Austin Ekeler (219 TCH, 1,265 YDS, 5.8 Y/T, 16 TD) has returned to health, leading the league with 1,265 yards from scrimmage and sixteen total touchdowns. A natural fit for (Offensive Coordinator) Mike Lombardi’s scheme coming from New Orleans, the 26-year-old has been a matchup nightmare over this latest stretch of three wins in four games, amassing 100.6 yards from scrimmage on 5.8 yards per touch with seven total touchdowns. His presence has also helped them get back to a more balanced approach offensively, averaging a more respectable 115.5 rushing yards over the last four contests, affording Lombardi the luxury of mixing it up more often which is a major reason they’ve been so effective on third down: on the season, Los Angeles leads the NFL in third down offense at 45.2%, and of late they’ve succeeded on nearly half of their opportunities (48.0%). And that brings us to tonight’s rematch with Kansas City, whom they shocked in a 30-24 upset back in late September. Though the biggest story of this affair was Staley’s defense forcing four turnovers, it must be stated that the bended an awful lot without breaking: the visitors were gashed for 437 total yards, including 186 against the run, and only held the football for 27:29 of gametime. With that said, Herbert certainly made the most of his limited opportunities, throwing for 281 yards and a season-high four touchdowns on 26-of-38 passing, leading the Bolts to seventeen points on his final three possessions of the afternoon, wresting momentum away from Mahomes & Co with a pair of lengthy drives of their own. Trailing 17-14 with just over three minutes left in the third quarter, Herbert engineered an 11-play, 75-yard drive that took 4:56 off the clock culminating with a 20-yard touchdown toss to (veteran Receiver) Mike Williams (61 REC, 915 YDS, 15.0 Y/R, 7 TD), followed immediately by a 10-play, 69-yard drive that squared the game away at 24-24 with 2:17 left to play. While it was expected that Mahomes would steer the Chiefs downfield for a potential go-ahead field goal, he was surprisingly picked off deep down the right hashmark on third and eight, giving the Chargers the football at their own 41-yard line with 1:42 remaining. Rather than play conservatively, Herbert attacked relentlessly downfield, eventually drawing a defensive pass interference on the hosts, advancing the football to the Kansas City 20-yard line, where in just two passes to Williams hit paydirt with only thirty-two seconds to play, effectively ending the game. This was clearly a matchup that Staley and Lombardi favored, with the young Quarterback hitting the towering Wideout on seven occasions for 122 yards and two touchdowns on nine targets. Will this combination prove to be the key to victory for Los Angeles once again? Williams has been limited throughout the week of practice with a tender heel, one of a number of key Chargers to be hampered during this short turnaround; (Rookie Tackle) Rashawn Slater entered COVID-19 protocols on Monday, while (veteran Tight End) Jared Cook (Quad), (Rookie Cornerback) Asante Samuel Jr. (Concussion), (Defensive Tackle) Linval Joseph (Shoulder), (Pro-Bowl Safety) Derwin James (Hamstring) and the aforementioned Ekeler (Ankle) have all been on the mend with respective ailments.