What to watch for in Chargers vs. Chiefs on Thursday

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The final Thursday Night Football game of the season features a pair of AFC West colossuses battling for favorable playoff position in hopes of smoothing a potential gauntlet run to the Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta.

The Chiefs, propelled by wunderkind quarterback Patrick Mahomes, have already clinched a postseason berth and are eager to lock down the division title. The Chargers, led by the ageless Philip Rivers, seek to punch their playoff ticket and avenge their season-opening loss to Kansas City.

It's the first time a pair of 10-win division foes have squared off on a Thursday in more than 80 years and this one should be worth the wait. Here's what to watch for when the Los Angeles Chargers (10-3) take on the Kansas City Chiefs (11-2) at Arrowhead Stadium to kick off Week 15:

Can the Chargers contain Patrick Mahomes?


The second-year quarterback has seared through opposing defenses with merciless efficiency, tallying a league-high 4,584 passing yards and 43 touchdown passes. His reputation for performing at a high level when being chased around by defensive behemoths has become an indelible part of his success. Per Next Gen Stats, he leads the NFL with 11 TD passes when under pressure and he's only been sacked a league-best 14.5 percent of the time on pressured dropbacks.

Still, the man at the center of the NFL's most potent offense (437.5 yards per game) isn't unbeatable. During the Chiefs' last prime-time appearance in a memorable point-palooza against the Los Angeles Rams, Mahomes' only real vulnerability was the Aaron Donald strip sack.

Granted, Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram aren't Aaron Donald, but the pass-rushing duo could cause plenty of problems for Mahomes. Bosa's fighting fit after having most of his season cratered by a pesky foot injury. He has four sacks in the four games he's played in. Ingram, however, hasn't had a sack since Bosa's return -- his longest streak of the season without a QB takedown.

Bosa and Ingram should heed the advice of fellow AFC West defensive stalwart Von Miller and look for the strip sack against Mahomes. That won't be easy against an elusive, no-look pass trick artist like Mahomes, but it's a blueprint that worked for the Rams and could work for the Chargers.

Who will spearhead the Chargers' running game?


Slowing down the Mahomes-driven offensive freight train will be critical for the Chargers, but they'll likely need to score their fair share of points unless a vortex sucks this game into bizzaro world and transforms it into a low-scoring affair.

The problem is the Chargers could be without their two best running backs. Melvin Gordon (knee) is questionable and Austin Ekeler (neck, concussion) will not play.

Gordon characterized his status as a "game-time decision" for Thursday, but players have a knack for sunny prognoses.

If Gordon is inactive, the Chargers will push rookie Justin Jackson and Detrez Newsome into duty. That scenario likely means a heaping helping of passes for Rivers unless they want to see what Jackson and Newsome can do against the Chiefs' 25th-ranked run defense. Here's how much of a difference Gordon makes for the Chargers this season, per NFL Research:

With Gordon: 28.7 points per game; 407.8 total yards; 137.0 rushing yards per game, 9.5 big plays per game

Without Gordon: 26.3 PPG; 334.3 total yards; 72.3 rushing YPG; 5.0 big plays per game

Gordon is one of only six players in the league with 800 rushing yards and 400 receiving yards in 2018. That level of production can't be easily replaced.

Chiefs dealing with injuries, too


As NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport noted last week, don't expect to see Sammy Watkins on the field before January as he continues to deal with a nagging foot injury.

But what about Tyreek Hill? The pass-catching speed demon was limited in practice of heel and wrist injuries as is questionable to play Thursday. If he can't go, that would be a blow to the Chiefs offense.

Travis Kelce, the first tight end in NFL history to compile 80-plus receptions and 1,000-plus receiving yards in three consecutive seasons, would shoulder some of the extra load, but the Chiefs likely would need somebody else to stand up if Hill is out. Waiver-wire pickup Kelvin Benjamin could make his Kansas City debut but it's anyone's guess what he'd add to the Chiefs passing game after a dismal season in Buffalo.

Spencer Ware is listed as doubtful for the game. He's dealing with shoulder and hamstring injuries coming off a decent performance against the Baltimore Ravens in the first game since taking over the lead running back role.

Eric Berry, however, will play for the first time since suffering a torn Achilles tendon in Week 1 of the 2017 season, per Rapoport. He'll see limited playing time, Rapoport reported.

Can Philip Rivers repeat his Week 1 performance?


Rivers passed for 424 yards and three touchdowns (along with an interception) during the Chiefs' 38-28 season-opening victory. Despite the loss, the performance kicked off what has been the strongest season of Rivers' 15-year career.

With Rivers firmly in the conversation for NFL MVP alongside Mahomes and Saints signal-caller Drew Brees, he needs to prove he can win the big game -- and this is among the biggest he's played in his career.

Statistically, the Chiefs look like a quarterback's dream. Their 30th-ranked defense is the league's worst against the pass and they're giving up an average of 27 points per game, the most of any 11-win team in the Super Bowl era. But NFL fans are well indoctrinated into the offensive revolution that has swept over the NFL with Mahomes as its Napoleonic commandant.

If Rivers has to match Mahomes sling for sling in a no-holds-barred football arms race, his chances of leading the Chargers to victory could be compromised, especially if his running back duo is sidelined. Here's how he ranks side by side with Mahomes:

Rivers/Mahomes

Wins: 4th/T-1st

Passing YPG: 10th/1st

Passing TDs: T-4th/1st

Passer rating: 3rd/2nd

Los Angeles' eighth-ranked defense will have to play its part in slowing down the Mahomes scoring machine in order to enhance Rivers' chances of keeping ahead of the potential scoring onslaught.

Playoff scenarios for Chiefs, Chargers


Thursday's clash offers a few potential clinching scenarios for both teams.

The Chiefs can clinch the AFC West title and a first-round playoff bye with a win. A win would also keep them in the lead to secure home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs heading into the final two weeks. The Chiefs are currently the No. 1 seed in the AFC.

The Chargers would clinch their first playoff berth since 2013 with a win. They're currently the AFC's No. 5 seed and sit second behind the Chiefs in the division.

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