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'Thursday Night Football' preview: What to watch for in Chiefs-Chargers

Kansas City Chiefs
2021 · 9-4-0

Three days after Monday Night Football served up a prolific Week 14 NFC showdown between the Los Angeles Rams and Arizona Cardinals, Thursday Night Football offers the AFC’s marquee game of Week 15. The Kansas City Chiefs visit the Los Angeles Chargers in a matchup of top offenses, both averaging 27 points per game (tied for eighth in the NFL). It comes with high stakes, as the Chiefs (9-4) hold a slim one-game lead over the Chargers (8-5) in the AFC West. After losing three of their first five games, the Chiefs have won six in a row and are poised to become the conference’s first 10-win team. The Chargers, meanwhile, opened the season hot, but are just 4-4 since Week 6. Are they a division-title contender, or a wild-card contender? This game will go a long way toward answering that question.

Here are four things to watch for when the Chargers play host to the Chiefs on Thursday night:

1. This matchup starts with the quarterbacks. Two of the NFL’s best young passers duel in Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and Los Angeles second-year star Justin Herbert. Mahomes’ improvisational wizardry when working outside the pocket can fill a highlight reel. Herbert wows more from inside the pocket, but the two have remarkably similar numbers. Herbert has completed 338 of 504 passes; Mahomes 329 of 502. Both are nearing 4,000 yards and are within one interception of one another (Mahomes 12, Herbert 11). Different styles, similar results. If pass protection holds up on both sides, a thrilling air show is in the offing.

2. Major mismatch on third down. The Chiefs bring the best third-down offense in the NFL to SoFi Stadium, converting 52.2%, and strangely enough, they’re even better on the road (57.6%). That bodes poorly for Los Angeles, which will counter with the league’s worst third-down defense (49.1%). The Chargers' run defense has been pushed around this season (ranked 31st), and it’s especially ugly on third-and-short: They’ve yielded first downs on 23 of 29 running plays on third-and-3 or less. Keeping Kansas City in third-and-longs is easier said than done, but the Los Angeles defense figures to struggle mightily if it can’t.

3. Chiefs up, Kelce down. As the Chiefs began the season at 3-4, star tight end Travis Kelce was an offensive focal point, averaging 9.3 targets, 6.4 catches and 76.1 yards per game with four touchdowns. Over Kansas City’s current six-game win streak, however, he’s down from those totals: 7.3 targets, 4.7 catches and 57 yards per game with just one score. The team’s defensive improvement has as much to do with the win streak as anything, so there’s one explanation. But against Herbert and Co., this might not be the night to ask the Chiefs D to carry the load. If it’s a shootout, a big night from Kelce might be imperative. His matchup with Chargers star safety Derwin James, who is enjoying his first healthy season since his All-Pro rookie year but is questionable to play with a hamstring issue, will be among the most exciting head-to-head battles on the field.

4. Chargers shuffling up front; are the Chiefs next? The rash of COVID-19 cases in the NFL has impacted two of the top linemen in the game: Los Angeles rookie left tackle Rashawn Slater, and Kansas City defensive lineman Chris Jones. Slater was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Monday, and will miss a start for the first time this season at left tackle, yielding to backup Trey Pipkins. Jones was designated for the COVID list on Tuesday, and his status for the game remains unclear. He’s been among the NFL’s best interior defensive linemen this season, notching seven sacks and 14 QB hits while seeing action both inside and outside. If he also can’t play, it will be as big a blow to Kansas City’s defensive line as the Chargers’ loss of Slater on the offensive side.

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