After missing the playoffs last season, the Los Angeles Chargers can point to a game in December that would have changed everything: a showdown against the Kansas City Chiefs.
At the time, the Chiefs held a one-game lead over the Chargers in the AFC West. A Los Angeles win would have given them control of the division via a season sweep by quarterback Patrick Mahomes, head coach Andy Reid and company. They took a 14-13 lead into the fourth quarter and held a 28-21 lead with 2:19 to play.
That’s when Mahomes reminded everyone why he’s a perennial favorite for MVP. He went 75 yards in just over a minute, including a standout 32-yard run that left the Chargers’ defense on their heels. Thus, the game was tied; the Chiefs ended up winning the toss and marched to victory in overtime, 34-28, similar to how they shocked the Bills in an AFC Divisional Playoff game a month later.
Now both teams are battling for control of the division once again, this time on “Thursday Night Football” after starting the season 1-0.
The Chiefs came out swinging to start 2022, a 44-21 thrashing of the Arizona Cardinals in which Mahomes threw three touchdown passes in his first three possessions. He finished Week 1 leading the league in virtually every major passing category: yards (360), touchdowns (5) and passer rating (144.2).
Herbert and the Chargers faced a stiffer test, avenging another late-season opponent, the Raiders, who ended their postseason chances. However, the 24-19 game remained in doubt until Khalil Mack stripped David Carr in the Raiders’ final series.
Mack had a phenomenal debut with the Chargers, recording three catches, four hits on the quarterback and a forced fumble. But can the linebacker and his defensive unit penetrate a Chiefs offensive line that didn’t allow a single catch in Week 1?
They’ll try to repeat that performance at Arrowhead Stadium when the Chargers face one of the best home-field advantages in the NFL. In fact, two of the Chiefs’ four losses there in the past two seasons have come at the hands of the Chargers.
Can L.A. come in and give them a third?
Time and Channel Chiefs vs Chargers
Kickoff: Thursday, September 15 at 5:15 p.m. PT / 8:15 p.m. ET in the United States. 7:15 p.m. in Mexico.
TV: Amazon Prime Video (available on TV in local markets) in the United States. Fox Sports in Mexico.
Streaming: fuboTV (only available in KC and LA markets).
Spread: Chiefs -3.5
Three things to watch
1.- What can Mahomes do, will he be at 100 percent?
Since that Chargers game in December, it’s as if Mahomes has flipped a switch. With the notable exception of the AFC Championship Game, his last eight games (including the postseason) have been on fire: 26 touchdowns, four interceptions and a 71.3 percent pass completion rate. He’s also been the team’s leading rusher during that span, racking up 233 yards and a touchdown. Take out his game against the Cincinnati Bengals and those numbers become even more impressive.
The trend line is clear: all the problems Mahomes had early in 2021 (a struggle that included two interceptions in a Chargers loss at home) have been fixed. When he’s on his game, he’s unstoppable, and Week 1 proved that the Chief’s offense is still running on all cylinders despite the loss of Tyreek Hill in the offseason.
Indeed, there is no shortage of weapons. Free agent addition and Hill replacement Juju Smith-Schuster was a perfect fit in the lineup, catching six passes for 79 yards. Running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire produced 74 total yards and two receiving touchdowns. Ten different Chiefs players caught passes, one more than Herbert’s nine during a game in which he was handling injuries within the Chargers offense (more on that in a minute).
Perhaps the only question about Mahomes’ performance Thursday night is his left wrist. He fell on it during the first quarter against the Chargers, but tests revealed no major damage, and he would have participated fully in Monday’s practice. “I’ll be sore from Thursday’s game,” Mahomes acknowledged during a radio interview this week. “But I’ll be fine.”
Keep in mind that the injury is to Mahomes’ non-throwing arm and he held his own in the game, racking up 44 points against an NFC playoff team last year. So while you can expect Mack and the Chargers (who recorded six catches and three interceptions) to knock him around more than the Cardinals did last week, it’s unlikely that even aggravating that wrist will slow him down much.
Can the Chargers stop Travis Kelce?
We’ve gone this far and haven’t even mentioned the Chiefs’ most important weapon – Travis Kelce. Just look here if you’re concerned about how a revamped Chargers defense can slow down Kansas City. Kelce was unstoppable the last time these two teams played, racking up 191 yards, 10 receptions and a career-high two touchdowns.
Now the Chiefs’ top weapon, Kelce is starting this season nearly as strong: 10 receptions, 121 yards and a touchdown against the Cardinals. That was easily the most receiving yards by an NFL tight end in Week 1 and the seventh most in the league overall.
“He’s so slippery with his routes, it’s hard to even imagine,” Mahomes said of Kelce after the Chargers game in December. “His shoulders are starting to sway and I think that’s why he’s dancing. He’s running and it looks like he’s running slow, but he’s moving fast.”
Take one more look at the game-winning route in December and you’ll see the challenge the Chargers defense has in store. They also are without corner J.C. Jackson, still recovering from ankle surgery and a DNP on the team’s first injury report.
How will Justin Herbert run the offense, and who will be available to throw?
Speaking of injuries, Herbert took a big hit to his offense with top target Keenan Allen also on Monday’s DNP list. Allen hurt his hamstring against the Raiders and said after the game there is only a “small” chance he will be ready to play Thursday night.
Herbert was able to persevere without his primary target against the Raiders: in fact, his 129.4 passer rating ranks second only to Mahomes after Week 1. And he has experienced incredible success at Arrowhead so far in his career: seven touchdown passes, no interceptions and two wins in his first two starts.
However, the task becomes more difficult without Allen because it allows opposing defenses to focus on the Chargers’ other top target, Mike Williams. Williams had just two receptions for 10 yards Sunday, neither until the fourth quarter, as Herbert also distributed the ball to his offense. The problem was that it wasn’t as effective: the team scored just seven points in the second half with Allen in the locker room.
“I think a great thing we do,” Herbert said after the game, “is we can move guys around and play multiple positions. We had some receivers step up.”
That list included DeAndre Carter and Gerald Everett, combining for 118 yards and two touchdowns in Week 1. Neither is a standout name, but both will need standout games for the second straight week for the Chargers to compete.
Kansas City Chiefs vs. Los Angeles Chargers LIVE
The Chargers will come to Arrowhead looking for revenge; their defense will be beefed up and is clearly boosted by the presence of Mack, which will make life easier for All-Pro Joey Bosa and Derwin James Jr. They are expected to penetrate the Chiefs offensive line multiple times. They’ll keep it close.
But the Chiefs have pace and are more talented on the offensive side of the ball. Justin Herbert may be a great quarterback in the making, but he’ll get a reminder Thursday night of the benchmark Mahomes has set for him to get there.
Prediction: Chiefs 31, Chargers 27