KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The San Diego Chargers have had Kansas City’s number recently, but that could change on Sunday when the Chargers try to get their first AFC West win here in the bitter cold at Arrowhead Stadium.
While Kansas City is favored against San Diego, the Chargers have won nine of the last 11 meetings, and since 2004 are 5-4 at Arrowhead. The Chiefs are 1-7 in their last eight divisional games, with four of their six remaining against AFC West foes.
“You see them flying around and high-fiving and I’m just like, ‘Wow,’” San Diego TE Antonio Gates said. “Those are the same guys, but their confidence is just totally different now.”
Led by Andy Reid, the Chiefs are a different team this season. They sit atop the AFC West with Denver tied at 9-1. According to ESPN Stats & Information, with a victory on Sunday Kansas City will become the third team in NFL history to win at least 10 games the season after losing at least 14 games, along with the 2008 Dolphins and 2012 Colts.
“His standards are very high,” longtime Kansas City linebacker Derrick Johnson said this week. “As soon as he stepped foot here, it was straight business. He treats everybody like men. That’s one of the things we like about him the most. He expects us to get the job done. And he gives us that freedom to do that. So far we’ve been doing OK.”
Here are five keys for the 4-6 Chargers, as they try to stay in the AFC postseason conversation with a win over the Chiefs.
Run to win: This season, Ryan Mathews has been the every-down running back the Chargers hoped for when the team selected him in the first round of the 2010 draft. Mathews rushed for 127 yards last week, the second-highest total of his career. He has three games with at least 100 rushing yards this season, which according to ESPN Stats & Information is tied for 2nd in the NFL behind Philadelphia’s LeSean McCoy (four). With San Diego running predominantly three-receiver sets, the Chargers could see a lot of five and six defensive backs from Kansas City’s defense. San Diego has to keep the Chiefs honest when they only have six defenders in the box by running Mathews.
Win the turnover battle: Kansas City leads the NFL with a turnover differential of plus-15, including a league-low nine giveaways. The Chiefs had a league-worst minus-24 turnover differential last season. So the Chargers will have to do a good job of taking care of the football, and improve on the team’s NFL-low seven turnovers forced this season.
Protect Rivers: The Chiefs have just one sack in their last three games. Per Stats & Info, Kansas City’s opponents had an average dropback rate of 3.81 seconds in the first two games. That changed to 2.55 seconds in the last two games. With a patched together offensive line, the Chargers will have to focus on the quick passing game to keep Philip Rivers upright. Rivers has been sacked at least three times in back-to-back games after being sacked no more than twice in his first eight games this year. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Rivers was pressured on a season-high 14 dropbacks against the Dolphins last week.
Create some explosive plays: The Chargers have been one of the best offenses in the league in methodically moving the ball down field on long drives. But that will be tough to do against a Kansas City defense that has held opponents to a league-best 27.2 conversation rate on third down. So the Chargers need to create some explosive plays to get the ball into scoring position. One way is to use more three-tight end sets, and try to create a mismatch in the passing game with Gates and Ladarius Green.
Tackle: It’s a given that if they do not tackle better defensively, the Chargers will not win. Defensively, the Chargers cannot let Alex Smith get loose and keep drives alive with scrambles on third down. And in the passing game, San Diego cannot allow big yards after the catch. San Diego faces a Kansas City offense that has just 28 plays of 20 or more yards in the passing game, tied for 22nd in the league.