The Rams and Saints might be the NFL’s best, but the league’s most compelling regular season storyline is the battle between the Chiefs and Chargers in the AFC West. The winner is in position to grab the #1 seed and be just two home wins from the Super Bowl. The runner-up is staring at three tough road games on the way to Atlanta on Feburary 3.
Patrick Mahomes has cooled off somewhat after his blazing start. The Chiefs’ quarterback still makes big plays and his 67% completion rate is nothing to sneer at. But in this day and age of high-efficiency passing games, Mahomes is just outside the top 10 in completion percentage. And his interceptions are slowly rising.
Kansas City can always turn to two of the steadiest playmakers in the game. Kareem Hunt is fourth in the NFL in rushing, in spite of running behind an offensive line that is bad for the second straight year. Hunt is also an excellent pass-catcher. Then you mix in Travis Kelce, arguably the league’s best tight end and you have the formula for moving the chains.
The Chiefs defense is interesting. There are no obvious weak points and Bob Sutton’s unit is better than it was a year ago, when they underperformed much of the season and then blew a two-touchdown lead to the Titans in the playoffs. This year’s Kansas City D is a little soft up the middle and the secondary isn’t great. But it’s functionable.
That’s going to put the onus on the edge rushers to be difference-makers. We’re looking at Dee Ford and Chris Jones, both outstanding in the 3-4 scheme .If they’re getting to the quarterback, the secondary is good enough to hold coverage just that long. If there’s no pressure, the secondary isn’t good enough to avoid being lit up.
The Chargers bring a defense that’s exceptionally disciplined to the table—yes, a descriptive term not often applied to this organization over the years. But there are simply no weaknesses and the Bolts are at their best at the “leadership spots”, like middle linebacker Hayes Pullard.
Los Angeles’ offensive line is decent. No one will ever confuse them with the early 1990s Dallas Cowboys, but at least the Chargers front five is no longer the utter sieve it had been in recent years. That’s enabled Melvin Gordon to really emerge in the backfield, as he averages better than five yards a pop and has turned into a nice receiver.
Philip Rivers is 37 and joins Drew Brees—whom he once competed with for a job before then-Charger GM opted for Rivers and traded Brees—as old quarterbacks having a magical year. Rivers has moved at least to the outskirts of the MVP conversation in spite of lacking depth at receiver.
If LAC comes up short, it will be because the defense doesn’t have enough difference-makers. Their discipline and balance is a credit to coordinator Gus Bradley, but come January, you need a pass rusher or defensive back that can make game-altering plays. Melvin Ingram has that kind of talent, but hasn’t really unleashed yet this season.
Kansas City has the edge in this division race. They’re 9-1, with Los Angeles at 7-2. The Chiefs also got a head-to-head win at LA to open the season. Right now, the Chargers are trying to keep pace and set up a big Thursday night battle at Arrowhead Stadium on December 13.