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Final Thoughts: All Eyes on AFC West Race Ahead of Week 7


The Chargers are hitting the road for a pivotal AFC West matchup against the Chiefs.

Kickoff between the division rivals is set for 1:25 p.m. (CT) from Arrowhead Stadium.

Here are five final thoughts ahead of Week 7:

1. Watching the AFC West

It's not even Halloween yet, but all eyes are on the AFC West race.

Ask any team what their first objective is each season and the answer will always be the same: winning their division.

With the Chargers sitting at 2-3 and the Chiefs at 5-1 ahead of Sunday, the Bolts know that a road win helps keep their division title hopes afloat.

A loss, meanwhile, means the Chargers might have to pivot toward focusing on contending for a Wild Card playoff spot.

In other words, 3-3 against 5-2 feels much more manageable that 2-4 against 6-1.

"I think that's a good way of looking at it. We have so much respect for them, as a team," Justin Herbert said of the Chiefs, who have won seven straight division crowns. "We understand the great things that they've been able to accomplish over the past few years.

"That's the ultimate goal in the NFL, to be able to win games and be able to be consistent like that. It's always a great opportunity, kind of like we mentioned earlier," Herbert said. "This is a team that we're going up against that requires all of our attention. We have to have a good week of practice and preparation. We have to be dialed-in all week to have any shot on Sunday."

Chargers Head Coach Brandon Staley added: "We have the ultimate respect for this team, but you got to make it about your team. You can't make it about Kansas City. It has to be about the Chargers and how we play and how we prepare and, ultimately, how we perform. That's how you go nose-to-nose with the best people in the league."

And it's not that the Bolts haven't gone nose-to-nose with the Chiefs of late. In fact, five of the past six games have been decided by six points or less.

The Bolts have been right there.

In Week 2 of 2020, the Chargers led 20-17 in the final seconds at home before losing in overtime.

In 2021, the Bolts were winning 28-21 inside two minutes at home in Week 15 and ended up with a six-point loss.

And then there were a pair of 3-point losses in 2022 when the Chargers led 17-7 at halftime in Week 2 and were up 27-23 in the final minutes in Week 11.

"Man, the Chiefs, it's always an exciting game," Austin Ekeler said. "I love playing them at their stadium and love playing them at our stadium because it's always a good energy. It's back and forth, two good teams going head-to-head so that's what you expect, right?

"Obviously, we're not trying to make it close but this is the NFL," Ekeler added. "They have good players, we have good players. When you get this matchup, it's going to be like that."

Perhaps no team has consistently played the Chiefs as close as the Chargers of late, and players are ready to flip the end-of-game script this time around.

"When you've got a lead, you've got to maintain it," Morgan Fox said. "I think that's kind of like the obvious answer, but just making sure we do our jobs for four quarters, don't take our foot off the gas.

"Just because we're up by a couple points, you can't ever be comfortable when you're facing that team," Fox added. "It's making sure that everybody does their job, does what they're supposed to do for four quarters and don't get tired of doing it."

Kenneth Murray, Jr. added: "It's going to be close. You just have to harp on the little details and be locked in on every play. We could be good for 65 plays. But on that 66th play, if we're not good, that could be the determining factor."

The Chargers enter Week 7 at a crucial juncture in their season. Let's see what they have in store on Sunday.

"Especially after a tough loss, you have to respond the right way," Staley said. "I think the way that you do that is staying consistent in your approach and being committed to how you do things.

"This is going to be a different week because it's a shorter week, but in terms of the approach of how we attack a plan and what's needed to be our best for Sunday, that has to stay the same," Staley added. "What you have to focus on are the keys to winning. What ultimately is going to impact winning on Sunday? That's where our full focus has to be right now. From now until kickoff, just focusing on the things that are going to help us win."

Khalil Mack added: "It's another game we have to win."

2. Containing Mahomes

One reason for the Chiefs ability to squeak out those close games mentioned above?

Patrick Mahomes.

The two-time NFL MVP and two-time Super Bowl MVP likely stands atop the league as the NFL's best player.

But it's not the routine plays that helps Mahomes and Kansas City win games. It's the off-schedule plays where things break down as Mahomes finds some magic.

"That's how he plays. He's talented, very instinctive, can hear the rush, can feel the rush, can smell the rush," said Chargers Defensive Coordinator Derrick Ansley. "He knows where everybody is on the field at all times. A really good field commander.

"We've seen him do just about everything that he can with the ball, unorthodox — from the platform, outside of the pocket," Ansley added. "We have to do a really good job of staying connected on the back end, having respect for our pass-rush lanes and integrity in the box, and try to keep him in the pocket as much as we can."

Murray, who will face Mahomes for the sixth time added: "His creativity. Him getting out of the pocket and just creating. It's going to be on us sticking to our plan and keeping him in the pocket. But it boils back down to his creativity … that's when he becomes extremely dangerous. Limit the run game and then keep him in the pocket."

The Chargers pass rush has been impactful so far this season, as the team's 21.0 sacks are tied for the third-most in the league.

And while sacks are nice against Mahomes, the real measure of success will be to try and rattle him — all while keeping him inside the pocket.

The quarterback ranks third in the NFL this season with an EPA per play of 0.223 outside of the pocket.

"He's stamping himself as one of the greats to play this game," Mack said. "You see what his resumé has been in a short amount of time. Great respect level I have for him in what he's been able to do for that team.

"It's just his ability to improvise outside of the pocket. He can make the deep throws down the field," Mack added. "He can throw the ball over his head, throw the ball behind his back … he's out there playing free, almost playing backyard football."

3. Get off the field

On paper, the third-down battle between the Chargers defense and Chiefs offense looks appealing.

The Bolts are tied for fourth in third-down defense at 33.33 percent while Kansas City's offense is third in third-down percentage at 48.15 percent.

But the Chargers know their third-down defense can be better, especially in terms of penalties and especially in crunch time.

"If you're looking at our defense, we're coming out there and playing hard," Derwin James, Jr. said. "We just have to finish. Those third-and-longs are killing us.

"The penalties, I can clean that up. We just have to get off the field on the third-and-long," James added. "I like the way that we play. We just have to finish what we're doing."

Ansley added: "There's room for improvement. We've done some good stuff. Obviously, we've assisted some things, from our perspective, with the offense and with penalties, just being not clean."

It's tough enough to beat the Chiefs on any given Sunday, especially when they are at home.

But giving them extra chances and free points due to penalties won't help matters, either.

"We can't continue to assist drives, we have to close the door," Ansley said. "We're rushing the passer pretty well and we're covering pretty well in some spots. We just have to eliminate the things that we can control and play cleaner. We have to coach cleaner. We have to watch it closely at practice. I'll tell you one thing, nobody is going out there trying to foul, I can tell you that right now. But, the fact of the matter is that we have, and we have to take that out. We're responsible for that."

Murray added: "It's important for us to get off the field. We've had a couple critical ones and haven't gotten off the field. Just focusing on that and getting the ball back to Justin."

Check out the best photos from the Chargers Thursday practice at Hoag Performance Center

4. Marlowe in line for another start

The Bolts safety room continues to be hit hard.

James is questionable with an ankle injury he suffered Thursday in practice while usual starter Alohi Gilman won't play with a heel issue.

JT Woods, the Chargers third safety, is currently on the Non-Football Illness List. Raheem Layne, a depth safety and star on special teams, is out for the year with a torn ACL.

That leaves Dean Marlowe along with AJ Finley and Jaylinn Hawkins on the roster, the latter of whom the Chargers added on Wednesday.

Expect the Bolts to lean on Marlowe, who has made 20 career starts, including the past two games against the Raiders and Cowboys.

"The first couple weeks I got here, I'm always preparing like I'm about to start, even though I was signed to the practice squad to kind of get acclimated and things like that," Marlowe said. "Coaches have done a really good job trying to get me right. DJ is always saying, 'Hey, if you ever need anything I'm here to help you'. Same with Alohi. They've done a great job just helping me out if I needed anything."

Marlowe later added: "They're two smart guys. Alohi is very, very smart and DJ is very smart, too. I feel like a lot of guys in our room are smart, so me just asking questions whether it's a rookie, Year 5, Year 6, everybody has a good grasp of what we're doing on defense. So, if I have any questions they don't hesitate to help me at all."

Staley said it will be an all-hands-on-deck approach against Travis Kelce and the Chiefs.

"AJ will be a part of it, Jaylinn, as well," Staley said. "We've got to keep developing those guys."

Staley later added: "You have to defend Travis with your whole team ... it's not going to be one person. We'll have to make adjustments if [Derwin] can't go."

5. Davis providing a spark

Derius Davis is close to breaking one.

The Chargers rookie punt returner has tallied 122 yards on 10 total returns so far in 2023, including six returns of 10-plus yards.

"I feel like I've just been making the most of my opportunities," said Davis, who also has a pair of 20-plus yard returns.

One of those was a 26-yard burst Monday against Dallas that helped set up an opening-drive touchdown.

"I never want to fair catch, I'm always trying to return," Davis said. "That mentality just going into the game, we got the momentum [on Monday], our defense got the stop. I just went out there and had so much confidence in myself and my blockers. We just went out there, made a play, offense came in, got that spark and the rest is history."

Davis' 12.2 return average ranks eighth among players with at least eight punt returns so far.

"It's unique for a rookie returner to come in and handle both duties," Chargers Special Teams Coordinator Ryan Ficken said of Davis, who also handles kickoffs. "He's done a great job of coming in and becoming a football player and becoming a professional.

"But it's more of the situational stuff. We know there's going to be some growing pains at times," Ficken added. "He's done a great job with his film study and practice habits out here. Just understanding and being patient with his returners and understanding his blockers are going to do a great job."

The Chiefs rank 17th in the league by giving up an average of 9.3 yards per punt return.

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