Here are five keys to the game heading into Week 15’s showdown between the Chargers and the Chiefs.
1. Road Warriors – Bolts. Chiefs. Primetime. A share of the AFC West on the line and a postseason berth in play. Ladies and Gentlemen, it doesn’t get much better than this! And, for that very reason, you can expect a usually raucous Arrowhead Stadium to be even rowdier Thursday night. The Chargers have already won in two of the toughest places to play, beating the Seahawks and the “12s” in Seattle and rallying past the Steelers in Pittsburgh in a Sunday night thriller for the ages. The Bolts clearly are road-tested, but Philip Rivers knows they’re in for perhaps their biggest test this week. While it will be a hard one to pass, it’s a challenge Rivers relishes:
“It's awesome. It's old school. It's old-school NFL with passionate fans, especially when they're having the success that they've had — in the four or five-year run that they've had, they've won a lot of football games. It'll be awesome. I think it's awesome. You get an opportunity to play in these games, it will be a little cool. It's definitely a challenge because you're managing noise and all kinds of things, but it's also the kind of atmosphere that you love playing.”
2. Control the Clock – The Chargers boast one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL, so you constantly see teams trying to keep Philip Rivers and company on the sideline as much as possible. Well, it’s a strategy the Bolts may need to use against Patrick Mahomes and a Chiefs offense that leads the league in points (36.1) and total offense (437.5 ypg) and ranks third in passing (318.8 ypg). Thus, it’s imperative the Chargers move the chains on third down and assert their will on the ground. They may have to do the latter without their top two backs as Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler are both nursing injuries. Nonetheless, Head Coach Anthony Lynn noted how the Baltimore Ravens limited Mahomes’ possessions a week ago, explaining how it is a philosophy the team may adapt:
“We watched all of it. Baltimore — it was a physical game and I thought Baltimore played their game and they had a chance to win it. They controlled the ball. They kept (Kansas City’s) offense on the sidelines. Sometimes your offense is your best defense. I thought they did a good job of that, but Kansas City found a way to win in the end and that's what they have been doing all season. They have been outscoring people in the fourth quarter…You can take some things from (their game plan), but we have our own defensive scheme and strategy.”
3. Limit but Don’t Break – It’s no secret that the Bolts are proud of their bend but don’t break defense. Well, this week, it’ll be limit but don’t break. Let’s be honest – it’s likely that the Chiefs will have some chunk plays Thursday night as they lead the league in that category, aided mostly by Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. The key is to limit how many they author. However, after they have an explosive play, it’s critical to quickly rebound and hold them to field goals instead of touchdowns. Overall, it’s Mahomes’ ability to extend plays that are key to KC’s explosive offense, and Defensive Coordinator Gus Bradley outlined what makes the second-year QB so effective:
“He's unique in his ability to extend plays and his arm strength. I think they incorporate the routes based on his arm strength and they feel like you know what, we are going to have very good protection, so some of the routes the break point is at 10 but this team is at 17. Everything is just a little bit deeper. I think that's the challenge for our defense. To understand that this is not some of the normal things that we see from week-in and week-out, and because of his ability to extend the play, some of those shots turn out not to be 20-yard gains, but a touchdown. I think that's what unique about them — they are very challenging offensively.”
4. The Eric Berry Factor – Eric Berry is one of the top safeties in the game…but he hasn’t suited up in well over a year. In fact, the last time Berry took the field was Week 1 of the 2017 season against the New England Patriots. Unfortunately, he suffered an Achilles injury that night and missed the rest of the year. He was primed to return to start this season, but a heel injury suffered late in the summer has kept him sidelined. That is, until now. While it’s not official, all signs out of Kansas City point toward Berry making his long-awaited return Thursday night. Thus, not only will the Bolts have to face off against one of the league’s elite safeties, they also must combat the emotional lift his return gives the entire team. Rivers has had countless battles with Berry over the years, and he opened up about what it’s like to go up against him:
"He's a heck of a player. Obviously, he hasn't played since Week 1 of last year, I guess. He's an awesome player. Just an awesome football player. He's a heck of a tackler in the run game and can cover you and a lot of ground in the passing game. I don't think it changes our approach (if he plays). It can't from how we go into the game, but he certainly would be a guy that we would know if he was out there. You know where he is. He's that kind of player."
5. Embrace the Moment – As noted in the first key, this is the type of game players dream about as children. The Chargers have embraced big moments all year long, whether it’s a trip across the pond to London or a Sunday night showdown vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers. Well, this is another moment to cherish as the team can clinch a playoff berth in dramatic fashion. The key is to stay loose, something this team has managed to do in high pressure situations. It’s a quality not every team possesses, and one Rivers believes has helped the Bolts all year long:
“I think you embrace it. I think you should be excited about it. These are the games, these are the ones that you dream about when you're little. These are the ones that you talk about in the offseason — having a chance to play and keep your division champ hopes alive and get you a spot in the postseason. These are the games that you want to be in, and we find ourselves in them. It has been a long time, but I think you acknowledge that and you're excited, but then you just have to go play. We don't need more this week than we've had any other week. Just play the way we play and find a W.”