Here are five keys to the game heading into the Week 15 match between the Los Angeles Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs:
1. The Arrowhead Factor – Few teams boast a homefield advantage quite like the Kansas City Chiefs. Simply put, when Arrowhead Stadium gets loud, it gets loud. With so much on the line with the two AFC West leaders facing off, the Bolts expect it to be as rowdy as it has been in a number of years. However, the team is embracing the moment. Primetime in front of the entire country with so much at stake? As Philip Rivers noted, it doesn't get much better than that:
"It's just a great place to play. It's one of the few old school NFL atmospheres that are left. It's awesome. The fans are great. They're very knowledgeable. They know what's going on out there. Shoot, it's always a heck of a challenge. We've had a lot of games there come down to the wire. As of late, we haven't won very many of them. But it's always a heck of a game."
At the same time, he was quick to weigh in on the difficulties that come along with playing at Arrowhead:
"I think it's managing the noise. Being able to communicate, whether it be changing the play with the protection or the route combinations — any adjustments that we're making, make sure we're on the same page. Something always for me in those environments, is being aware of the clock. You've got to be aware of the play clock. If you're going to make adjustments, they take a little bit longer. You've got to communicate it a little different than you do when you're at home. Not have those self-inflicted wounds. You have a third-and-6, and you false start, or you get something happen and it's 3rd -and-11, it's a whole different atmosphere when you're on the road. I think managing those things gives you a chance. All those things are before the ball snaps. Once the ball snaps, it's just about executing like always."
2. Quick Start More Important Than Ever – Nothing takes the crowd out of it by getting off to a fast start. The good news is that fast starts have been a trademark of the team's four-game winning streak. However, that's the exact opposite of what the Bolts did in their Week 3 loss to the Chiefs when Philip Rivers threw a trio of first half interceptions. Putting that in perspective, number 17 has totaled only three interceptions in the 10 games since that loss. Offensive Coordinator Ken Whisenhunt discussed earlier this week what went wrong in their earlier matchup, including the slow start:
"There were a lot of factors that went into that game. We were struggling with Joe (Barksdale) and his foot at that time and it was right before the game, Joe wasn't going, and we had a change in the offensive line. Sometimes those things are difficult when you're going against a team like Kansas City. There were a lot of us who didn't play well enough in that first game. But you go on. You move on. But, the competitor that Philip is, it wasn't just him, everybody's involved with that when things like that happen. That's probably one of the best things about this team. They rallied together. It's a pretty strong group, and we just moved forward and it was good."
3. Discipline Matters – Perhaps no team is as deceptive and multiple in what they run than the Chiefs. With so many different options and plays out of the same formation, they use the defense's aggression against them by maximizing misdirection. Thus, the Bolts must remain disciplined on defense. However, as Gus Bradley mentioned, that can often be a tough tightrope to walk:
"You can be very disciplined and they'll still get you. They just have so many weapons — on the perimeter, tight end, wide receiver, the backfield, the quarterback. There's so many weapons. I think they do an outstanding job of utilizing their personnel. (Tyreek) Hill might get in on a jet sweep. He might be in the backfield. They might send him deep. (Travis) Kelce might be playing the quarterback position. It provides a great challenge for you because of all the different positions these guys play and how they try to utilize their talent. It is going to force us to be disciplined in what we do — but not robotic. One of our prime things is, we've got to play fast. We can't let all those different things they do slow us down."
4. Hit Hunt – Kareem Hunt was a thorn in the Bolts' side back in Week 3. The rookie running back carried the rock 17 times for 172 yards, including a game-sealing 69-yard touchdown. The Bolts know they must do a better job against the punishing rusher. This time around, they have a difference maker in the ground game they lacked in Week 3 – Denzel Perryman. Known as one of the best run-stuffing linebackers in the game, Perryman is a major reason why the Chargers have made drastic improvements against the run since his return. Here is what Bradley had to say:
"He's been very good. There's a lot of trust in Denzel with our team, they know where he's going to be as far as calling the defense, setting everything up, they trust where he's going to fit on all the run schemes, and then he's an explosive player, so when he makes plays, the rest of the guys feel it. I thought he played very well on Sunday, and that was great to see."
5. Who Wins the Turnover Battle? – No team has been better at forcing turnovers of late than the Los Angeles Chargers. Since starting the year 0-4, the Bolts lead the NFL with 15 interceptions. In the last five games alone, they've picked off 11 passes including a pair of pick-sixes. However, they now face a Chiefs team who rarely turns the ball over. Alex Smith is known for being one of the best in the league when it comes to ball security, so it won't be an easy feat picking him off. Meanwhile, Rivers has struggled against the Chiefs in recent meetings, including that three-pick performance noted earlier. Number 17 weighed in on the importance of ball security when asked if he's been doing anything different the past few weeks:
"I really haven't. The numbers don't lie. Obviously, I've had a lot more turnovers the last few years than I was used to. But I think for the most part over my career, I've been above-average in taking care of the football. Last couple of more years, not as good. But as I've always said, they all come out of my hand. I'm responsible for all of them. There's a story to all of them too. Early, that's been an emphasis. It's always been an emphasis for me. We went into the year with that emphasis. Really, other than the Kansas City game, we weren't terrible early in the year. We weren't great, but we weren't terrible. And then we've been really good here in the last four games when we've been at our best. Growing up, my dad coaching to my first year in the NFL with Marty Schottenheimer here, he would say that's the biggest correlation to winning. I've heard that my whole life, is turning the ball over and getting turnovers. I think it's pretty clear that that holds up. It's always held up. In the last four weeks, we haven't turned it over, and we've gotten a bunch of them. We've won four in a row."