Here are five keys to the game heading into Sunday's season opener between the Los Angeles Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs:
1. Protect the Rock – Philip Rivers threw just 10 interceptions all of last season. However, six of those came against the Kansas City Chiefs, accounting for 60 percent of his entire total. Meanwhile, Rivers threw 28 touchdown passes in 2017, but only one came against KC. The Bolts owned the number one passing offense, yet for some reason, the Chiefs proved to be Rivers' kryptonite. There are so many factors that go into getting a win, but number 17 stressed how important protecting the rock is against Kansas City considering his struggles a year ago:
"It starts with taking care of the ball. I think that's the biggest thing from my standpoint is six interceptions against these guys in the two games last year, and (I) only had four in in the other 14. It's always important. The game against Kansas City got away from us, but the game at home we had two turnovers in the first half and it still was a one-score game in the fourth quarter. So, protecting the football is key, as it always is, and go out and execute. I think our team is focused and excited about getting off to a good start."
2. Rattle Pat – The Pat Mahomes era officially gets underway Sunday afternoon at ROKIT Field at StubHub Center. This isn't his first start as he got the nod in the Chiefs' season finale a year ago against the Denver Broncos. Still, there's a big difference between what the team knew was a meaningless game a year ago and taking over the reins for good to kick off a new year. Thus, the Bolts will look to rattle him early and often with their top-notch pass rush and opportunistic secondary. That won't be easy considering Mahomes owns a cannon arm and nimble feet, which allows him to either buy time in the pocket or take off scrambling. Overall, Defensive Coordinator Gus Bradley made it clear that the Chargers have a ton of respect for the Chiefs' new starting QB:
"The quarterback, he has a chance to be really good. I think if you look at the history of (Chiefs Head) Coach (Andy) Reid's offenses, the quarterbacks have really thrived in (them). His system fits (Mahomes') skillset very well. Like I said, we're looking forward to the opportunity."
Head Coach Anthony Lynn echoed those sentiments, explaining how he's kept track of Mahomes for years being as they both hail from Texas Tech:
"He went to my alma mater. I've seen him play for a lot of years. I know he's very talented. Strong arm. He can move around and so they didn't show everything they're going to do in the preseason so who knows. That's why we have to be more focused on ourselves this week, make sure that we're sound, we're disciplined. Our techniques are tight because you don't know what they're going to do."
3. Contain the Cheetah – Perhaps no one has a more fitting nickname in the NFL than Tyreek Hill, who is referred to simply as "Cheetah" as arguably the league's fastest player. An absolute blur, the wide receiver has the ability to take it to the house at a moment's notice. A Pro Bowler each of his first two seasons, Hill dominated a year ago, catching 75 passes for 1,183 yards and seven touchdowns. It's nearly impossible to keep up with him, meaning the best way to mitigate Hill's speed is to keep Mahomes under duress. If not, Bradley knows his team must be wary of where the speedster is at all times with his ability to break a big one every time he touches the ball:
"It's like a punt returner (with his speed) every time he touches the ball because when he has a chance to operate in space, he's very dangerous. He can take the top off the defense. There are so many ways that he can attack you. They try to give him the ball as much as possible in those situations. So, you have to have great awareness (of) where he is."
4. Grind it with Gordon – Melvin Gordon is fresh off the Chargers' first 1,000-yard rushing campaign since 2013. The Wisconsin product hasn't just improved year-over-year; he's managed to take monumental leaps forward each season. After earning his first Pro Bowl nod in 2016 for his prowess on the ground, Gordon proved to be a lethal weapon as a receiver as well. In fact, his 1,581 total yards of offense was the fifth-most in the NFL a year ago. Thus, it should come as no surprise that keeping Gordon in check has been a major point of emphasis for the Chiefs all week. To that end, their defensive coordinator, Bob Sutton, couldn't help but rave about the running back:
"(Gordon's) a player that's really improved over the years. He's a legit dude. He runs hard. He can cut. He can pop out on you. He really has the ability to break out either to the outside or cut it back inside. Not all backs can do that, but he's done a really good job."
5. Corral Kareem – Kansas City running back Kareem Hunt won the league's rushing title as a rookie in 2017. While he was a thorn in many teams' sides, he tormented the Bolts more than any other as his two biggest games on the ground came against the Chargers. The first came in Week 3 when he carried the ball 24 times for 155 yards (6.5 ypc) while the second was in the Chiefs' Week 15 win when he had 17 carries for 172 yards (10.1 ypc). Stopping the run has been a major point of emphasis all offseason long for the Chargers, and they'll be tested on the ground in a major way right out of the gate. Bradley outlined the many ways Hunt can wreck a game:
"He's challenging because he can, in tight quarters, make plays. The way their system operates, he has a lot of opportunity to have some runs in the open field, and that's where it's challenging with some of these RPOs that they're doing. So he's a very talented back, but it is a challenge because the weapons they have on the perimeter (complement him) and his style of run. We have to have a plan as far as tackling for him. He's a guy that (is) one of the top running backs in the league for yards after contact. He's strong, fast and he has the ability – we saw it last year where he can break it at any time."