The Los Angeles Chargers haven’t played a meaningful game in December for a long time. The red-hot Chargers will head into Arrowhead Stadium to face the Kansas City Chiefs in a matchup that will likely decide the AFC West.
Despite starting the season 0-4, the Bolts have come storming back and are now right in the middle of the playoff picture. The Chiefs, on the other hand, have won only two games since October.
By no means should Kansas City be taken lightly. The reigning AFC West champs still have a plethora of weapons on offense and a strong coaching staff that will throw everything but the kitchen sink at Los Angeles.
Defensively, the Chargers need to contain KC’s skill position players. Tyreek Hill and Kareem Hunt can change the tide of a game in a single play. On offense, Philip Rivers needs to keep the momentum going. The future Hall of Famer has been nothing short of spectacular of late and could be in for a big game against a suspect Kansas City defense.
Here are the five keys to success for the Los Angeles Chargers.
End the Red Zone Woes
For weeks, the Los Angeles Chargers have fallen flat in the red zone. In their last two contests, the Bolts have been inside the red zone 10 times. They scored a touchdown only three times. That’s not going to cut it against KC.Settling for field goals allowed the Cleveland Browns to hang around a few weeks ago. If the Chargers offense is grooving like it has recently, effective red zone trips could end this game quickly.
Head coach Anthony Lynn and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt need to find a way to get the ball in the end zone. It doesn’t matter if that means feeding Melvin Gordon more or throwing the ball to Hunter Henry as much as possible. The Chargers need to find a way to get six points. Period.
Contain Alex Smith
Although he is a threat to run the ball, Smith has reverted to his old habits of late. He hasn’t taken any chances deep and typically looks for his check down as soon as he feels any pressure. If he check down isn’t there, he is quick to take off and make a defense pay.
It will be up to the interior defensive linemen to keep Smith in the pocket so he can’t hurt the Bolts on the ground. Last week, Corey Liuget, Brandon Mebane, Darius Philon, and company did a fantastic job at applying interior pressure.
If they can repeat last week’s performance, Smith won’t be able to bail out of the pocket as easily. Especially with the edge rush combination of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram closing in.
In past contests, Smith has performed fairly well against the Chargers. He has two rushing touchdowns dating back to last season. Smith has also thrown for an average of 260 yards per game and six touchdowns in his last three appearances against LA.
Rivers Breaking Poor Trend vs. KC
Over the past few seasons, Rivers has struggled against the Chiefs. Earlier this season, Rivers completed only 50 percent of his passes and threw three interceptions against Kansas City.
Since 2014, Rivers has turned the ball over in every game but one when he’s facing the Chiefs. Something has got to give because Rivers hasn’t committed a turnover in four straight games. In what has been a tough matchup for him in recent meetings, Rivers needs to take care of the ball against an aggressive Chiefs defense.
Effective Running Game
Despite having a pair of talented backs, the Chargers rank 24th in the NFL in rushing (1293).
Melvin Gordon hasn’t broken out like many predicted with Lynn calling the shots. However, Austin Ekeler has been an unlikely hero for Los Angeles this season. The undrafted rookie has emerged as one of the most productive weapons for the Chargers.
Ekeler was barely on the field when these teams first faced off back in September, so he may be a different look that the Chiefs may not be completely ready for. He has become a great receiving target for Rivers and although it may be a small sample size, Ekeler is averaging 5.5 yards per carry.
During the win streak, the Chargers have not had a 100-yard rusher. Gordon has come just shy a handful of times, but if Los Angeles can impose their will early on, it will give Rivers and his weapons even more room to create big plays.
Avoid the Big Play
Smith may not take many chances, but his receivers usually take advantage when he does.
Hill is one of the fastest players in the league and if he gets behind the Chargers secondary, it’s almost a guarantee that play will be going to for six. There is also Travis Kelce to worry about. The big tight end was held to only one catch in his last game against Los Angeles. Kelce will have extra motivation to play at his best Saturday night.
Kelce and Hill aren’t the only weapons Smith has at his disposal. Hunt exploded onto the scene earlier in the year and was immediately thrust into Rookie of the Year conversation. Hunt is extremely elusive and makes avoiding tackles look easy. Hunt is also a threat out of the backfield as a receiver. The Chargers will have to surround him immediately because he is unstoppable in the open field.
Protect Philip Rivers
This almost goes without saying.
Although, last week both Russell Okung and Joe Barksdale had their hands full with Ryan Kerrigan last week. The veteran pass rusher nearly got to Rivers a handful of times but didn’t register a sack.
Now Justin Houston will get his chance to get to Rivers. Houston has 9.5 sacks on the year and continues to be one of the NFL’s best edge rushers. Okung and Barksdale have held their own for most of the season, but seeing how they performed last week is worrisome.