Crazy as it is to say, just 11 weeks into the NFL season, the Chiefs can unofficially wrap up the AFC West with a win over the Chargers on Sunday night in Inglewood, Calif.
The Chiefs, who have won three straight, enter Sunday at 7-2 and with a two-game lead over the Chargers (5-4). After those two are the Broncos (3-6) and the Raiders (2-7).
That makes the game Sunday a last stand of sorts for the Chargers, who already have lost once to Kansas City this season. A win would give the Chiefs a commanding three-game lead over the Chargers, plus the tiebreaker, with just seven games to play.
Kansas City has a remarkable 26-3 record in games played in November or later since 2019. And the Chargers are 0-3 this season against teams with a winning record. That doesn’t bode well for the Chargers.
Nor does their injury situation, with their top receivers battling injuries. Keenan Allen has played in only two games due to a left hamstring strain and Mike Williams missed the past two games with a high right ankle sprain.
Both players returned to practice this week, but on a limited basis, and are questionable. Their absence has understandably left quarterback Justin Herbert hamstrung while trying to move the offense.
Backup receivers DeAndre Carter and Joshua Palmer have flashed at times, but neither represents the deep threat both Allen and Williams can be, and most of Herbert’s passes have been limited to screens and check-downs.
“I’m hoping that it’s energizing as we, hopefully, can get some guys back,’’ Chargers head coach Brandon Staley told reporters about the possibility of getting his top two receivers back. “There has been a lot of subtraction. I’m looking forward to addition.”
Williams leads the Chargers in receiving yards (495) and is tied for second in catches (37). He, too, has historically had success against the Chiefs, having had at least six receptions and 100 or more yards three of the past four times he has faced Kansas City.
“The rest of the guys have stepped up with me and Keenan out, but it would be big for the offense if we could get back,” Williams said.
The Chargers’ issues at receiver may lead them to ask more of running back Austin Ekeler, who has six TDs in his last three games and leads all NFL running backs with 67 receptions.
Somewhat evening things out, though, is Kansas City’s similar injury issue at receiver, with Mecole Hardman and JuJu Smith-Schuster both ailing. Hardman was placed on injured reserve Thursday with an abdominal injury and Smith-Schuster has been in concussion protocol after taking a helmet-to-helmet hit last week in the win over the Jaguars. Also, Marquez Valdes-Scantling was dealing with an illness during the week.
Smith-Schuster, Hardman and Valdes-Scantling have 97 of the Chiefs’ 245 receptions. If they can’t play, the onus will be on recently acquired Kadarius Toney, rookie Skyy Moore and Justin Watson. Toney had four receptions for 57 yards and a TD against the Jaguars and figures to see his role increase.
“For me, it’s about executing the offense, finding the open guy and getting the ball out of my hands, letting those guys make plays,” Mahomes said. “We’ve seen over the year that these guys can make plays in big moments. And so, we’ll give them those chances as well as have some younger guys step up.”
The fun matchup to watch in this game will be between Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce and Chargers safety Derwin James, who in the teams’ previous meeting body-slammed Kelce near the goal line late in the third quarter.
According to NextGenStats, James has covered Kelce on 36 snaps over their six matchups since 2018 and Kelce has been targeted seven times and has only four receptions for 14 yards. Against the rest of the Chargers’ defenders over the same period, Kelce has 45 receptions for 605 yards and four TDs.
“It’s always fun playing him,’’ James said. “He knows who I am, and I know who he is.’’
A player to watch for the Chargers is linebacker Khalil Mack, who has seven sacks and has had previous success against Kansas City. He has 7.5 sacks in 10 meetings, picking up at least a half sack in six straight games.
On the other side of the ball, the Chiefs will have defensive end Frank Clark back after he served a two-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy.
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