Chargers host Chiefs in matchup of early AFC West favorites
CARSON, Calif. (AP) — Division games always take on an added importance.
But when division favorites match up during the opening week of the season, the game becomes even more significant.
The Chiefs have won the AFC West the past two seasons, but come into 2018 with Patrick Mahomes taking over at quarterback. The Chargers closed last season by winning nine of their final 12 games, but are well aware that a 0-4 start is what kept them out of the postseason.
“I love the challenge. I know our players love the challenge,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “They are a good football team, so why not, right? Let’s go play and who knows what happens down the road. It’s a neat thing to start off that way.”
Kansas City has dominated the series recently, winning eight straight by an average margin of 12.4 points.
Most of the focus going into the opener has been on Mahomes, who moves into the starting job after Alex Smith was traded to Washington in the offseason. Mahomes, who was the 10th overall pick in the 2017 draft, showed off his athleticism and lively arm in last year’s regular-season finale against Denver, throwing for 284 yards in a 27-24 victory.
Mahomes’ second start will also be on the road against a division opponent, which he said is a benefit after experiencing that last season.
“We want to attack every aspect of the field. I feel like we have the weapons that we can attack short, run the ball, stretch the defense deep, we can attack the middle with the guys that we have,” Mahomes said. “We just have to make sure we keep the defense honest on every single play.”
The Chargers have scouted Mahomes’ games from Texas Tech and the preseason. There is still a share of the unknown, though, when preparing to face a new quarterback.
“You look at his decision-making and how he operates — and is he a guy that takes off on a run, can he extend plays? How does he handle different looks?” defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said. “So you go back to college. You look at his preseason games, that Denver game, any film you can get your hands on.”
While the Chiefs have had to answer questions about Mahomes, the Chargers have been reminded plenty about last year’s 0-4 start. Coach Anthony Lynn is hoping that he won’t have to do the same thing this season.
“Well, at this point I’m tired of talking about it. Hopefully I can show you on Sunday — and we’re going to find out one way or the other,” Lynn said. “That’s what makes this week so great. We get to open up with the division champs and we get to see exactly where we are as a football team — culture and everything.”
Here are other things to know as the Chargers host the Chiefs in an opener for the first time since 1992:
HAPPY HUNTING GROUNDS: Kansas City’s Kareem Hunt ran wild against the Chargers last season, averaging 163.5 rushing yards in the two games and scoring two touchdowns. Los Angeles’ run defense last season was the second-worst in the league (131.5 yards per game). Bradley said Hunt presents a challenge because of the yards after contact he can generate.
RIVERS REDUX? Chargers QB Philip Rivers threw only 10 interceptions last season, but six came against the Chiefs.
“A mishap here or there, a poor decision here or there. There’s a story to every turnover, but ultimately it’s just taking care of it,” Rivers said.
If Rivers is to lead the Chargers back to the playoffs for the first time since 2013, he needs to fix some of his past struggles against Kansas City. He hasn’t thrown for 300 yards against them since 2013, and only three of his completions against the Chiefs last season were for 25 yards or more.
DEFENSIVE STANDOUTS INJURED: Both teams are likely to be without their top defensive players. Chiefs safety Eric Berry has not practiced because of a heel injury that kept him sidelined for most of training camp. Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa did not play in the preseason after suffering a foot injury during camp.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: Chargers rookie safety Derwin James, who was the 15th overall pick in this year’s draft, draws a tough assignment in his first game against Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce. The Chargers did a good job against Kelce last season, holding him to seven receptions for 47 yards and no touchdowns.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Chargers wide receiver Mike Williams. With Chiefs corner Kendall Fuller matched up against Keenan Allen, the 6-foot-4 Williams could have a big size advantage against Steven Nelson and Orlando Scandrick. Williams is healthy for the first time in two years, when he was at Clemson, and has developed a rapport with Rivers.