The Kansas City Chiefs already punched their ticket into the postseason, while the San Diego Chargers cling to a sliver of hope that they can sneak into the playoffs.
The two AFC West rivals meet at Qualcomm Stadium in the final regular-season game with different things at stake.
At 11-4, staying healthy will be the key task for Kansas City. The Chiefs are locked into the No. 5 seed in the AFC playoffs, and likely will use the game as a tune-up for the postseason, resting key players and getting younger guys some playing time.
Sitting at 8-7, competing for a chance to play another week is the goal for the Chargers. They need a win over Kansas City and losses from Baltimore and Miami to make the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
ESPN.com Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher and Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams take a closer look the matchup:
Teicher: Eric, the Chargers have really improved on defense since playing against the Chiefs last month, allowing an average of 16 points over the four games. Where have the Chargers made the improvements that have made the difference?
Williams: The Chargers finally are healthy on that side of the ball. Outside linebackers Jarret Johnson (hand) and Melvin Ingram (knee) played together for the first time this season against the New York Giants three weeks ago. And defensive coordinator John Pagano replaced a struggling Derek Cox at cornerback with eight-year veteran Richard Marshall a week earlier against Cincinnati. The infusion of more talented veteran players created more cohesion and better communication, resulting in more consistent defensive play. San Diego also is doing a better job of creating turnovers. The Chargers have forced eight turnovers in the past four games, leading to 30 points on offense. San Diego created just nine turnovers in the first 11 games. Lastly, the Chargers are getting off of the field on third down, with a 31 percent third-down efficiency rate (13-of-42) over the past four games.
After a 9-0 start, the Chiefs have lost four of their past six games by an average margin of nine points a contest. What are the reasons for Kansas City’s recent slide?
Teicher: They’ve been playing better opponents, mainly. Of those four losses, three have come against teams already in the playoffs (Denver twice and Indianapolis). The other is against a team that could get into the postseason (Chargers). Those opponents all have Pro Bowl-quality quarterbacks. Meanwhile, Kansas City’s two wins in this stretch have come against struggling teams with struggling quarterbacks (Washington and Oakland). The Chiefs look worn out defensively. They were relentless in getting after the opposing quarterback over the first half of the season, but their pass rush has largely disappeared other than a big game against Washington. They also have tackled poorly over the past few games. The Chiefs had been scoring points in bunches, muting the effect of their defensive collapse. But even that ended last Sunday when they scored just seven points against the Colts.
The Chargers can still make the playoffs but could be eliminated before kickoff on Sunday. How would they handle the Chiefs game if indeed either the Ravens or Dolphins win their respective games?
Williams: Both head coach Mike McCoy and quarterback Philip Rivers emphasized the importance of finishing 9-7 versus 8-8. Rivers called it playing with character, while McCoy has emphasized the one-game-at-time approach all season. For McCoy, finishing above .500 in his first year as part of the rebuilding effort with general manager Tom Telesco would be viewed as a success. The players and coaches will have the games on in the locker room as they prepare for the Chiefs, so San Diego should know where it stands before game time. But the Chargers maintain whether they have a chance to make the playoffs or not will not have an impact on their approach to the game.
Kansas City running back Jamaal Charles is having an MVP-type season. Along with his 1,287 rushing yards, Charles has career highs in total touchdowns (19), receptions (70) and receiving yards (693). How have Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Doug Pederson effectively gotten Charles involved in the passing game?
Teicher: They’re playing to his strength, which is his ability to play in the open field. The Chiefs have done a nice job of using personnel groupings and formations to get Charles matched up on a linebacker. The Chiefs, of course, go to Charles every time when that happens. It took some time before they got the timing down, but the Chiefs also are using Charles more effectively of late with screen passes. He scored three touchdowns in a recent game against the Oakland Raiders on screen passes, and a fourth when the Chiefs got him matched up against a linebacker.
Whether or not the Chargers make the playoffs this year, do you see them as contenders in the AFC West next season? What are some of the necessary steps they must take to get there?
Williams: Good question. With Rivers, the Chargers have a quarterback in place to compete for an AFC West title. But San Diego needs to improve the talent on both sides of the ball. Specifically on offense, the Chargers could use an explosive receiver who can stretch the field on the perimeter, and competition at both guard spots. On defense, San Diego must add a cornerback, pass-rusher and run-stuffer inside. The Chargers also could use a kick returner/punt returner. Even if they don’t make the playoffs, one thing McCoy accomplished in his first season is establishing an identity and consistent blueprint for winning each week, which the organization can build on in 2014.
The Chiefs are locked in as the No. 5 seed in the AFC playoffs, but they could travel to New England, Cincinnati or Indianapolis depending on what happens on Sunday. What team is the best matchup for the Chiefs, and will they rest players with nothing on the line this weekend?
Teicher: As far as resting some key players on Sunday, that looks likely, at least to an extent. Most likely the Chiefs will start the game with most or all of their key players in the lineup and then at some point send some of them to the bench. Quarterback Alex Smith and Charles are among the players you shouldn’t expect to see much of. As far as the best wild-card round playoff matchup for the Chiefs, I think it’s the Colts, believe it or not. Indianapolis dominated the Chiefs 23-7 at Arrowhead Stadium last week, but I still believe the Chiefs have a better chance of winning at Indianapolis than either New England or Cincinnati. The Chiefs were minus-4 in turnovers against the Colts and allowed a couple of big plays, one on a busted coverage and the other when they missed three tackles.