By the time this game begins (4:25 p.m. EST), we’ll likely know whether it will have huge playoff implications, or be utterly meaningless to the Chargers. You see, San Diego needs both Miami and Baltimore to lose in order to remain alive in the playoff hunt, and both play in the early wave of games. If those two lose, then San Diego would be in with a win.
For the Chiefs, this game is nothing more than a tune-up and a “don’t get injured” week. Kansas City has the fifth seed locked up regardless of what happens on Sunday, and they will surely rest some key starters. Who will rest, and how much? Kansas City has remained pretty tight-lipped on that subject, but we can still speculate based on history and who’s banged up. Either way, both teams will have to fight through another ridiculously harsh San Diego winter with temperatures ranging from the low to high 70s. Here are some keys areas to focus on when watching this game.
Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead vs. Kansas City’s Defense
San Diego’s running back tandem has played an integral role in their offensive success. Lately, Ryan Mathews has served as the type of workhorse back that the Chargers hoped he would be when they drafted him. Over the past three weeks, Mathews has 83 carries for 329 yards and three TDs. He hasn’t done anything that truly stands out in terms of forcing missed tackles or picking up yards after contact, but he has carried a huge workload without fumbling or getting injured. His recent reliability has allowed the Chargers to chew up a ton of clock and seal three consecutive victories. That could be a tall task against Kansas City’s defensive front, as all three of Dontari Poe, Mike DeVito, and Tyson Jackson have run defense grades of +14.5 or better.
Danny Woodhead continues to play the quintessential third down back role for the Chargers and he seems to have finally filled the void left by Darren Sproles. Woodhead has now caught 69-of-76 targets on the season, good for a catch percentage of 90.8. Coming in with eight total TDs, the shifty Woodhead is already a tough cover for starting DB’s and LB’s, but if he gets to face a second-team defense, he’ll be that much more dangerous. For the Chiefs, Derrick Johnson currently holds the highest coverage grade of all inside linebackers at +10.5, but he’s also in his ninth year in the league and could very well be rested for much or all of the game. Any replacement will have their hands full (or maybe empty) trying to track down Woodhead.
Knile Davis vs. San Diego’s Defense
If there’s one player that we can pretty much count on getting extended rest, it’s Jamaal Charles. He’s having an extraordinary year, he means so much to the team, and plays a position with an especially high risk of injury. Therefore, rookie third-rounder Knile Davis should get an extended look as the team’s lead running back. Coming into the draft, the big knock on Davis was his injury history, but he has never been short on talent. Davis is big, fast, can catch the ball out of the backfield, and also return kicks. Including nine kickoff returns, he’s touched the ball 62 times on the season and has three TDs, but also three fumbles. He’ll be trying to earn some extra playoff snaps by making a big impact in this game.
In order to stop Davis, San Diego needs another performance like they had against the Raiders last week, in which they graded +5.5 against the run as a team. Now with Melvin Ingram back, the Chargers have potentially solid run stoppers at both OLB positions (Jarret Johnson being the other). Unfortunately, both starting inside linebackers and defensive ends have struggled mightily against the run this year. Can they shore up this area with a playoff spot on the line? One thing they’ll need to do is get as many players to the football as possible. When facing a running back who has fumbled once every 20.7 touches, it becomes that much more important to attack the ball aggressively and capitalize off of poor ball security.
Andy Reid vs. His Own Starters
When it really comes down to it, this could be one of the largest factors in the outcome of this game. Key veterans such as Alex Smith, Jamaal Charles, Branden Albert, Tamba Hali, Justin Houston, and Derrick Johnson are all prime candidates for extra rest and some injury risk avoidance. Dwayne Bowe also just appeared on the injury list with a concussion, making him almost a sure gameday inactive. The starting defensive backfield has some key players who have played very high snap counts this season. We could see some of them rested or rotated more often than usual. It will be interesting to see which players end up on the inactive list, as Reid has been relatively secretive of that information, and perhaps hasn’t even made decisions on everyone as of yet. Regardless, it’s clear that some key Chiefs players will remain on the bench for much to all of the game, making this matchup extremely favorable for the Chargers. Now they just need Miami and Baltimore to lose first so that they can have a shot at pulling off an improbable playoff run.
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