It’s now or never for the Los Angeles Chargers.
Only three AFC teams finished with more victories than the Chargers in 2022, but through six weeks of games in 2023, Los Angeles owns a 2-3 record with more wins than only two AFC teams.
The Chargers had the conference’s top wild card in last season’s playoffs, but they have serious work to do if they have any hope of returning to the postseason.
After a 20-17 home loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football, our prediction model pegs Los Angeles’ chances of making the playoffs at 25.5% – fourth lowest of all AFC teams – and another defeat in Week 7 would be catastrophic to its odds of reaching the postseason.
Since the playoffs expanded to 14 teams in 2020, there have been 19 instances of teams starting the season 2-4, and only four of them have made the playoffs – a 21.1% chance.
A loss this week would also drop the Chargers’ record to 1-3 within the conference, further decreasing their likelihood of playing beyond Week 18.
A win, meanwhile, gets Los Angeles back to .500, and since 2020, teams that started 3-3 have made the playoffs 34.8% of the time (eight out of 23 instances). Last season alone, six of the 10 teams to start 3-3 made the playoffs.
Playoff Percentages After Six Games – Since 2020
- Teams to start 2-4 (21.1%/4 of 19)
- Teams to start 3-3 (34.8%/8 of 23)
So, it’s relatively straightforward for the Chargers – win this week to give yourself a fighting chance of contending for the Lombardi Trophy. All you got to do is (checks the schedule) beat the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium (on CBS).
Just to clarify, we said it was a straightforward path to the playoffs. We didn’t say it was easy.
Sportsbooks have tabbed the Chiefs as around a 2.5-point favorite and our Chargers-Chiefs prediction points to the hosts as the straight-up best bets, with a 55.0% win probability. But our model likes the Chargers to keep it close with a final score projection of 24-23.
With all that’s at stake in this matchup of division rivals, our SmartRatings has calculated a score of 69 for this game – the second-highest excitement rating for any game this weekend behind the Miami Dolphins-Philadelphia Eagles showdown.
While the underdog Chargers are on a short NFL week after playing Monday, the Chiefs should be well-rested having been off since their 19-8 win over the Denver Broncos on Thursday Night Football.
That victory marked their fifth in a row, improving their record to 5-1. According to our projection model, they have an 89.5% chance of making the playoffs and a 78.9% chance of winning an eighth consecutive AFC West crown – the highest probability of winning a division among all AFC teams.
While Kansas City finds itself in the familiar position atop the AFC West, the 2023 edition looks different than previous versions.
Aside from a 41-point outburst against an overmatched Chicago Bears team in Week 3, the Chiefs haven’t looked like their normal explosive selves, as Patrick Mahomes and the offense haven’t quite found their footing.
The Chiefs have scored 20 or fewer points three times – the same number of games all of last season – and have managed just a single touchdown in two contests. They scored at least two offensive TDs in all 17 games in 2022.
Amazingly, though, (and with big thanks to kicker Harrison Butker) Kansas City has a higher scoring efficiency this season compared to last year. The Chiefs have finished 29 of their 62 drives with points for a scoring rate of 46.8% – just a bit better than last year when they were at 46.4%.
The big difference from last season, though, is not as many drives are ending with touchdowns. After leading the league in drives ending with TDs in 2022 at 33.0%, the Chiefs are sixth in TD efficiency this season at 24.2% (15 TDs on 62 drives) – a slightly lower rate than the Chargers, who rank fifth at 27.8% (15 TDs on 54 drives).
While the offense is going through what Mahomes referred to as “growing pains” following the win over the Broncos (in which the Chiefs scored one TD on 10 drives, excluding a kneel down on their final possession), the defense has stepped up.
Kansas City is allowing successful plays 35.9% of the time – the sixth-best rate in the NFL – and only the San Francisco 49ers are allowing fewer points (14.5 per game) than the Chiefs at 14.7. Kansas City is allowing just 24.6% of opponent drives to end with points after permitting points on 35.9% of opponent drives in 2022.
Opponent Scoring Efficiency – 2023
- Cleveland Browns (18.8%)
- Kansas City Chiefs (24.6%)
- Buffalo Bills (26.6%)
- Dallas Cowboys (27.3%)
- Jacksonville Jaguars (27.5%)
Kansas City has already held two teams to single digits – something it didn’t do once in 2022 – but now faces a Chargers team that has scored in double digits in 33 straight games.
That’s tied with the Chiefs for the second-longest active streak in the NFL behind the 49ers at 66 consecutive games.
KC Key: Pressure Justin Herbert
Kansas City’s defensive success starts up front with its pass rush.
Since Chris Jones ended his holdout and signed a one-year contract with the Chiefs prior to Week 2, the Chiefs are tied for eighth in the NFL with 16 sacks.
The All-Pro defensive tackle is responsible for 5.5 of them and his adjusted sack rate of 8.4 is the best among interior defensive linemen with at least 50 pass rushes.
Adjusted Sack Rate Leaders (Interior Defensive Linemen; Min. 50 Rushes)
- 1. Chris Jones, Kansas City Chiefs (8.4%)
- 2. Quinton Jefferson, New York Jets (6.5%)
- 3. Devonte Wyatt, Green Bay Packers (5.9%)
- 4. Christian Wilkins, Miami Dolphins (6.3%)
- 5. Ed Oliver, Buffalo Bills (6.3%)
With a sack of Russell Wilson late in the first half last week, Jones extended his streak of consecutive games with a sack to eight dating back to last season.
Defensive end George Karlaftis is blossoming into a star in his own right in his second season in the league. He has a team-best 26 QB pressures to go with 2.5 sacks and is routinely putting pressure on the quarterback. His hurry rate of 17.3% ranks third among edge rushers with a minimum of 60 pass rushes. He also ranks above average in pressure rate (17.2) and adjusted sack rate (5.7).
Karlaftis, Jones and the rest of the defensive front are now about to get a boost with pass rusher Charles Omenihu available.
Omenihu was suspended for the first six games for violating the league’s personal conduct policy and is now slated to make his Kansas City debut. The Chiefs signed him to a two-year, $16 million contract last offseason to bolster their pass rush even though it was expected a suspension was looming.
In 17 games last season for the 49ers, Omenihu recorded a career-high 4.5 sacks and 56 QB pressures. His pressure rate of 17.7 graded out above the league average of 15.8 by edge rushers in 2022.
His arrival gives the Chargers one more thing to worry about in protecting Herbert.
Much of the pressure Kansas City puts on opposing quarterbacks comes from its heavy use of the blitz – KC’s blitz rate of 39.1% is fourth highest in the NFL – and Herbert was rattled by the Dallas blitz in Monday’s loss.
Coming off a bye in Week 5, Herbert was playing in his first game since fracturing a finger on his left hand in the Chargers’ 24-17 win over the Las Vegas Raiders on Oct. 1. The injury to his non-throwing hand wasn’t expected to affect him, and he said after the loss it didn’t play a factor, but he lacked the normal touch on his passes.
Herbert entered Week 6 ranking third in passer rating (106.3), fourth in completion percentage (71.0) and sixth in average passing yards (276.5) but was undone by the Dallas defense – and possibly his finger. He completed 59.5% of his 37 passes for 227 yards with two touchdowns and an interception for a QB rating of 84.0.
He was only sacked once – on Los Angeles’ penultimate play, one play before he threw an interception to Stephon Gilmore with 1:22 remaining – but he was knocked down a season-high eight times and threw under pressure 18 times. He was off target with his throws much of the night, registering a well-thrown percentage of 67.6 and a pickable pass rate of 5.41 after coming into the game with marks of 77.7 and 3.60, respectively.
Keenan Allen has totaled 10 catches for 117 yards, albeit with two touchdowns, in two games since his 18-catch, 215-yard performance against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 3.
When these teams last met in Week 11 of the 2022 season, Austin Ekeler had 83 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries but Herbert took five sacks, including three on the final two possessions, in a game Los Angeles would lose 30-27 – its third straight defeat in this series.
LA Key: Make Mahomes Uncomfortable
If Herbert is flustered by Kansas City’s defense and is off the mark again, Los Angeles’ chances of pulling out a win will hinge on generating pressure from its defense.
Putting pressure on Mahomes, however, is easier said than done.
Mahomes has only been sacked six times on 224 pass plays to register the lowest sack rate in the NFL at 2.6%, and typically when he is pressured, he uses his feet to escape and extend a play to find an open receiver down the field.
In only one game this season has Mahomes been pressured on more than half of his drop backs, and that would be the one game this season the Chiefs lost.
In the opener against the Detroit Lions, Mahomes was pressured 21 times – six more times than any other game – and finished with season lows in completion percentage (53.8) and yards per attempt (5.79) while throwing for 226 yards in a 21-20 loss.
Kansas City had a pressure-allowed rate of 50.0% in the opener, but since that game, it has the league’s fifth-lowest pressure-allowed rate at 30.7%. It’s been a nice stretch for the offensive line, but over that same span, the Chargers have registered the NFL’s best sack rate at 12.8%.
While Khalil Mack and Joey Bosa are the driving force behind Los Angeles’ pass rush, the Chiefs also must keep an eye on where Morgan Fox is lined up.
Fox sacked Dak Prescott twice on Monday for his fourth consecutive game with a sack to give him 5.0 on the season. His six QB knockdowns are second most on the Chargers – one behind Mack.
Mack had his seventh sack of the season Monday, while defensive tackles Sebastian Joseph-Day and Nick Williams also took down Prescott once.
Bosa returned against the Cowboys after missing Los Angeles’ previous game because of a toe injury, and though he didn’t sack Prescott, he did record a team-high three hurries. Despite missing one game, Bosa leads the Charges with 15 QB hurries – one more than Mack.
Mack didn’t record his first sack of the season until his 6.0-sack performance in Week 4, but his ability to put pressure on the quarterback all season has allowed his teammates to get the sack. His adjusted sack rate of 5.9 is 16th among edge rushers with a minimum of 60 pass rushes.
If Bosa, Mack and Fox can’t put pressure on Mahomes, that could spell certain doom for the Chargers.
While Mahomes is adept at scrambling and making plays while under pressure, he’s also just as likely to beat you by picking apart an opposing secondary – especially one as subpar as the Chargers’.
On his 154 throws while not being pressured, Mahomes has a well-thrown rate of 89.0% – second in the NFL among qualifying QBs. He threw for a season-high 306 yards his last time out and now faces a defense that is allowing successful pass plays 42.7% of the time – the sixth-worst rate in the NFL.
Although Los Angeles sacked Prescott five times, the Cowboys were still able to move the ball down the field through the air with ease against a shaky Chargers secondary as the Dallas QB passed for 272 yards and a season-high 9.07 yards per attempt after averaging 6.63 yards per pass in his first five games.
Los Angeles ranks 31st in opponent yards per pass attempt (8.79), 32nd in opponent passing yards per game (289.0) and has surrendered 21 plays of more than 20 passing yards – tied for the most in the NFL along with the Chicago Bears, who have played one more game.
Cornerbacks Asante Samuel Jr., Michael Davis and Ja’Sir Taylor have combined for one interception, while Taylor has the sixth-worst open-allowed percentage among the 58 corners that have been targeted at least 24 times.
The beleaguered secondary now has to deal with Mahomes, who has no problem just taking what the defense gives him. If Rashee Rice or Kadarius Toney isn’t open, Mahomes won’t force it and will happily throw to Travis Kelce as Kansas City dinks-and-dunks its way down the field.
Last season, Mahomes typically went with his first read and rarely threw the ball to someone who the play wasn’t designed for, as he threw to a checkdown receiver only 7.5% of the time – the sixth-lowest rate among the 35 quarterbacks with at least 175 pass attempts. This year, however, he has progressed to the checkdown receiver 10.7% of the time – 10th highest among the 33 QBs with at least 75 throws.
Kelce has been on the receiving end of 20 passes of fewer than 10 yards and is receiving the pass an average of 5.8 yards from the line of scrimmage, a bit below his average of 6.5 yards at catch last season.
As a result of the short passes, it shouldn’t be a surprise the Chiefs are still successfully moving the ball down the field but they’re not reeling off that big play like we’ve been accustomed to seeing. Their 85 plays of 10 or more yards are second most in the NFL, but their 21 plays of 20+ yards are tied for 15th.
In 2022, they led the league in plays of at least 20 yards with 83.
Plays of 10+ Yards – 2023
- 1. Miami Dolphins (107)
- 2. Kansas City Chiefs (85)
- 3. San Francisco 49ers (83)
- T-4. Atlanta Falcons (82)
- T-4. Detroit Lions (82)
Mahomes now turns his attention to the Chargers, whom he’s beaten in seven of nine all-time matchups. He’s thrown at least one touchdown pass in all nine games (21 TDs in total) to tie Tom Brady for the second-longest streak of games with at least one TD pass against the Chargers, trailing just Peyton Manning’s streak of 13 games.
Although the defending Super Bowl champs have won the last three meetings, both games last season were decided by a field goal. Close losses are something the Chargers know all too well, as all their defeats this season have been decided by three or fewer points.
For Los Angeles to keep things close again – and get a win – it needs a huge showing from its defense to pester Mahomes and disrupt the passing game.
If Mahomes is able to settle in and Kansas City’s offense finds its rhythm, it could be a long afternoon for the Chargers – and essentially end any hope of returning to the playoffs.