The Chargers’ season, of course, has been circling the drain for a while, but there is no reason to expect them to deviate from their typical allotment of snaps, while they have a players’ coach in Anthony Lynn whom they should continue playing hard for; this team has been wrecked by injuries on the offensive line and on defense, and by aging quarterback play by Philip Rivers, but they are still a “quality” opponent. The Chiefs need a win and a Patriots loss to secure a valuable first-round bye — so while the Patriots are unlikely to lose to the Dolphins, we should still expect full effort from Kansas City, with the only likely risk being players taking a seat deep into the fourth quarter if the Pats have their game in hand (which would likely require the Chiefs to have their game in hand as well).
The Matchup ::
- The Chargers defense ranks sixth in yards per game and 12th in points per game, but only 21st in DVOA; the key? — the Chargers are allowing the second fewest plays per game, and have also allowed the fifth fewest pass plays of 20+ yards, which is forcing opponents to move up the field slowly, and has led to the Chargers facing the fewest opponent drives (9.71 per game — compared to the league’s last-place team in Carolina: 12.14 opponent drives per game)
- The Chiefs have allowed the ninth fewest opponent drives per game, at 10.43
- The Chargers have failed to top 20 points in 10 of 15 games this season
- The Chiefs have held five consecutive opponents to 17 or fewer points
- In spite of their 11-4 record (which would typically put opponents in pass-first mode), the Chiefs rank middle of the pack in opponent pass play rate — with this defense ranked sixth in DVOA against the pass, but 30th against the run
- Melvin Gordon has rushed for only 3.8 yards per carry on the season, but he has floated his value with eight touchdowns (including seven on the ground); the Chiefs have allowed the sixth most running back rushing yards in the league (at 4.9 yards per carry), but only 11 teams have allowed fewer touchdowns on the ground to running backs
- Only three teams have allowed more touchdowns to running backs through the air than the Chiefs have allowed
- Austin Ekeler has been held to 13 or fewer touches in six consecutive games, but he has 50+ receiving yards in five straight
- Only the Texans have allowed more receiving yards to running backs than the Chiefs have allowed
The Game ::
Probably about 85% of the time in this article, we kick off our game writeups on the team that is likelier to control that particular game; and as such, it feels unusual to start on the Chargers’ side in this spot. But as laid out above: the Chargers are simply playing so slowly (and are throwing enough “looks” at opponents on defense that they are facing the slowest opponent pace in the NFL, as teams take their time before the snap) that they are facing the fewest opponent drives per game and the second fewest opponent plays per game. And against a Chiefs defense that is so much easier to attack on the ground than through the air, the Chargers — to at least some extent — are likely to be the team that controls the shape of this game, even if they are simultaneously likely to lose.
The most stable source of touches in this offense (unfortunately) has been Melvin Gordon, who came out of a stretch of 20+ carries in three of four games to see only 12 // 7 // 9 carries the last three weeks — but who also saw “compensation” target counts of 5 // 7 // 7 in these lower-carry games. For better or worse, Gordon is the 1A in this backfield; and in what will likely be his final game in a Chargers uniform, he should be locked into a decent amount of valuable usage again. With his inability to rack up yardage on the ground this season (he has failed to top even 32 rushing yards in over half his games), he is a “bet on role and hope for touchdowns” option in a game in which the Chargers should eventually have to turn more fully to the air, but he has at least shown an ability to produce value a number of times this year.
The best offensive player on the Chargers this year has been Gordon’s backfield mate Austin Ekeler, who can only be relied on for around five or six carries and five or six targets, but who at least has a matchup against the Chiefs’ soft “RB receiving” defense, and who has a few paths to a slight rise in volume this week. The Chiefs have also been soft against tight ends, allowing the third most receptions and the fourth most yards to the position. Hunter Henry has recent target counts of only 3 // 4 // 2 // 7, but he did see nine targets when these teams played in Week 11, and he has a decent shot at a small target spike this week. Of course, part of the reason the Chiefs have been more generous to running backs and tight ends through the air is because they have been absolute nails against wideouts — allowing the fewest catches and the second fewest yards to the position (in spite of the fact that you can still find some fantasy analysts calling this a matchup boost — because, apparently, 2018 lasts forever). Keenan Allen and Mike Williams are merely bets on talent winning out over matchup.
The Chiefs’ side of this game is interesting, as there are really no matchups to truly fear (you could call Casey Hayward a shy-away for Tyreek Hill — but there is no player, team, or scheme that can limit Hill’s ceiling, only his chances of getting there), and yet, the Chargers have had an ability this year to limit Game Environment Upside, with only five pass catchers all season topping even 80 yards against them (and with only one player topping 92 yards). With the Chargers limiting play volume in their games across the board, betting on touchdowns or explosive players is your best bet toward arriving at some sort of useful ceiling (a bet complicated a bit by the fact that the Chiefs’ players not only have to hit, but have to hit at a high enough level to justify their price tags). When these teams met a month and a half ago, Travis Kelce put up a 7-92-1 line (tying Courtland Sutton for the second most receiving yards against the Chargers this year), while he has eight or more targets in all but one game this season. Hill and Kelce are both rock-solid bets for competent raw production, while ceiling paths remain.
The Chiefs’ backfield is a bit less straightforward (even against a Chargers team that faces the second highest opponent rush play rate in the league), as LeSean McCoy was a “load management” healthy scratch last week, while Spencer Ware is now on I.R. It seems likely that McCoy will be made active this week to once again turn this into a three-headed monster; but if McCoy is inactive on Sunday morning, we’ll have Damien Williams and Darwin Thompson, with Williams likely to carry the load after seeing 16 carries and three receptions last week (after seeing 12 || 2 and 19 || 5 in his final two full games before his missed time). The Chargers’ defense hasn’t been truly “vulnerable” to any position, but Williams would be underpriced for a potential 18+ touch back in an explosive, high-scoring offense if McCoy is on the sidelines once again this week.
JM’s Interpretation ::
Once pricing is taken into the equation, the Chiefs are almost always less attractive than the field perceives them to be — with Kelce posting only two scores this season that matched what you would really like at his price, and with Hill posting only one you would really like at his price and one more that moved past what you would really like at his price. (Note: as we often point out, this changes on FanDuel for Kelce, where tight end pricing is more condensed, and where he becomes more viable/valuable as a result.) But I’ll never try to talk anyone off Chiefs plays, as there is enough upside in this offense to chase it any time you want to make that part of your approach for the week. Be aware of the way the Chargers limit play volume; but as you know, the upside still exists. There is also really interesting upside to consider in the Chiefs’ backfield if McCoy misses — with Williams a “bet on role/offense” option if he’s in line for a somewhat-full workload once again. I may build a couple Williams rosters that I can enter on Sunday morning if McCoy is inactive.
On the Chargers’ side, I could see myself potentially mixing in Henry, Gordon, or even Ekeler — though it seems likelier that I’ll have plays I like more than these once the NFL Edge is completed. These guys all have paths to upside, though all three carry dud potential in any given week.