CHARGERS // CHIEFS OVERVIEW
Writing up this game early in the week is a challenge…but it’s not nearly as much of a challenge as it will be for these teams to play in this game. Put simply: the NFL screwed up. No way should two teams fighting for a division title be forced to play each other in Week 15 on short rest. It’s irresponsible and bad for the league — and it’s bad for these teams, as the Chiefs are likely to still be without Sammy Watkins, while Tyreek Hill will be gutting out a foot injury of his own; and the Chargers now appear likely to be missing both Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler. Ekeler is dealing with a stinger in his neck and is also in concussion protocol, making it massively unlikely that he gets cleared in time for Thursday night. Gordon has not seemed close to returning the last two weeks and is currently being viewed as doubtful. If the Chiefs win this game, they will have home field advantage in the AFC playoffs practically locked up. If the Chargers win this game, they will have a shot at grabbing home field advantage themselves. While the players on the field will have to execute, a lot of this game will come down to coaching, and to which team can better utilize their available players. This game opened at an Over/Under of 56.5 and was rapidly bet down to 53.0. With this game being played at Arrowhead, the Chiefs have been installed as slim 3.5 point favorites.
The run game is the foundation of this Chargers offense, and there is a case to be made that they will try to control this game on the ground for as long as they can, with their top five rushing offense taking on a Chiefs defense that ranks dead last in DVOA against the run while allowing an electrifying 5.1 yards per carry (31st in the NFL). With the threat of Keenan Allen underneath and Mike/Tyrell Williams deep, the Chargers have been able to design one of the most effective running back roles in the NFL, and Justin Jackson — who failed in Week 14, but looked excellent in Weeks 12 and 13 (averaging 8.1 and 7.9 yards per carry on limited touches, showing a nice patience/burst combo behind the Chargers’ strong blocking) — should be able to succeed in this spot. Of course, there is also a case to be made that either A) the Chiefs jump out to a big, early lead and force the Chargers to get aggressive through the air, or B) the Chargers put the ball into the hands of Philip Rivers without his top two backs and let him win the game for them. On the season, the Chargers rank fifth in the NFL in points per game while ranking 32nd in pace of play and 22nd in pass play rate — leading to the seventh fewest pass attempts in the league, and to only four games all year with more than 30 pass attempts for Rivers. (One of those four games came in Week 1 against Kansas City, when Rivers threw 51 times.) In deciding how you want to build rosters for this game, you should first decide how you think the Chargers will attack. (I’ll wait until the Interpretation section below to pop in my thoughts.)
Regardless of how the Chargers attack, Jackson projects to be involved, with the Chargers averaging 25.3 rush attempts per game and involving running backs in the pass game all year, both as outlets and in the screen game. Behind Jackson, Detrez Newsome should fill the change-of-pace role that Jackson filled the last two weeks and that Ekeler filled all season before that. Last week, Ekeler played 39 snaps and Jackson played 21 — with a similar distribution likely in line this week. The lead role in this offense has typically produced 18 to 22 touches, while the backup role has yielded anywhere from six to 10 touches most weeks.
NOTE: Gordon traveled with the team and now has a chance to play. It should go without saying: he becomes a strong option if healthy and playing most of the snaps. Keep a close eye on news leading up to this game to see which guy is expected to lead this backfield.
The engine of the pass game has been Allen, who has an interesting matchup against a Chiefs defense that has been a factory for big plays (no team in the league has allowed more pass plays of 20+ yards), but that shaves 2.5% off the league-average catch rate and has been solid against slot-dominant receivers, with Kendall Fuller playing above-average defense (7.5 yards per pass attempt allowed into his coverage; only two touchdowns allowed all year). Recent, notable stat lines from slot-dominant receivers against the Chiefs:
:: Willie Snead — 5-61-0
:: Larry Fitzgerald — 6-50-0
:: Jarvis Landry — 6-50-0
:: Emmanuel Sanders — 4-57-0
:: Tyler Boyd — 3-27-0
:: Julian Edelman — 4-54-0
:: Dede Westbrook — 3-55-0
:: Emmanuel Sanders — 5-45-0
The last two slot-dominant players to top 61 yards against the Chiefs were JuJu Smith-Schuster in Week 2 (13-121-1 on 19 targets) and this game’s very own Keenan Allen in Week 1 (8-108-1 on 11 targets). Allen should get enough work to win in this matchup, and he has the after-catch upside to pop off for a big play or two, but the matchup should obviously be noted. As always: volume will likely be key for Allen to produce.
Downfield work in this offense is functioning on a rotational basis, with Travis Benjamin seeing 20 snaps and one target last week, Mike Williams seeing 29 snaps and six targets last week (10 targets across his previous four games), and Tyrell Williams seeing 48 snaps and three targets last week (he has only one game north of 23 yards since Week 7). Mike is the likeliest bet for touchdowns (seven on the season, with nine red zone targets to four for Tyrell and one for Benjamin), while Tyrell is best bet for a long play or two. Benjamin is a “bet on outlier production” play.
The tight ends remain sparsely involved in this offense and will likely need a touchdown or two in order to produce.
CHIEFS PASS OFFENSE
The Chargers have been strong against the pass — forcing the third shallowest aDOT and knocking 2% off the league-average catch rate — but this pass defense is not in the same class as the Ravens squad that Patrick Mahomes beat last week for 377 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Mahomes has been one of the most predictable fantasy plays all season, and barring a set of short-week sloppiness or an in-game setback for Tyreek Hill, he should be able to produce at expectations in this spot. With Mahomes throwing 91 passes across the last two weeks (without Kareem Hunt or Sammy Watkins), target counts among primary pass catchers on the Chiefs have looked like this:
Hill and Kelce are the clear alphas in this attack, with this offense designed around the strains they place on a defense.
Only eight teams have allowed fewer yards to tight ends than the Chargers, with rookie superstar Derwin James keying strong coverage against the position — though Kelce has a dominant enough skill set and role to win against the toughest of matchups. If Kelce sees his eight to 12 targets this week, the production should be able to land within the expected range.
Hill’s foot is likelier to hold him back than is the matchup, as Casey Hayward has struggled to contain Hill the last two years — with the Chiefs’ star receiver posting lines against the Chargers last year (with Alex Smith) of 5-77-1 and 5-88-1, followed by a 7-169-2 line in Week 1 with Mahomes. Hill’s foot appears to be an issue of pain management, which should allow the Chiefs to take steps to ensure Hill is his fully effective self when on the field. The Chargers have been dominant defending the short areas of the field while struggling at times downfield.
Conley continues to occupy a possession-receiver role in an offense that prefers to go downfield. He has target counts across his last four games (without Watkins) of 2 // 8 // 7 // 3, with a 13-134-3 line in this stretch. The touchdowns are important for Conley to produce value. Robinson has target counts without Watkins of 4 // 2 // 1 // 7, going 10-124-0 in this stretch. He’s the likelier bet for a big play, but Conley is the likelier bet for volume-based production.
Demetrius Harris wraps up this attack, with target counts of six and three since Hunt was booted from the team. He’s a dart throw with a slim shot at production.
CHIEFS RUN OFFENSE
NOTE: Ware is now doubtful for this game, which should slide Williams into at least a 60% or 70% role in this offense. His touch floor is high, in a powerful offense, at a discounted price — making him a solid all-around play.
The Chargers have been a middling run defense on the year, ranking 13th in yards allowed per carry and 20th in opponent pass play rate. The Chiefs continue to involve running backs as a secondary concern behind their Mahomes-led passing attack, with Spencer Ware seeing touch counts of 15 and 20 since the departure of Kareem Hunt (the 20 touches came last week with the Chiefs running an outlandish 86 plays), and with Damien Williams seeing touch counts of seven and 12. Even with touches tilting toward Ware, it is worth noting that Ware played 41 snaps last week to 43 for Williams (in Week 13, Ware played 49 snaps to 19 for Williams). This was likely a one-game outlier based on game plan (with Williams the better pass blocker, vs the Ravens’ aggressive front), but if this deployment holds against the Chargers’ strong pass rush, Williams will have an outside shot at winning the production battle. Ware had seven more carries than Williams last week, while Williams ran eight more pass routes.
I expect the Chargers to lean toward a balanced approach for much of the game, as they are able to pick up chunk plays on the ground and generate points on pace with the Chiefs without having to turn pass-heavy. It’s important to remember that this team ranks fifth in points per game without having to lean on the pass — and unless the Chiefs take a quick, two-touchdown lead, I don’t expect the Chargers to open things up with a pass-heavy game early on. As the first half winds down, however, and especially as this game reaches the fourth quarter, it seems likely that the Chargers turn to the pass a bit more, in the same way the run-heavy Texans did last week in their game against the Colts. This could easily lead to 35 to 38 pass attempts for Rivers. His 51 attempts from Week 1 look out of reach to me (unless — as was the case in that game — the Chiefs’ offense comes screaming out of the gates), but I do think it’s likely we see more than the 30 attempts at which Rivers is typically capped. To simplify that: I’m not adjusting projections too much myself, but I do think we see enough volume for this passing attack to matter. Obviously, there are different ways this game flow could play out, so think through your opinion when piecing things together yourself.
Regardless of game flow, Jackson sets up as a quality piece — with solid usage in a good matchup — while Newsome is a non-zero play with upside if he scores, breaks off a big play, or sees an unexpected spike in usage. I’ll be keeping expectations somewhat in check on Allen (a range of 7-80-0 to 9-115-0 seems the most comfortable — with upside rising if he finds the end zone once or twice); though with a narrow distribution of guaranteed work on both sides of this game, Allen still stands out as one of the better plays on the Showdown. The other Chargers’ pass catchers are upside dart throws. Rivers could easily top 270 yards and pop in two or three touchdowns if he throws 30 to 35 times.
Ware is the favorite to lead the Chiefs’ backfield in touches, and while he ranks behind Jackson in projected production, it’s not exactly a landslide, putting Ware in play for his probable 15- to 18-touch role. Williams may see another rise in snaps vs the Chargers’ stout pass rush, which could again lead to a productive day — though this play is more speculative than Ware/Jackson, putting Williams alongside (or possibly a half-step behind) Newsome in usage projections. The likeliest order for production is Jackson // Ware // Newsome // Williams — but on the small sample size of a one-game slate, it’s worth betting on some variable outcomes if multi-entering.
The highest-upside plays on the slate are (in order) Mahomes // Hill // Kelce. All three of these guys have shown true slate-breaking upside this year, with Mahomes and Hill reaching top-of-the-slate status most often (and with Mahomes obviously carrying the higher floor between he and Hill). Behind these guys, Conley, Harris, and Robinson are dart throws.
Both kickers are obviously in play here.
A bet on these defenses is a bet on a DST touchdown against two strong offenses that are likely to put up points.