8 min read

Thursday Night Football Preview: Kansas City Chiefs at Los Angeles Chargers


Line: Chiefs -3, Total: 52


Familiar Foes?

These two teams have already met this season, a 30-24 Chargers win at Arrowhead in late September. However, this appears to be a completely different Chiefs team than the one that started the season 1-2 with that Week 3 loss representing the first time the Chiefs’ record was below .500 at any point since the 2015 season; Kansas City started that season 1-5 before rattling off 10 straight victories. The Chiefs have never finished at or below .500 during Andy Reid’s tenure (hired in 2013) and with their nine victories, this season is guaranteed to stretch that streak to nine-straight seasons.

Since its 3-4 start, Kansas City has won six straight games, the second-longest current winning streak (New England has won seven consecutive games following a 2-4 start). The assumption would be that quarterback Patrick Mahomes has found his form, but that’s not necessarily the case. It’s been driven entirely by their defense, which was off to a historically-bad pace after seven games. We wrote about it back then, and here are some of the numbers (from STAT Stack preview of Giants vs. Chiefs, Week 8):

“The Chiefs are allowing opponents to gain 6.6 yards per play, which is the worst mark in the NFL. Opposing teams are scoring 29 points per game, tied for fifth-most. They are one of four teams allowing opposing QBs to average 8+ yards per pass attempt, and the other three teams (Detroit, Jacksonville, Houston) have two wins combined. They also allow 4.7 yards per rushing attempt, tied for fourth-worst. KC is one of two defenses (with Houston) in the bottom-five in both yards per pass attempt and yards per rush attempt. The Chiefs average 1.1 sacks per game on defense, worst in the NFL, and they generate sacks on 3.3% of opponents dropbacks which is also the lowest mark in the league.”

But that game represented a complete shift for Kansas City, which has since allowed 65 total points in the past six games – they allowed 65 points in their first two games of the season alone. Their 10.8 points per game allowed over the past six have dropped their season number to 20.6, which is the sixth-lowest in the league. They went from fifth-most to sixth-fewest in just games, which shows the complete transformation. After recording eight sacks in the first seven games, they’ve had 16 sacks over the past six. After generating a mere seven turnovers in the first seven games, KC has 16 takeaways in the past six. In doing so, opposing offenses have scored only seven touchdowns over the past six games after reaching the end zone 23 times in the first seven -- two touchdowns fewer allowed per game.

The Chargers, meanwhile, have had an up-and-down season but come into this game having scored 37 or more points in three of their past four games (winning all three games). During their six-game win streak, no Chiefs opponent has scored more than 17 points and four have scored single-digits. It’s a different Chiefs team than the one that gave up 30 to Justin Herbert and the Bolts in Week 3, but this will be just the fourth Top 10 scoring offense that Kansas City has played this season (Buffalo, Dallas and this LA team) and it has lost two of those three games.


What a Ride!

The Chiefs are a team that can comfortably be labeled as “streaky”. From Week 11 of 2019 through Week 8 of 2020 (including playoffs), Kansas City went 15-2 against the spread. Then, from Week 9 of 2020 through Week 9 of this season (including playoffs), the Chiefs went 3-16-1 ATS. Since that Week 9 failed cover against the Packers, Kansas City has rattled off four straight ATS victories. Are they about to begin another long run of ATS dominance?

Perhaps it’s an AFC West trend because the Chargers are somewhat streaky in their own right; they come into this game riding back-to-back ATS wins which followed a stretch of 1-5 ATS from Week 6 through Week 12. But prior to that, LA had covered eight of its previous nine games (Week 14, 2020 to Week 5, 2021) following a six-game ATS losing skid (Weeks 8-13, 2020). Both teams appear to be on the happy side of the streak, but they can’t both cover, so something has to give.

The public is backing the Chiefs to continue their dominant run with 78% of the tickets placed on the road favorites. However, sharp money is on the Chargers according to Action Network, and while a slight majority of the money is still toward the Chiefs (52%), that number is much lower than the ticket number.


What’s Up, Mahomie?

While the Chiefs’ recent winning streak has prompted many to proclaim that they’re “back,” Mahomes still doesn’t appear to be in the peak form that we’re all used to seeing. Yes, the Chiefs are coming off of a dominant 48-9 win over the Raiders, but that’s not surprising since two of Mahomes best three games have come against Last Vegas (he threw five touchdowns and zero picks against them in Week 10). In fact, the majority of Mahomes’ success has come from three games: the two versus the Raiders plus a Week 4 win over the Eagles.

In those three games, Mahomes averaged 9.1 yards per pass attempt, threw for 12 touchdowns, one interception, had zero fumbles, was sacked four times, completed 76.0% of his passes, and posted a passer rating of 125+ in each contest. In his past 11 starts, those are the only three games in which his passer rating exceeds 91.0. Even during the six-game winning streak, those two games against the Raiders are the only ones that truly stand out. Over the other four wins, Mahomes completed 57.6% of his passes for 5.9 yards per attempt, two touchdown passes, three interceptions, two fumbles (one lost), and seven sacks. If anything, the defense has been covering the deficiencies still being shown by the offense.

It hasn’t just been Mahomes, either. Both of the Chiefs’ top receivers, Travis Kelce, and Tyreek Hill, have had problems with drops this season. According to Pro Football Reference, Kelce’s 10 drops are tied for the second-most in the NFL (Cincinnati’s Ja’Marr Chase has 11) and Hill’s seven drops are tied for seventh-most. Together, their 17 drops represent the most in the NFL by teammates and the Chiefs are the only team that has two players who both rank in the Top 10 in that category.

Additionally, eight of Mahomes 12 interceptions this season have come while targeting one of those two players. That’s not surprising, though, considering Kelce and Hill have combined for 240 targets this season, also the most between two teammates in the NFL. Hill (131 targets) and Kelce (109) are one of two pairs of teammates who each have 100+ targets (Baltimore’s Mark Andrews, 109, and Marquise Brown, 107). Their 163 combined catches are also the most between two teammates.

One area that has changed dramatically this season is Mahomes ability to get the ball down the field, especially to his two top playmakers. Hill’s average depth of target (ADOT) this season is 10.6 – in 2019 and 2020 that number was 12.9 in each season and in 2018 it was 14.8. Hill is averaging 11.4 yards per catch this season after posting numbers above 14 in each of the past four seasons. And even though he’s catching the ball closer to the line of scrimmage and expected to gain more yards-after-catch, his YAC/reception sits at 4.2 this season, which would be his lowest mark ever with Mahomes as his quarterback.

While Kelce’s YAC/R is slightly higher this season (6.0) than in the previous three with Mahomes (5.5, 4.2, 5.6) his ADOT has dropped to its lowest at 7.6. He’s been steadily declining in that category, posting 9.2 in 2018, 9.0 in 2019 and 8.5 in 2020, but this represents his biggest decline year-over-year. The interceptions Mahomes has thrown when targeting Kelce have been alarming; in Mahomes' first three full seasons, he threw six interceptions while targeting Kelce 431 times (one INT for every 72 targets). This season, he’s thrown five interceptions while targeting Kelce 109 times (one INT for every 22 targets), according to Pro Football Reference.

The boost the defense has provided has vaulted the Chiefs back into championship contention, but the numbers say that the offense still isn’t quite where it needs to be for Kansas City to get where it wants to go. The Chiefs will need their three best players to step up their games over the home stretch if they want to hoist the Lombardi for the second time in three seasons.