By Jeremy Gonzalez, Sports Editor
Chiefs versus Chargers. 5:15 p.m. Estadio Azteca. Mexico City, Mexico. ESPN.
Chiefs record: 6-4. Patrick Mahomes returned from injury for the Chiefs but the Tennessee Titans rallied late to spoil his return. The Chiefs were defeated on the road 35-32.
Chargers record: 4-6. Three Phillip Rivers interceptions led to a 26-24 road defeat at the hands of the Oakland Raiders in Week 10.
The NFL heads south of the border for a primetime matchup of two AFC West teams in the mix of the AFC playoff race. The famous Estadio Azteca will play host once again as the Kansas City Chiefs face off against the Los Angeles Chargers.
One topic that is always brought up when NFL games are played in Mexico is the quality of the playing surface. Last season’s game between the Chiefs and Rams was relocated to Los Angeles less than a week before the game when the field was deemed unplayable because of rain and the stadium having hosted concerts less than a month before the game.
The altitude of the Estadio Azteca also plays a major factor on NFL games in Mexico. The stadium sits approximately 7,200 feet above sea level, higher than any other NFL stadium in the U.S, including Mile-High Stadium in Denver. The high altitude affects the players as it tires them out much faster than when they play at ground level. Teams take a different approach in order to prepare for the unusual playing conditions and both teams have done so this week ahead of the international matchup.
Let’s look at other factors within the game that could possibly affect the outcome of the game.
In The Pocket
Chiefs quarterback and reigning NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes is among the league’s brightest young stars that will battle it out with Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson for many years to come. But Mahomes the magician still has to face the ageless wonder that is Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers for the time being.
Rivers leads the league in passing yards (2,816) but he is also third in interceptions (10). Rivers threw three of his interceptions last week against the Oakland Raiders, including one that was returned for a touchdown that loomed large in a 26-24 loss.
The Chargers have been among the league’s better teams in taking care of the ball and not committing turnovers the past two seasons, but their 16 turnovers this season are tied for seventh in the league.
Mahomes returned to the lineup after being out for two games because of a dislocated kneecap. In his return, he threw for 446 yards and three touchdowns in last week’s loss to the Titans. Mahomes drove his team down the field to put his team within field-goal range to set up a potential game-tying score, but the field goal was blocked and the Titans upset the Chiefs 35-32.
Mahomes played comfortably in his first game back, extending plays with his legs if necessary and despite missing two games, he is averaging NFL-bests 328.3 yards per game, nine yards per attempt and 18 touchdowns against just one interception all season. Going toe-to-toe with the NFL MVP is never easy, but the Kansas City defense (t-22nd in total yards allowed) is not as intimidating as it once was, which means Rivers could possibly keep pace with the high-powered Mahomes-led offense. The young gun facing the veteran gunslinger on primetime.
Offenses Regaining Traction
Kansas City is beginning to get some of their pieces back on offense as tackles Eric Fisher, Cam Erving, and guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif were all full participants in practice this week. With three offensive linemen returning to the lineup, Mahomes can get better protection when dropping back to pass. They could also be a big help in the run game, providing blocking for running back Damien Williams.
Speaking of the run game, Chargers running back Melvin Gordon regained his stride in last week’s matchup against the Raiders, rushing for 108 yards and a score. He had 166 scrimmage yards (102 receiving, 64 rushing) the last time he faced the Chiefs, who are currently ranked 31st in the league in run defense.
The Bolts’ rush offense has averaged 145+ yards in each of the last two games. If the Chargers can get the run game established, Gordon could have a second straight 100-yard rushing game.
Tight End Battle
During Mahomes’ absence, the Chiefs offense continued to put up big numbers, with Andy Reid’s coaching and backup QB Matt Moore’s play being the main reasons why.
One other reason is the talent on their roster, and at the top of their talent pool is tight end Travis Kelce, who’s having another fantastic season. On the other side, Chargers tight end Hunter Henry is doing the same.
Kelce’s 56 catches and 741 yards ranks first among all tight ends and ninth overall among all players, averaging 74.1 yards per game. Henry is averaging 69.7 yards receiving per game, which is second among tight ends behind Kelce.
In four games against the Chiefs, Henry has only mustered eight catches for 91 yards and one touchdown. Similarly, Kelce’s production has declined when playing the Bolts, as he averages 4.1 catches for 37.7 yards and never had a touchdown in 10 games in the rivalry.
Both touchdowns will be looking to break out against their rivals on Monday Night Futbol.
Opening: KC. -4.0. 52.5 total.
Sunday night: KC. -6.0. 52.5 total.
Lightning Rod pick: Both offenses will be looking to hit their stride. Both quarterbacks will look to air it out (with the help of the high altitude) and duel in a high-scoring affair. The Chargers will have another game of 150+ rushing yards, but Mahomes and the Chiefs will emerge victorious over Rivers and the Chargers. Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce will have a big game, with nine catches for 120+ yards and score his first touchdown against the Chargers.
Chiefs 31, Chargers 27.