KANSAS CITY, Mo. — COVID-19 has exacted a toll on the de facto AFC West championship game.
When the Kansas City Chiefs (9-4) travel to face the Los Angeles Chargers (8-5) on Thursday Night Football from SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California, both sides will be without key players in a game that’s likely to decide the division winner.
“We know what’s at stake,” safety Tyrann Mathieu said. “Obviously, the Chargers are a pretty good football team, and we expect those guys to give us their best shot. The last time we played those guys, it went their way, so we’ve got that on our mind. We’re really just hoping we can go in there with some great energy and just take over the place.”
They’ll have to do it shorthanded.
Three Chiefs defensive starters — defensive tackle Chris Jones, linebacker Willie Gay Jr., and cornerback L’Jarius Sneed — are unlikely to play against the Chargers, who will be without left tackle Rashawn Slater as of Wednesday afternoon.
Jones and Gay were placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list earlier in the week, while Kansas City ruled out Sneed, who missed Sunday’s win against Las Vegas after his brother’s death in Louisiana, for non-injury personal reasons on the final injury report.
The shifting personnel landscape puts added pressure on defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and his staff, which already was facing the challenge of a short preparation window for a Thursday road game.
If there’s an upside, it’s that Spagnuolo and the Chiefs are familiar with the Chargers and he’d already warned his staff and players that additional flexibility would be required in game-planning.
“We have to be ready to maybe tweak — change, add,” Spagnuolo said. “We wouldn’t normally do that during a normal week. We wouldn’t try to add things on a normal Friday or Saturday, but we have to treat this like we’re in the game and at halftime we make an adjustment. I think the guys have to have that mindset when the week is really short.”
Kansas City’s defense has allowed nine points in each of the last three games, but Los Angeles boasts one of the top offenses in the NFL led by one of the league’s rising stars at quarterback, Justin Herbert.
“He’s one of those quarterbacks who can really see the whole field,” Mathieu said. “He’s big, he stands strong in the pocket, he can really extend plays for a long period of time. Obviously, he’s a great athlete. If you couple that with the playmakers that he has and the coaching that he has, he’s almost unstoppable in a sense.”
The defense will have no choice except to try and stop Herbert along with running back Austin Ekeler — assuming he plays as he’s questionable with an ankle injury — along with wide receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams.
“Every time I turn the tape on, I’m amazed by how good he is,” Spagnuolo said of Herbert. “Accurate, he’s big, he’s athletic, really smart — he’s the whole package. I have a lot of respect for Derek Carr, but this guy is going to be a real challenge for us and I know our guys expect that. He makes that whole thing go. This is one of the elite quarterbacks in my opinion.”
Kansas City’s offense also will be shorthanded with wide receiver Josh Gordon, who landed on the reserve/COVID-19 list Monday, likely unavailable.
Andrew Wylie (knee), who started the last four games at right tackle, also is listed as questionable for the Chiefs, but Lucas Niang does not carry a designation into the game.
Niang played only four snaps against the Raiders after missing most of the previous four games with a rib injury, but he had started seven of Kansas City’s first nine games.
Regardless of who’s playing, the key for the Chiefs will be avoiding turnovers. A minus-4 turnover deficit in a 30-24 loss to the Chargers in late September has left coach Andy Reid’s bunch with no margin for error in the quest for a sixth straight AFC West crown.
“Definitely, the turnovers hurt us that game,” quarterback Patrick Mahomes said. “... We were moving the ball and getting drives going, but we didn’t execute and didn’t find ways to finish those drives with points.”
It’s been a focus for the Chiefs since committing 19 turnovers in the first eight games of the season.
Mahomes and company have only committed four turnovers in the last five games.
“If we can protect the football, we’re giving ourselves a chance,” Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy said.
The defense also has gotten cranked up during that time with multiple turnovers created in five straight games. The Chiefs’ defense managed only eight turnovers in the first eight games, but have 15 in the last five games — a trend they hope will continue against the Chargers.
“It’s going to be one of those nights that every play counts, every series counts,” Mathieu said.
Safeties Derwin James Jr. (hamstring) and Alohi Gilman (quadricep) and cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. (concussion) are questionable along with Ekeler for Los Angeles.
Here’s your tale of the tape:
Kansas City Chiefs (9-4) at Los Angeles Chargers (8-5)
Series record (last meeting): Chiefs lead 68-48-1 (Chargers, W 30-24)
When (TV; radio): 7:20 p.m. (NFL Network, Fox; WDAF-106.5 FM)
TV commentators: Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Erin Andrews, Kristina Pink
Spanish-language radio: KPRS-103.3 HD2