The (presumed) two-team race for the AFC West isn’t just a battle for a division title. It’s also two teams jousting for the Lombardi.
The Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers are not only the class of their own four-team segment of NFL categorization (with apologies to the hapless Oakland Raiders and kinda/sorta reconstructing Denver Broncos), but they are arguably the two most talented teams, top to bottom, in the entire AFC.
The Chiefs placed more names than most on the various Top 100 Players lists that float every preseason from various media outlets for yet another year, largely due to the high-octane offense that makes defensive coordinators stay awake for nights on end. The Chargers are the more balanced team, with an established defense with impact players to mirror the impressive offense. One team is led by the reigning MVP; the other anchored by a future Hall of Famer.
In short, predicting the pecking order atop the AFC West makes for an excellent debate.
The Case for the Chiefs
The proof, as they say, is in the proverbial pudding, and the Chiefs have all the results on their side in this debate. Three consecutive division titles have only furthered a franchise record (that started with 2), and it’s hard to imagine the Chiefs not winning another title in 2019 given how Patrick Mahomes looked in his first tour of duty.
Speaking of Mahomes, any argument for the Chiefs begins there, on the shoulders of a 23-year-old the likes of which the NFL has never seen. He’s got Favre’s moxie, Manning’s understanding, Marino’s arm, Montana’s heroics, and Wilson’s athleticism. It’s a cyborg comprised of the best comparisons of numerous signal callers before him—all of them Hall of Famers, present or future. As long as he is healthy, the Kansas City Chiefs will be contenders.
The frustrating part for the Chargers (and the rest of the NFL) is that most quarterbacks like Mahomes elevate the players around them. The Chiefs, on the other hand, employ pass catchers who actually elevate the passer. Tyreek Hill has long since shed his track star skin for traits of an elite wide receiver, one whose exemplary route running and tracking match his top speed. Travis Kelce is the league’s best tight end and a complete mismatch against any team in the second level. Throw in Sammy Watkins, rookie speedster Mecole Hardman and company and it’s hard to tell who benefits from the presence of the other more: Mahomes or the weapons given him.
What makes the Chiefs historically dangerous is the puppeteer behind the whole act: Andy Reid. If anyone doubted his creative genius for a few years after his final days with the Philadelphia Egales, those concerns have long since been erased watching him work his magic in the Midwest. He turned Alex Smith into an MVP candidate before being given the real thing in Mahomes. Together they are the most dangerous pairing in the NFL.
The Concerns for the Chiefs
Watching a Chiefs game provided a weekly fireworks display on offense, but it also served up a loaded stat sheet for the opposition. Chiefs opponents averaged 6.6 plays per drive last year, worst in the entire NFL, confirming the eye test that told everyone that Bob Sutton’s unit couldn’t get off the field.
Fortunately, the team has overhauled the entire defense—including the staff. Steve Spagnuolo is now calling the shots with an entire new cadre of assistants. Frank Clark is now the pass rushing menace, imported from Seattle before the draft after the team jettisoned both Justin Houston and Dee Ford. Tyrann Mathieu captains a somewhat remade secondary that includes second round ballhawk Juan Thornhill. Unfortunately, the team’s cornerback unit is about as thin as ’18 and the linebackers have a lot to prove after a disastrous season.
Change isn’t always for the better. Then again, the Chiefs had to do something. Only time will tell whether every game will, once again, be a shootout or whether K.C. will be able to put away teams when it matters.
The Case for the Chargers
The case for L.A. must be strong given how many NFL analysts climb on the preseason bandwagon for the team every year. It’s fun to first on board, and it makes sense why some would pick the Chargers over the Chiefs. The talent here is just that strong.
Ever since he turned 35, Philip Rivers has not missed a Pro Bowl, which gives head coach and his staff every reason to believe that Rivers is up for another run at the ring that’s eluded him in his Canton-worthy career. Rivers completed a career-high 68% of his passes last year with 32 touchdowns and his highest QB rating since 2013. It helps to be nearly as loaded as their rivals in K.C. with talented receivers like Keenan Allen (if he can stay on the field) and Mike Williams (after finally breaking out) and tight end Hunter Henry (see Allen, Keenan). Melvin Gordon broke out last year in a big way, giving them a strong two-way threat out of the backfield. If he reports as rumored, this offense is one of the NFL’s finest.
Fortunately the Chargers can also boast a Top 10 defensive unit (ranked 8th in points allowed, 9th in total yards allowed)—even without star pass rusher Joey Bosa for a half season. Together with Melvin Ingram, Bosa gives the Bolts one of the league’s best pass-rushing tandems. Jerry Tillery, this year’s first round pick, will only enhance the defensive front. Casey Heyward and Desmond King are still underrated forces in the secondary, and even after losing Derwin James for a few months, the defensive backfield still shows plenty of promise. Watch Nasir Adderley as he gets healthy here for another defensive boost.
The Case against the Chargers
It’s simple. They’ve yet to win.
Every NFL offseason yields plenty of on-paper winners who never come together quite as well on the field. The Chargers have been one of those teams ever since Andy Reid arrived in Kansas City. The Bolts have one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks, but even as they’ve successfully added more talent around him than ever before, the Chargers simply haven’t been able to beat Reid when it matters most. Last year, the team’s split their season series, providing a ray of hope that things might have evened out. Unfortunately, they met their maker in the divisional round of the postseason.
The Chargers have also been the NFL’s unluckiest team when it comes to injuries for the last few years and the Derwin James news felt like a visit from the same old curse. Tackle Russell Okung is still missing after dealing with a pulmonary embolism this offseason. Cornerback Trevor Williams has missed the last month, and both Tillery and Adderley have missed developmental time in the preseason.
The offensive line also remains a major concern. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s an annual refrain going back to their days in San Diego.
In The End
The Chargers are talented and will give the Chiefs (and the rest of the NFL) fits on a weekly basis, but this division (and the entire conference) belongs to the Chiefs. Remember this: K.C. would have made the Super Bowl if Chris Jones hadn’t been questionably called for roughing the passer, if Dee Ford hadn’t been offsides, if Patrick Mahomes wouldn’t have waited until the second half to be Patrick Mahomes, if a coin flip had gone the other way, if their defense could have been even slightly better than “NFL’s worst.” In other words, even weighed down by their defense, the Chiefs still came within an inch of their first Super Bowl appearance in nearly 50 years.
They won’t let it happen again.