The Kansas City Chiefs will finish quite the turnaround when they wrap up their 2013 regular-season schedule in San Diego against the playoff-hopeful Chargers.
The Chiefs are where San Diego wants to be, already locked into the fifth-seed in the AFC postseason picture. Kansas City finished with an NFL-worst 2-14 record in 2012 but have quickly turned things around under a new head coach and quarterback combo, Andy Reid and Alex Smith.
The Chiefs enter Week 17 at 11-4 but faltered against Indianapolis at home last week, 23-7, losing out on a slim chance to capture the AFC West crown and home-field advantage throughout the AFC bracket.
Smith connected on 16-of-29 passes for 153 yards and two interceptions for the Chiefs while MVP candidate Jamaal Charles carried the ball 13 times for 106 yards and a score for Kansas City, which had a two-game winning streak snapped.
Last Sunday’s game was also a possible playoff preview. If Indianapolis ends up as the No. 4 seed, the two teams will meet again in the wild-card round of the playoffs.
“It’s tough right now,” Smith said. “I didn’t think that we played very well in any facet of the game, certainly not good enough especially on offense. We didn’t have the production and with the turnovers, you make it about impossible to win. We’re going to have to learn from it.”
The Chargers, meanwhile, kept their playoffs hopes alive with a 26-13 win over the Oakland Raiders in Week 16. They now need to beat K.C. and hope for some help in the form of losses by Baltimore, which plays at Cincinnati, and Miami, who is home against the New York Jets, to reach the postseason.
Ryan Mathews ran for 99 yards and a touchdown while surpassing his previous career-high for rushing yards in a season as the Chargers stayed afloat by winning for the fourth time in five games.
Philip Rivers completed 19-of-29 passes for 201 yards, a touchdown and an interception for San Diego. Danny Woodhead gained 52 yards on eight carries and rookie Keenan Allen hauled in his fifth touchdown catch in the last three games.
“We just kept on fighting,” said Chargers first-year head coach Mike McCoy. “That’s the thing, we just kept on going. Running the ball efficiently, making good decisions in the passing game. We just kept on fighting.”
Mathews’ previous career-high for yards on the ground came in 2011, when he collected 1,091. The fourth-year pro out of Fresno State now has 1,111 on the year with a game to go.
San Diego defeated Kansas City 41-38 at Arrowhead Stadium earlier in the season, its third straight win in the series and now is on the plus side of the rivalry at 53-52-1.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
With nothing to play for Reid is debating whether to play his starters or keep them on the sidelines. Keeping everyone healthy for the playoffs is his main concern but Reid also needs to weigh the fact that the Chiefs are 2-4 after a 9-0 start and wouldn’t exactly be hitting the postseason on a high note after another loss.
“If you look at the history of (resting players), it’s about a 50-50 shot over the last three or four years of people who have done it,” Reid said. “It’s what you’re most comfortable with as a coach. The obvious benefit is you rest your guys. You kind of get back a little fresher than what they were at the end of the season. You take a risk of the timing part of it. So those are the things that you have to evaluate.”
The Chargers will know whether they still have a chance of making the playoffs by kickoff or very early into the game because both Miami and Baltimore play earlier in the day. McCoy claims the Chargers will play everyone no matter the situation, however.
“There’s only one person happy at the end of the year and that’s the team who’s holding the trophy at the end,” McCoy said. “So that’s always your No. 1 goal. You always want to try and win as many games as you can and get in that tournament.”
Mathews, who has 329 rushing yards over his last three games, is expected to play despite missing some practice during the week with a balky left ankle.
“He’ll be ready,” McCoy said. “He’s got a great frame of mind right now. I’m looking forward to him having another big game.”
When Mathews gets the ball the Chargers tend to succeed. He is tops in the NFL with 97 rushing attempts over the last four weeks and San Diego is a perfect 5-0 when he has at least 20 carries in a contest.
“I’m just trying to work hard and be there for my teammates, and that’s all that matters,” Mathews said. “I try to be as good as I can be for the linemen up front.”
Rivers, meanwhile, tends to excel against Kansas City, amassing a stellar 126.1 passer rating over the last three games in the series, all San Diego wins. Overall, the Chargers have won 10 of 12 against the Chiefs, including five straight at home by an average of over 16 points per game.
Reid, on the other hand, will likely rest or at least limit his best player, Charles, who leads the NFL with 19 touchdowns, including 11 over the past five weeks. Charles is averaging 132.0 scrimmage yards per game this season, second in the NFL behind Philadelphia’s LeSean McCoy (134.1).
“This is one of those decisions you make, it’s a bit of a gut feeling you go with,” Reid said.