Week 3 may have gotten off to a weak start with Panthers-Texans, but the NFL is really in danger of blowing its regular season wad before October. We may have just had the AFC Game of the Year with Chiefs-Ravens last Sunday night, and we could have the NFC Game of the Year on Sunday with Buccaneers at Rams, the biggest game of Matthew Stafford’s career as I covered on Friday in a mini preview.
But the other game I want to touch on in detail this week is Chargers at Chiefs as it has a chance to really crank up the drama in the AFC. The Chargers are a 7-point road underdog, but homefield still looks pretty weak and division games can always be a surprise despite the two teams knowing each other so well.
Chargers at Chiefs (-7)
The phrase “It’s only two games” is something I have to keep reminding myself here, but we are now on a 13-game stretch where the Chiefs have only managed to beat one team (Buffalo, 38-24) by more than six points. Patrick Mahomes has been stellar throughout this stretch, but the Chiefs are looking a lot like Peyton Manning’s old Colts teams where the passing offense is covering up the many flaws on the team while still winning most of the (close) games.
But last week was not a win in Baltimore after the Chiefs blew an 11-point lead in the fourth quarter as Lamar Jackson ran wild and took advantage of two turnovers from the offense, including an inexcusable first fumble by running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire late in the game. It was the worst time yet for the “Obligatory Chiefs Fumble” as I used to call it in my keys to beating the Chiefs before I turned that into table form in January. This is now the 11th loss for Mahomes and the common trends are that the opponent better be a playoff team capable of piling up yards and points to beat him, and it certainly helps to deny him the ball late as Baltimore’s fourth-down conversion run did after the CEH fumble.
Now enter the division rival Chargers, who are 1-1 and lost a close one to Dallas that had a lot more offense than the final score (20-17) suggests. In fact, the Chargers are leading the NFL at 49.38 yards per drive while the Chiefs are No. 3 at 45.65 yards per drive. With these offenses having only 16-17 drives on the season between them, the two lowest amounts in the league, this could be a game that goes under the 54.5 Vegas total due to a lack of possessions with the teams going on long drives. The Chiefs are still the more explosive offense, but the Chargers are averaging a whopping 9.1 plays per drive this season. The next closest team is at 7.3 plays.
Oh yeah, these defenses aren’t stopping much either. The Chiefs are 31st in both yards per drive and points per drive to start the season. They have yet to stop anyone in the red zone from scoring a touchdown after being the worst red zone defense in 2020 too. The Chargers are 27th in yards per drive allowed, but at least they’re 15th in points.
I know this is Brandon Staley’s first season with the team and some other important things have changed from past years with the Chargers. But the truth is Mahomes has some of his worst stats against this team. Mahomes averages 231.4 passing yards per game against the Chargers, his lowest against any team he’s played (even including the teams he’s played once). Mahomes only has three games he’s finished in his career without passing for 200 yards and two of them came against the Chargers in 2019. In the five matchups with the Chargers, Mahomes has never won by more than 10 points, he only completes 61.2% of his passes, and he is barely over 7.0 YPA.
Baltimore finally wised up last week and only blitzed Mahomes four times. This is the way to do it for most teams. Don’t blitz and get your four rushers to play their asses off and chase him around. Joey Bosa has to deliver in this matchup for the Chargers. In the past, the Chargers have never blitzed Mahomes more than five times. They haven’t even done it four times in the last four matchups. Mahomes has 16 regular season games where he failed to gain a first down on at least 36% of his passes. Five of those 16 games are against the Chargers. Again, different coaching staff and some different players — safety Derwin James being back is a big plus — but the Chargers can say they defend Mahomes better than most.
In his first NFL start last year, Justin Herbert took Mahomes to overtime and lost 23-20 in a game with nearly 900 yards but not many points due to the long drives and struggles that Mahomes had in the first three quarters with the pass defense. The saving play that day was a 21-yard scramble by Mahomes on 3rd-and-20 in the final minutes. Herbert is better now and has rarely missed this season. He has been feasting on third down himself, especially on third-and-long, so this could be a really tough matchup for a KC defense that looks lost right now. Sure, the 1 TD to 3 INT ratio looks great for the defense, but I’d be far more concerned with the 72.2% completions and whopping 10.4 YPA allowed. The Chiefs only have three sacks too.
Kansas City is the sixth team in NFL history to start a season by allowing at least 29 points and 450 yards of offense in each of the first two games. The 1994 Patriots, 2016 Raiders, and 2017 Saints still made the playoffs, but they didn’t last very long.
As for the offense, again, I have to remind myself that it’s only been two games. But the revamped offensive line that was supposed to be the biggest addition to the roster this season? I’m not that impressed. Mahomes’ pass protection does not look any better than usual, and pressure on him drew a late sack in Cleveland that could have been costly, and he should have eaten the sack on third-and-12 in Baltimore instead of forcing that pick in the third quarter, about his only mistake so far this season. But the running game is not going anywhere behind this new line so far. The lone run for 10+ yards this year belongs to WR Tyreek Hill. Mecole Hardman also doesn’t look ready to step up as the new WR2 in replacing Sammy Watkins. It was Demarcus Robinson and Byron Pringle who came up with the big touchdowns in Baltimore. At least you can say they’re deep at receiver.
But the passing offense is going to be fine for the Chiefs. I’m just going to be worried that it’s the only thing this team is great at. Even in Week 1, all the Browns needed was one more drive to win the game. Baker Mayfield was intercepted. Lamar didn’t screw up this past week. Herbert may not screw up this week if given the chance.
With the way the Chiefs have been playing over the last 13 games, it’s hard not to see Los Angeles having a chance late. I’m going to hedge on this one with the Chargers covering. I don’t have it in me yet to pick them to hand Mahomes the third losing streak of his career, but if that does happen, then the AFC race is wide open again.
Final: Chiefs 29, Chargers 24
NFL Week 3 Predictions
I got a bit caught up on a stat on Thursday where QBs making their first start since 2001 were 15-3 ATS as an underdog of 8-9 points. I didn’t think the Texans would be that painfully conservative with Davis Mills at quarterback. Oh well.
Some gambling things I really like this week (last week: 4-for-10):
Courtland Sutton has the third-most receiving yards (177) without a touchdown this season. I like him to score his first (plus Broncos ML) since 2019 against the lowly Jets.
Kenny Golladay was screaming at Jason Garrett last week and hasn’t scored a TD yet this season. I like him to get one this week against an Atlanta defense that has already allowed five scores to WRs.
TB-LAR: McVay has gone pass crazy against the Bucs the last two years. Then with Antonio Brown testing positive for COVID, I think this is a Chris Godwin week. I like the over in receiving yards for Cooper Kupp (85.5), Robert Woods (63.5), and Godwin (71.5).
Other TD scorers I like: Justin Fields vs. CLE, Ty’Son Williams vs. DET, Miles Sanders vs. DAL
Upset pick: Justin Jefferson TD/Vikings ML (+270)