Division games are always big. But when one pits division favourites against one another in the opening week of the season, the match-up takes on added significance.
Such is the case on Sunday when the Chiefs travel to Los Angeles to face the Chargers in an AFC West game.
Kansas City has won the division the past two seasons, but comes into 2018 with Patrick Mahomes taking over at quarterback. The Chargers closed last season by winning nine of their final 12 games, but are well aware that a 0-4 start is what kept them out of the postseason.
“I love the challenge; I know our players love the challenge,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “They are a good football team, so why not, right? Let’s go play and who knows what happens down the road. It’s a neat thing to start off that way.”
Kansas City has dominated the series recently, winning eight straight by an average margin of 12.4 points. And, while Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers threw only 10 interceptions last season, six came against the Chiefs.
Most of the focus going into the opener has been on Mahomes, who moves into the starting job after Alex Smith was traded to Washington in the off-season. Mahomes, who was the 10th pick over all in the 2017 draft, showed off his athleticism and lively arm in last year’s regular-season finale against Denver, throwing for 284 yards in a 27-24 victory.
Mahomes’s second start will also be on the road against a division opponent, which he said is a benefit after experiencing that last season.
“We want to attack every aspect of the field," Mahomes said. "I feel like we have the weapons that [allow us to] attack short, run the ball, stretch the defence deep. We can attack the middle with the guys that we have. We just have to make sure we keep the defence honest on every single play.”
The Chargers have scouted Mahomes’s games from Texas Tech and the preseason. But there is still a share of the unknown when it comes to preparing for a game against a new quarterback.
“You look at his decision-making and how he operates – and is he a guy that takes off on a run? Can he extend plays? How does he handle different looks?” defensive co-ordinator Gus Bradley said. “So you go back to college. You look at his preseason games, that Denver game, any film you can get your hands on.”
While the Chiefs have had to answer questions about Mahomes, the Chargers have been reminded plenty about last year’s 0-4 start. Coach Anthony Lynn is hoping that he won’t have to do the same thing this season.
“Well, at this point, I’m tired of talking about it," Lynn said. "Hopefully I can show you on Sunday – and we’re going to find out one way or the other. That’s what makes this week so great. We get to open up with the division champs and we get to see exactly where we are as a football team – culture and everything.”