After the first five weeks of the season, things looked much different. The Chiefs had a two-game lead over the Denver Broncos and were a Super Bowl favorite. The Los Angeles Chargers were celebrating their first win of the year.
Fast-forward eight weeks and the Broncos are in last place while the Chiefs are in a three-way tie at 6-6 with the Chargers and Oakland Raiders. For now, Kansas City owns the tiebreaker with a 2-1 record in divisional play. (The Chargers and Raiders are both 2-2.)
But with four weeks remaining and divisional games left to sort out the tiebreakers, it’s anyone’s AFC West crown to claim. And the clear favorite after Week 13 is Los Angeles.
The Chargers are the only AFC West team playing good football
It wasn’t the toughest matchup in Week 13, but the Chargers handled business and beat the Cleveland Browns, 19-10. The win was the third straight for Los Angeles and the sixth in the team’s last eight games.
That’s a feat that no team has accomplished after an 0-4 start in more than a decade.
Chargers are 7th team in Super Bowl era to start 0-4 and then go 6-2 or better in their next 8 games, 1st since the 2004 Bills— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 4, 2017
Some tough luck contributed to the rocky start. The Chargers lost their first two games of the year on unsuccessful field-goal attempts as the clock was winding down. The next two came against the red-hot Chiefs and Eagles. After four weeks, Los Angeles was winless but just -21 in points differential and -76 in total yards differential.
The Chargers were bound to get the bounces eventually, and now they’re peaking at the perfect time. They have recorded more than 400 yards of offense in each of the last three weeks and forced 12 turnovers in the last four.
Philip Rivers actually has healthy receivers, including Keenan Allen who has played in every game this season after missing 23 games in the two seasons prior. On Sunday, Allen became the first player in NFL history with at least 10 receptions, 100 yards, and a touchdown in three straight games.
That’s only helped the combination of Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler, who got rolling after a slow start to the year for the Chargers rushing attack.
On defense, the dangerous duo of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram are forcing errors on a weekly basis. It took Bosa just 24 career games to climb to 12th on the Chargers’ all-time sacks leaderboard by recording his 22nd against the Browns on Sunday:
This team is accomplishing the most basic goal of football: scoring points and keeping other teams off the scoreboard.
The rest of their games are all winnable, too. Up next for the Chargers is a home matchup against 5-7 Washington, followed by road games against the Chiefs and Jets. If the Chargers keep winning, it could set up an AFC West-deciding matchup against the Raiders in Week 17.
The Chargers are notorious for losing heartbreakers — they lost nine games by seven points or fewer last year, and five of their six losses this year have been one-score games. But right now, it looks like a good bet that Los Angeles comes out on top in the division.
The Raiders could make a run, but the schedule doesn’t help
Oakland has had a roller coaster season that began with Marshawn Lynch making all of the Oakland Coliseum dance during a 2-0 start and quickly went south with a four-game losing streak.
Since then, the Raiders have been an up-and-down team that looks good one week and gets blown out the next. Wins over the Broncos and Giants in the last two games got the Raiders back in the mix, but now comes the tough part of December.
The Raiders will be on the road for three of the last four games of the year, including a Week 14 game in Kansas City. After that is a home game against the similarly inconsistent Cowboys and then road games against the Eagles and Chargers.
Just finishing 8-8 could prove difficult — especially when the Raiders aren’t particularly great at anything. This team is below the league average in both total offense and total defense, and it’s the worst in the NFL at forcing turnovers.
The product of those issues could be a frustrating finish to a season that’s now tantalizingly close to ending with a spot in the playoffs.
The Chiefs are spiraling out of control
Once a team with the most dangerous offense in the NFL, the Chiefs couldn’t find the end zone in November. But the first game of December was different. The offense finally exploded with Alex Smith going off against the Jets for 366 passing yards, 70 rushing yards, and four touchdown passes. It was the defense that fell apart in a 38-31 loss.
Not only did the Kansas City defense struggle to slow Josh McCown and Co., it ended the game with an astounding lack of discipline. That included a personal foul on a field goal that gifted the Jets a touchdown and Marcus Peters launching an official’s flag into the crowd:
The Chiefs, who have now lost four straight games and six of their last seven, haven’t been able to get anything right since blasting out of the gates to start the year.
But considering just how dangerous the Chiefs were at the beginning of the year, it’s hard to write off Kansas City entirely. If the team can build on the offensive momentum of Week 13 and keep things together on defense, the Chiefs could still right the ship.
And of the three teams duking it out in the AFC West, Kansas City may have the most fortunate schedule down the stretch.
The Chiefs will play in Arrowhead Stadium in each of the next three weeks, including games against the Raiders and the Chargers in the next two. After that it’s one more home game against the Dolphins before a season finale on the road against the Broncos.
Los Angeles is the favorite for now, but the Chiefs could erase that in a second with a strong couple of weeks.