When the NFL released its schedule last spring, we figured the game of the year in the AFC would be in Week 15, and we were right.
What we didn't realize was that it would be in Kansas City, not Pittsburgh.
Yeah, the New England Patriots are playing the Pittsburgh Steelers again Sunday in what used to be the game that determined the AFC's No. 1 seed. But this year, New England is oddly vulnerable on the road and Pittsburgh has lost three games in a row and they don't look like the powerhouses they appeared to be when they met around this same time last year. Maybe they'll get there, but for now, that game has definitely lost some of its luster.
By contrast, Thursday night in Kansas City, the two best teams in the AFC square off in a game that could determine everything from the AFC West champion to the conference's No. 1 seed to the Los Angeles Chargers' sense of self-worth.
The 11-2 Kansas City Chiefs, whose only two losses this year are on the road against the Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams (each by just three points), have beaten the Chargers nine times in a row, including in Los Angeles in Week 1 of this season. We were all so young and ignorant then. We had no idea that Patrick Mahomes had a great chance to throw 50 touchdown passes and be MVP of the league. We also didn't know that the Chargers would lose only two more games before these two teams met again (one to those same pesky Rams and another, oddly, by one point at home to the Denver Broncos).
The way it sets up now, it's possible that the winner of Thursday's game could have home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs while the loser could have the conference's second-best record but be a wild-card team that has to play three road games to reach the Super Bowl. This is a big one, and there's no point in trying to paint it otherwise.
"I don't care if my guys understand it's a big game," Chargers coach Anthony Lynn told me Monday afternoon. "I want them to embrace playing in big games. When you're building a program, that's what it's all about -- setting an expectation that you're going to be in big games. My only thing is, you can't let it be something that creates anxiety. I think we overhyped this game last year and that cost us."
It was Week 15 last year when the Chargers, having recovered from an 0-4 start and won four in a row to tie the Chiefs (who had started 5-0) for first place in the division at 7-6, rolled into Kansas City for a Saturday night game that did not go their way. The Chiefs won that game 30-13 as Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers threw three interceptions. Kansas City went on to win the division. The Chargers finished 9-7 and out of the playoffs.
"If we play a clean game, I like our chances," Lynn said. "The turnover bug has really bitten us against this team."
The Chargers have committed a total of 25 turnovers since the start of the 2017 season -- the lowest total of any team in the NFL over that time. Of those 25, a whopping nine have come in their three games against the Chiefs. Kansas City is fourth in the league in takeaways over that time, with 49, so that's part of it. But when 36 percent of your turnovers in a nearly two-year span are against one team, you have to figure they're in your head at least a little bit.
"The nine in a row is one thing, but personally I'm 0-3 against this team, and that's too many," Lynn said. "We're doing everything we can to try to break that streak. We've got to go out and play relaxed and very confident. That's when this team plays its best football."
Confidence shouldn't be a problem for either of these teams Thursday. Each survived a Week 14 trap game -- the Chiefs coming back to beat the Baltimore Ravens in overtime and the Chargers holding off a desperate Cincinnati Bengals team. The Chargers are just a week and a half removed from a stunning 16-point, second-half comeback victory in Pittsburgh. The Chiefs already have secured a playoff spot, and their tiebreaker edge here runs deep enough that they can actually lose this game and still win the division and the No. 1 seed just by winning their final two.
But let's be honest. After last year's home playoff collapse to the Titans, and given Chiefs coach Andy Reid's history in the postseason, it behooves the Chiefs to go into the playoffs with as much confidence as possible. Losing a mid-December game that leads them to wonder whether they're even the best team in their own division wouldn't help with that.
And on the other side, it's no stretch to say a win here would grant the Chargers a fresh level of legitimacy in the eyes of the outside world, if not their own locker room. The Steelers win, the 5-1 road record, the nine wins in their past 10 games -- all of that adds up to a high level of confidence. But the Chiefs are the dragon the Chargers haven't been able to slay for five years. Going to the playoffs after checking off this pesky box would feel a lot different than going in still wondering if they can ever beat Kansas City.
There are issues on each side, as there tend to be in Thursday games. Star safety Eric Berry could make his long-awaited return from injury for the Chiefs, but electrifying receiver/returner Tyreek Hill is nursing a foot injury. Neither team is sure what it has at running back. The Chiefs released 2017 NFL rushing leader Kareem Hunt two weeks ago after a video surfaced of him assaulting a woman in a hotel hallway. Chargers star Melvin Gordon has missed two straight games with a knee injury, and Lynn said Monday they still don't know how much, if anything, Gordon will be able to give them Thursday. Backup Austin Ekeler is dealing with a neck injury, which means it could be up to good-looking rookie Justin Jackson to carry the load in K.C.
You may think, based on five years' worth of history, that you know how this game is going to turn out. And you may be right. But the Chargers finally look good enough to make you think these teams could meet for a third time next month. And if they lose a 10th straight game to the Chiefs, it won't be because they weren't ready for it.
"If you see us stopping the run and offensively playing with a lot of balance, we're hard to stop, no matter who we're playing," Lynn said. "That, and I always believe, special teams have to show up. And especially with this creature [Hill] we're seeing back there, No. 10. We have to contain him. So we know it's not going to be easy, but we'll be ready, and we'll see what happens."