Keys to the game: Chiefs @ Chargers

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Dec. 28, 2014; Kansas City, MO; Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston (50) sacks San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (17) during the second half at Arrowhead Stadium. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

Dec. 28, 2014; Kansas City, MO; Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston (50) sacks San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (17) during the second half at Arrowhead Stadium. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

Offensive, defensive and special teams keys for the Kansas City Chiefs (4-5) in Sunday’s game against the San Diego Chargers (2-7) starting at 3:05 p.m. CT at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego.

Offense

The Chiefs three-game winning streak has been boosted by very good defensive play. The offense has contributed by playing complementary football, not putting their defense in poor positions, whether through turnovers, penalties or negative plays.

Alex Smith has now thrown 228 passes without an interception, and he’s a few throws away from the Chiefs franchise record for consecutive passes without the other team catching one (233 by Steve DeBerg in 1990).

Smith has also made a big contribution by taking off and running more often than earlier in the season. In the last three games, Smith has taken off 14 times, running for 116 yards, including a 49-yard run against Detroit.

The Chargers are not a strong defensive team, giving up 372 yards per game. They are ranked No. 24 in yards allowed and No. 27 in stopping the run, giving up 123 yards per game. That’s a good scenario on paper for the K.C. offense. The key for coach Andy Reid is balance in play calling; in the three-game winning streak, the Chiefs are 52 percent pass plays and 48 percent run.

That’s about as close to balance as Reid’s offense has been during his time in Kansas City.

The Chiefs need balance, they need tough offensive line play, limited sacks and no turnovers. That’s a formula that usually leads to victory.

Defense

Defense has been the engine of the Chiefs midseason turnaround, as they’ve been tough against the run and pass, allowing an average of 278.6 yards per game, with 9 interceptions and 13 sacks. They’ve given up 36 points and only four touchdowns.

But that was against quarterbacks Landry Jones, Matthew Stafford and a very gimpy Peyton Manning. Things will be more difficult this Sunday against Phillip Rivers, a guy that’s given the Chiefs headaches over the last decade.

Through what has been a disappointing season, Rivers has thrown (390) and completed (269) more passes than any NFL quarterback this year. He has thrown for more yards (3,033) than all but one passer, New England’s Tom Brady has 10 more yards.

Rivers has been averaging 337 passing yards per game; the Chiefs have allowed only two quarterbacks to throw for 300 yards or more, Aaron Rodgers (333) and Andy Dalton (321). The Chiefs need to keep Rivers under his average, while getting him on the ground and grabbing a few of those throws.

Rivers has always enjoyed facing the Chiefs. In 19 games, most of those as the San Diego starter, he’s thrown for 4,716 yards with 29 touchdown passes and 20 interceptions against K.C. Those 20 picks are the most he’s thrown against any team. Rivers still has tight end Antonio Gates at his disposal, he’s caught 28 passes, but just two for touchdowns.

No. 1 wide receiver Keenan Allen is gone for the rest of the season due to injury. Rookie Melvin Gordon has been shaky as the S.D. ground game and has fumbled four times. Right now, the 5-8, 200-pound Danny Woodhead is the most explosive weapon available to Rivers.

Special teams

Although they did not produce any touchdowns or big plays, the Chiefs kicking game was a big reason they were able to beat Denver last Sunday.

Kicker Cairo Santos and punter Dustin Colquitt were very good and helped the Chiefs control field position. They allowed next to nothing on returns and controlled a handful of onside kick attempts that kept the Broncos struggling to recover in the second half.

The Chiefs have now gone 11 games over the last two seasons without a punt or kickoff return for a score. They are overdue and De’Anthony Thomas may be ready to go all the way with a punt return.

San Diego’s punt team has a 36-yard net punting average, ranking them next to last in the league going into this weekend. Opponents have averaged 10.6 yards a return against them, although none have reached the end zone. It could be the circumstances that Thomas needs to get to the end zone.

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Bob Gretz is the senior editor for ChiefsDigest.com. Use the contact page to reach him or find him on Twitter: @BobGretzcom.

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