Every season, the NFL’s final weekend matches playoff-bound teams against those that are not, and emotions can become a factor in the outcome. So it is with the Chiefs’ battle against the Chargers on Sunday.
But this one brings an additional, unknown dynamic.
The Chargers could be playing their final game in San Diego and Qualcomm Stadium. Relocation to Los Angeles looms after voters defeated a stadium funding bill in November.
The Chargers, who have leased a new headquarters and training facility in Orange County, must decide by Jan. 15 if they want to exercise an option to join the L.A. Rams in a new stadium under construction in Inglewood, Calif.
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Against this uncertain backdrop, Chiefs and Chargers aren’t sure what, if anything, to make of the odd situation.
“Weird,” said Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith, who went to high school in La Mesa, Calif., outside of San Diego and has played in the stadium in high school, college and as a pro. “It’s going to be strange and sad if the Chargers left, for me personally, and the community growing up there.
“I’m getting ready to play a game there so it’s not on the forefront of my mind, but definitely sad.”
The Chiefs have clinched a playoff spot but are gunning for an AFC West championship. A victory coupled with a Raiders loss at Denver would leave Kansas City and Oakland with 12-4 records; the Chiefs would own the tiebreaker thanks to their regular-season sweep.
A division title also means skipping the wild-card round in the playoffs and a bye to the divisional round.
The Chargers, meanwhile, lug a 5-10 record into Sunday’s game and are coming off a dispiriting loss at Cleveland, where they became the Browns’ first victim of the season.
The Chargers have lost four straight and now may be losing their home.
“I feel for all the guys out there,” said Chiefs defensive lineman Kendall Reyes, who spent his first four seasons with the Chargers. “I’m still close with a lot of my (old) teammates. I’m sure you can ask the guys on the Rams — it’s not easy picking up and moving your family somewhere.
“It would be crazy if there’s no more (team in) San Diego.”
The possibility of relocation isn’t new. The Chargers spent last season in limbo and seemed inspired in their final home game, a 24-point victory over the Dolphins. Afterward, players and coach Mike McCoy remained on the field to sign autographs. Quarterback Philip Rivers signed his cleats and gave them to fans, walking into the locker room shoeless.
As the game’s final minute unfolded, veteran players were subbed out of the game to loud ovations.
Rivers isn’t sure that feeling can be duplicated.
“I don’t know what to expect Sunday, I really don’t,” Rivers said. “I don’t know if we can have Take 2 of that. That was very authentic. We beat Miami, it had been a rough year. The fans, players, everybody in town thought it was the end.
“It just organically happened. There was no plan for staying after and signing autographs. I don’t know if you can re-enact that. I don’t think it will be same type of feel, but we’ll see how it goes.”
Andy Reid doesn’t see it as a Chiefs issue.
“We have to limit all those kind of distractions and focus in on the job at hand,” the Chiefs coach said. “That’s something we can control. Each player can control himself and do the right thing.”
To Rivers, the right thing for the Chargers is to use this situation to their advantage. Winning won’t put San Diego into or keep the Chiefs out of the postseason. But for a player who has spent all 13 seasons in a Chargers uniform, Rivers said he’ll find motivation in what might be the city’s final NFL act.
“Shoot, it is our last game, let’s finish it winning,” Rivers said. “If it’s our last game in San Diego and Qualcomm, let’s finish it with a win against a division team. That would be a part of my motivation list this week.”