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Justin Herbert isn’t worrying about blindside protection in showdown vs. Chiefs

Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert looks to throw against the New York Giants.
Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert looks to throw against the New York Giants on Sunday. Herbert and the Chargers face the first-place Kansas City Chiefs on Thursday night.
(Gregory Bull / Associated Press)

The Chargers have a chance to take over first place in their division, a chance to move up on the No. 3 seed in their conference, a chance to sweep the regular-season series from Kansas City.

What they won’t have Thursday night at SoFi Stadium is just as significant: standout rookie left tackle Rashawn Slater, who remains on the COVID-19 reserve list.

So the Chargers will play their most important game yet this season with little-used backup Trey Pipkins III protecting Justin Herbert’s blindside.

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While praising Pipkins’ potential and preparation, Herbert offered the most fitting view of the Slater situation.

After two concussions last season and another scare this month, Chargers star Joey Bosa isn’t taking any chances when it comes to head injuries.

“You can’t worry about that,” he said, “because the Chiefs don’t care whether he’s out there or not.”

No, they most certainly do not care. Just like the Chargers aren’t going to fret if Chris Jones is unavailable. Kansas City’s two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle also is on the COVID list, one report Wednesday saying he, too, will be out.

This game is going to happen anyway, and all the resulting fallout will be real. The winner controls first place in the AFC West with three games to go. A loss likely would leave the Chargers competing for a wild-card spot.

“We know that it’s a great [opportunity] on Thursday night football in front of the entire world,” Chargers coach Brandon Staley said. “That’s exciting. But that’s more external. What’s internal is the Kansas City Chiefs.”

The Chargers won the first meeting between these teams in September 30-24, scoring the deciding touchdown in the final minute. That game was nearly three months ago, and both teams have gone through plenty since.

After opening the season 4-1, the Chargers lost three of four games before rediscovering their way over the last four weeks. The Chiefs lost four of their first seven but have since won six in a row.

With four games remaining, the Rams and Chargers hold playoff spots in the wild-card category, but still have a chance to win their West divisions.

Said Staley: “3-4 went to 9-4 pretty fast, and that’s because of what they’re capable of. I think you’re seeing the full version of that team.”

How complete the Chargers will be Thursday is still to be determined. Three starters — running back Austin Ekeler (knee), safety Derwin James Jr. (hamstring) and cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. (concussion) — are all questionable.

Each will work out prior to kickoff before the Chargers set their final roster. Each has played a vital role in putting this team in position to make a late-season run at what would be the franchise’s first division title since 2009.

“It’s a huge game for both of us,” edge rusher Joey Bosa said. “It definitely puts either of us in a great position to win the division. We’re playing well, both of us right now. ... It’s gonna feel like a playoff game.”

All of which will only intensify the focus on Pipkins, a third-round pick out of Sioux Falls in 2019. During his three NFL seasons, Pipkins has appeared in 34 games, with eight starts.

This year, he has played only 27 offensive snaps, mostly as a sixth offensive lineman. Pipkins has been a healthy scratch four times and was active but didn’t play in another game.

“We feel like he’s the best option at left tackle,” Staley said. “We’ve got contingencies within the game if other things happen. But right now, we feel like Trey gives us the best first option in this game.”

If Rashawn Slater, who’s on the COVID-19 list, cannot play Thursday against Kansas City, the Chargers will have a major void to fill at left tackle.

Kansas City has gone undefeated since late October largely because of a defense that has given up no more than 17 points to any of its last six opponents.

The Chiefs have 16 sacks and 44 quarterback hits and have forced 16 turnovers during their winning streak. The defense has been productive enough to take pressure off Patrick Mahomes and his collection of big-play weapons.

On the plus side for the Chargers, they will welcome back wide receiver Keenan Allen, who missed their 37-21 victory Sunday over the New York Giants because of a positive COVID test.

“I’ve enjoyed seeing the guy,” Staley said. “He looks fresh. He certainly helps our chances.”

The Chargers have a big chance Thursday, even if they also are facing a big absence.


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