KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The Los Angeles Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs understand their showdown at Arrowhead Stadium on Saturday night will not decide the AFC West, even though they're tied atop the division with three games to go.
It's as close as you'll find to a de facto championship game, though.
"It is, but it isn't," Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said. "Certainly, it gives you a heck of a better chance of winning it. But if you win this game, it's not over yet."
Both teams should be keenly aware of calling anything over early.
Remember, the Chiefs (7-6) beat the Chargers as part of a 5-0 start, which not only anointed them Super Bowl contenders but the runaway favorites to win the AFC West.
But they proceeded to lose six of their next seven games before a bounce-back win over Oakland,remaining right there inthe pack.
The Chargers (7-6), meanwhile, lost their first four games and were nearly written off before stringing together three straight wins. They're now riding a four-game win streak that includes a rout of the Redskins last weekend that kept them tied with the Chiefs atop the division.
Setting up the biggest game of the season for both teams.
"No surprises at all," first-year Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said. "We expected to be here in December, playing meaningful football. We earned the right to be in this game."
Lynn was quick to point out that both teams have changed since they met in late September, and not just in the direction of their seasons.
The Chiefs have made personnel moves -- signing veteran cornerback Darrelle Revis, for example -- and scheme changes, with coach Andy Reid turning over play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Matt Nagy the past two weeks with great success.
The Chargers have become accustomed to a whole bunch of new: coaches, playbooks, even their home after moving from San Diego. And that newfound sense of comfort has been evident the past month.
"I think both sides of the ball, they're probably a little more familiar with the schemes they're being asked to do," Reid said. "They're playing good football, high-level football on both sides."
Fitting, considering they're also playing high-stakes football now.
"This is about as big as it gets for a regular-season game," Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said. "Division opponent, tied for first, only a couple games left. The ramifications are huge. It doesn't get any bigger than this."
Here are some of the key story lines for a crucial AFC West matchup:
The Chiefs have won seven straight against the Chargers going back to Dec. 29, 2013, when they had wrapped up the division and sat most of their starters in a 27-24 loss. The Chargers kicked a field goal in overtime that day to earn the AFC's final playoff spot.
All-Pro cornerback Marcus Peters is back from a one-game disciplinary suspension handed down by Reid last week. Peters had been involved in a series of embarrassing incidents, but when he threw an official's flag into the stands in the Meadowlands against the New York Jets and got into a verbal altercation with an assistant coach on the team bus, the Chiefs' coach had enough. The Chiefs fared well without Peters last week, shutting down Derek Carr and the Raiders in a 26-15 win.
After throwing three picks against Kansas City in their first meeting, Rivers has thrown only three more over the next 10 games. His hot play is a big reason the Chargers have climbed back into playoff contention.
"There were a lot of factors that went into that game," Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt said. "It wasn't just him. Everybody's involved when things like that happen. That's probably the best thing about this team. They rallied together."
The Chargers have also been more productive on the ground behind a one-two punch in Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler, an undrafted free agent out of Western State.
"It's been night and day when you look at the first quarter of the season," Lynn said. "We were being dominated in time of possession, and offense would get on the field and we'd have to rush everything because we didn't know when we were going to have the ball again. We've made some adjustments."
Lynn and Rivers both praised the old-school nature of playing in Kansas City, whether it's the stadium or the tailgating or the general atmosphere. That should all be amped for their prime-time matchup given the high stakes.
"It'll be a great environment," Reid said. "Both teams have something on the line this late in the year."