The West looked won on Friday afternoon (AEST). Until it wasn’t. Los Angeles Chargers took an incredible gamble against Kansas City and claimed a massive prize. Here’s what we learned from the game:
1. The West looked won on Thursday night. Until it wasn’t. Down two touchdowns midway through the fourth quarter and without their leading rusher and receiver, Philip Rivers and the Chargers scored twice in the final four minutes against the conference-leading Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium to pull even atop the division. After forcing Kansas City’s fourth punt of the game with a quick three-and-out with 2:37 left, Rivers connected deep with Travis Benjamin (2 receptions, 57 yards) twice for key conversions to march L.A. down into the red zone. With eight seconds left, the Chargers earned a first down from the 1-yard line following an iffy pass interference call on Chiefs cornerback Kendall Fuller covering Mike Williams, one of many suspect whistles blown on both teams.
Rivers went back to Williams on the next play for the touchdown. Instead of kicking the extra point and settling for overtime, Coach of the Year front-runner Anthony Lynn called for a two-point conversion. Rivers went right back to the well with Williams, who capped a career night (eight touches, 95 yards, three TDs) with a wide-open reception in the right corner of the end zone.
Following the win and the on-field celebration that followed, Lynn defended the decision to go for two, not that he had to. “We didn’t come here for a tie. We came here for the win,” Lynn told reporters. “So, for me, it was a no-brainer.”
2. The improbable victory against the AFC’s hottest offence is Los Angeles’ second second-half comeback on the road against an AFC playoff contender in three weeks. The Bolts pulled off a similar feat against Pittsburgh in Week 13. The Chargers clinched an AFC playoff berth with the win and are back in the postseason for the first time since 2013. More importantly, L.A. tied the Chiefs at 11-3 atop the AFC West. Though Kansas City still controls its destiny and will secure a division title and home-field advantage if it wins out in Seattle and against Oakland, the Chargers are now nipping at K.C.’s heels. Los Angeles finishes at home versus the Ravens and at the Broncos.
3. Eric Berry’s return to the Chiefs secondary after nearly 16 months on the shelf couldn’t salvage the chronically dismal unit. The safety was all over the field in the first half, finding himself in coverage and blitz packages during his 27 snaps. But Berry didn’t see the field once in the final two quarters when L.A. made its comeback. It was expected that Berry would be on a pitch count coming off his heel injury and Chiefs coach Andy Reid confirmed as much after the loss, telling reporters the team “kind of backed off” Berry’s reps in the second half.
The Berry-less secondary was picked apart by an incisive Rivers in the fourth quarter and was especially victimised in the red zone where at the end of the game the Chiefs followed up a killer penalty to facilitate a TD with a blown coverage to allow the game-winning two-pointer.
“We shot ourselves in the foot here with the penalties. You can’t do that in a game like this,” Reid said. “We were in great position to get off the field, we didn’t. A lot of those extended drives were because of penalties … No excuses, we got to get it done.” The Chiefs committed 10 penalties on the evening.
4. The Chargers entered Thursday night short their top two rushers and within 30 minutes of kick-off found themselves without their leading receiver. Keenan Allen suffered a hip injury that kept him out of the second half, roaming the sidelines alongside fellow injured skill players Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler. And yet the Bolts had little trouble moving the ball on their three second-half touchdown drives thanks to clutch play from farther down the depth chart.
“They’re used to when Keenan’s out there,” Rivers said of his secondary players. “Keenan gets a lot of the attention and he was getting it early. And then all the sudden Keenan was out and they have to shift gears.”
Shift, they did. Williams was a dual-threat revelation, earning in one night the seventh overall pick L.A. spent on him in 2017. Impending free agent Tyrell Williams was targeted 12 times and reeled in six catches of his own. Even ol’ man Antonio Gates got in on the action, juking Chiefs defensive backs out of their cleats in the open field to extend drives. Lynn’s decision to keep Gordon (MCL sprain) under wraps for another week paid off, as Justin Jackson and Detrez Newsome filled in nicely, combining for 92 yards on 22 attempts. Los Angeles has one of, if not the deepest rosters in football, a roster constructed for nights like this and January nights to come.
5. Kansas City wasn’t quite shut down by Los Angeles’ defence — the Chiefs after all did score four touchdowns — but Patrick Mahomes and Co. were held in check on half of their drives. The Chiefs punted as many times as they scored, and none of their drives ending in a punt lasted longer than four plays. Kansas City was held to a season-low 294 total yards by Gus Bradley’s defence, which eliminated for the most part the big-play threat posed by Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. Kelvin Benjamin (11 snaps, one catch) was a negligible presence.
Without the injured Spencer Ware and the released Kareem Hunt, Mahomes instead ran most of his offence through the backs Williams, Damien and Darrel (unrelated). K.C. relied on an effective screen game with Damien Williams, who led the team in rushing (49 yards) and receiving (74) and scored twice on the goal line in the second half. The MVP contender Mahomes still displayed flashes of brilliance, his first-quarter TD toss to Demarcus Robinson chief among them, but the fourth-quarter magic he mustered just five days ago against Baltimore wasn’t there on Thursday.
6. Kansas City’s front seven can’t win games all by itself but it sure as hell can try. Led by the unstoppable Chris Jones, the Chiefs took down Rivers four times in the first half and five times in the game. The third-year defensive lineman had 2.5 sacks, all in the first half, and eight (!) QB hits on Rivers. Jones has 14 sacks on the season, second behind Aaron Donald’s 16.5, and tied an NFL record by recording a sack in 10 consecutive games. He’s due some money. It takes a special pass rusher to relegate Dee Ford and Justin Houston (2.5 sacks combined) to the bottom of the paragraph.