by Scott Kacsmar
After stunning the Chiefs 29-28 in Kansas City, the Chargers have clinched a playoff berth for the first time since 2013. It was their biggest division win on the road since they knocked off Denver in a similar spot -- the Broncos were an 11-2 offensive juggernaut vying for the top seed, just like the Chiefs last night -- almost five years ago to the date in a Thursday night game. It also snapped a nine-game losing streak to Kansas City, and now both teams are tied at 11-3 going into the final two weeks.
We've been saying how this has been a different year for the Chargers, and a win like this cements that. This was epic. Former Kansas City great Tony Gonzalez was inducted into the ring of honor, beloved safety Eric Berry played in his first game since the 2017 opener, and the Chiefs had three different 14-point leads, yet the Chargers still gutted out a win. According to ESPN Stats & Info, NFL teams had been 0-88 this season when trailing by at least 14 points in the final five minutes of regulation. Philip Rivers was 0-20 in that situation, but the Chargers still won even with their top two running backs inactive and Keenan Allen leaving early with a hip injury. Rivers also threw two interceptions and suffered five sacks as Chris Jones ate up the interior line of the Chargers. However, Berry did not play in the second half and the Kansas City secondary struggled to close, blowing a third fourth-quarter lead this season. We will talk about the officiating too, but the fact is this is a game that the Chargers used to always fold in, but they didn't this time.
The Chiefs set an NFL record with their 19th consecutive regular-season game scoring at least 26 points. The all-time record when including playoffs is still 19 games by the 2012-13 Broncos.
This was the final Thursday game of the season, and it was as dramatic as any. We'll recap it with a special Friday edition of Clutch Encounters before we enjoy this weekend's action, which includes two Saturday games as well.
Possessions and Perfection
The Chiefs finished with a season-low 294 yards of offense, but don't let that fool you. With both teams finishing 6-of-10 on third down, this was efficient offense, but the pace of the game limited the Chiefs to just eight possessions on the night. One of those came with 47 seconds left in the second quarter. Patrick Mahomes still led the offense to four touchdowns on those eight drives, and usually 3.5 points per drive will win a game (Kansas City's season average ranked second at 3.29 points per drive coming into the week). However, when the defense is struggling, that forces the offense to be close to perfect with those possessions, and the Chiefs were stopped just often enough in this one.
One turning point worth critiquing was Kansas City's third possession, when they held a 14-7 lead in the second quarter. The Chiefs disappointingly went three-and-out following a 51-yard kick return. I think Andy Reid should have had his offense go for it on fourth-and-3 at the Los Angeles 42. Mahomes was making incredible plays again in the first quarter on back-to-back touchdown drives and should have been trusted to convert here. Despite cutting Kareem Hunt and not having Spencer Ware (shoulder), the Chiefs made great use of their running backs, especially in the screen game, as Damien Williams had 123 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns. When a team's offense is so much better than its defense like with the 2018 Chiefs, then going for it has to be strongly considered in this current offensive environment.
Even though the Chiefs got a great punt that pinned L.A. inside the 5, the Chargers only needed six plays to drive into Kansas City territory. The drive consumed more than seven minutes. It fortunately ended with a bad pick by Rivers in the end zone, but that's why Mahomes only had 47 seconds left to work with before the half. The Chiefs barely saw their offense operate in the quarter, and that's a big problem.
The offenses exchanged touchdowns in the third quarter, but Kansas City's sixth drive was another three-and-out after a holding penalty stifled things and negated a 25-yard completion. The Chiefs were stopped four times all night, but one was a drive they should have gone for it on fourth down, one drive was impacted by time, one drive was blown up by a penalty, and we'll get to the failure of the four-minute offense (where scoring is not the main goal) later. But this is another great example of how a game with fewer possessions can really help an underdog, especially against an offensive juggernaut. Things like the occasional bad penalty or dropped pass can happen, so you want to take advantage of the smaller margin for error.
The Flag-Fest Finish
Maybe the last play of the third quarter was a bad omen of things to come from the officials. A facemask penalty was incorrectly announced on Los Angeles' Joey Bosa, who had his own facemask grabbed by an offensive lineman. But Mahomes did briefly have his facemask pulled on what used to be a 5-yard version of that penalty, but they're all 15 yards now. However, nothing was called about the left-handed throwaway Mahomes made that sure looked like intentional grounding with him in the tackle box and no receiver in sight.
It was not a banner night for veteran official Walt Anderson and his crew. We just panned the job Anderson's crew did two weeks ago in the Saints-Cowboys contest, where several bad or missed calls threatened to spoil the ending to a great game. Anderson was also involved in a controversial finish between the Browns and Raiders in Week 4. This time it was a case of calling a lot of ticky-tack defensive holding penalties, but missing some bigger infractions late in the game.
For example, Kansas City's final scoring drive was extended after a weak holding call on Desmond King wiped out an incompletion on third-and-10. Tyreek Hill later had a 42-yard touchdown deflect off his helmet, but that play wouldn't have counted anyway since Hill was flagged for illegal motion to make it offsetting penalties. The drive still ended with a touchdown anyway, albeit coming in the form of a 1-yard run by Williams after Mahomes seemingly had to have the score on a quarterback sneak one play earlier. No harm there at least.
With the Chiefs leading 28-14 with 8:15 left, one stop should have done the trick. But the defense didn't force a fourth down until Rivers reached the Kansas City 6. Steven Nelson was penalized for holding in the end zone, which was a good call. Justin Jackson scored a 3-yard touchdown run and the Chargers were back in business with 3:49 left. They should have gone for a two-point conversion when it was 28-20; if they had gotten it, they could have kicked the winning PAT on a second touchdown, and if not, they still would have had a chance to tie on a second two-point try. One day this may be the standard decision in this situation, but this was definitely a case where it would have made sense. Getting the ball back from Mahomes was the first key, though. The Chiefs' eighth and final drive got off to an inauspicious start with a penalty on the kickoff backing them up to their own 11. The Chargers had all four clock stoppages remaining.
We can complain about punts at midfield and when to go for two, but the four-minute offense is still probably where coaches fail the hardest to seize opportunities. When your offense can end the game on its own terms with a couple of first downs, then you have to take advantage of that by calling plays that actually serve a purpose beyond "running the clock." The Chiefs started with a run, because that's what practically every offense does on every first down in this situation. It was stuffed for a 3-yard loss and the Chiefs were already facing a second-and-13. A short completion was followed by a false start, so Mahomes had to convert a third-and-13 to avoid putting his defense back on the field. He took a sack instead and that was it for the Chiefs offense, which only ran three plays after taking a 28-14 lead in the fourth quarter.
King actually muffed the punt return for the Chargers, but was able to recover, another sign of this team's improved luck. Rivers had 2:37 to drive 60 yards, and he relied heavily on Travis Benjamin with Allen out. Rivers hit a 31-yard completion to Benjamin, then went to him with the game on the line on a fourth-and-7 for his best throw of the night, a 26-yard gain to the Kansas City 10.
This throw, man. This throw. pic.twitter.com/SD1w2KAl5S
— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) December 14, 2018
Two plays later, Justin Houston chased Rivers down for a sack, but while Rivers' knee was down he took a helmet-to-helmet shot that was somehow missed. That should have been a flag to stop the clock at 28 seconds and give the Chargers a first down at the Kansas City 5, but nothing happened except for Rivers complaining and the clock running. No one called timeout until the Chargers used their last with 13 seconds left, so Reid put this all on his defense to finish. On third-and-10, Rivers forced a pass to Mike Williams in the back of the end zone, and Kendall Fuller was flagged for pass interference. He hit Williams' arm after Williams pushed him, and the pass didn't even look like it would ever have been caught in bounds. That should have been a no-call, but instead it looked exactly like a make-up call for missing the helmet shot. Incessant complaining on a previous play can pay off sometimes.
That put the ball at the 1-yard line with eight seconds left. The Chargers were hurrying the play before Reid used his second timeout to set his defense, but Rivers thought this helped the offense sort things out too. It was always going to be a pass play, and Williams had no problem beating Orlando Scandrick for the touchdown, or at least what was ruled a touchdown. It was a close call that stood (not confirmed), because Williams never took his left hand off the ball even though there was movement of the ball. There was a push by Williams too, but not enough to warrant offensive pass interference.
I changed my mind on this one. There's a push by Williams, but not enough for OPI. I look for what happens to the feet. If Scandrick's feet go backwards, then yeah, that should be a penalty. pic.twitter.com/yBCRAOggoT
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) December 14, 2018
Head coach Anthony Lynn had the defining moment of his young career by going for a two-point conversion and the win. With four seconds left and Mahomes on the other side, this was absolutely the right call. According to EdjSports, attempting the two increased the Chargers' Game-Winning Chance by 11 percentage points (from 46.0 percent to 57.0 percent). This was the third two-or-die conversion attempt this season, but it's only the second time since 1994 that someone succeeded by going for one in the final 20 seconds; the other time was when Daunte Culpepper scored for the 2002 Vikings against the Saints.
|Two-or-Die Conversion Attempts Since 1994|
|JAX||11/19/1995||at TB||12||0:37||S.Beuerlein pass incomplete to J.Smith (caught OOB)||Fail||L 17-16|
|CHI||10/12/1997||GB||7||1:54||E.Kramer pass incomplete to R.Harris||Fail||L 24-23|
|MIN||12/15/2002||at NO||15||0:05||D.Culpepper rush up the middle||Success||W 32-31|
|TB||11/13/2005||WAS||10||0:58||M.Alstott rush up the gut||Success||W 36-35|
|DEN||9/14/2008||SD||2||0:24||J.Cutler pass to E.Royal is complete||Success||W 39-38|
|KC||11/9/2008||at SD||10||0:23||T.Thigpen pass incomplete to T.Gonzalez||Fail||L 20-19|
|HOU||1/1/2012||TEN||17||0:14||J.Delhomme aborted (snap over his head)||Fail||L 23-22|
|WAS||12/15/2013||at ATL||15||0:18||K.Cousins pass incomplete to P.Garcon (defensed)||Fail||L 27-26|
|OAK||9/11/2016||at NO||1||0:47||De.Carr pass to M.Crabtree is complete||Success||W 35-34|
|PHI||12/18/2016||at BAL||15||0:04||C.Wentz pass incomplete to J.Matthews (tipped)||Fail||L 27-26|
|SF||12/24/2016||at LAR||16||0:31||C.Kaepernick rushes right end||Success||W 22-21|
|CAR||1/1/2017||at TB||17||0:17||C.Newton pass incomplete to G.Olsen (receiver slipped)||Fail||L 17-16|
|TEN||10/21/2018||LAC||7||0:31||M.Mariota pass incomplete to T.Taylor (tipped)||Fail||L 20-19|
|CAR||11/18/2018||at DET||11||1:07||C.Newton pass incomplete to J.Wright (thrown wide)||Fail||L 20-19|
|LAC||12/13/2018||at KC||15||0:04||P.Rivers pass to M.Williams is complete||Success||W 29-28|
Williams was the big target on the night for two touchdowns, and he finished the game with the easiest game-winning two-point conversion you've probably ever seen. The Chiefs totally blew the coverage. They had three defenders to cover two receivers, but no one followed Williams to the corner.
3 on 2 and KC completely blows the coverage. pic.twitter.com/hFd5eXOBcZ
— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) December 14, 2018
The Kansas City offense has the playmakers to pull off a crazy lateral play, but the special teams didn't bother to give them a chance. They attempted the lateral instead, but it came up 83 yards short of the end zone as time expired. For book-keeping purposes that's not a failed comeback/game-winning drive for Mahomes since the offense never had the opportunity, but the Chiefs are just 4-3 at defending a one-score lead in the fourth quarter or overtime this season. The Chargers are now 6-1 in close games, a record only bested by the Patriots (7-1) and Rams (7-1).
Round III in January?
Where do the teams go from here, with identical 11-3 records and a season split? Barring the unthinkable, they are likely to slot into the No. 1 and No. 5 seeds in the AFC. The Chiefs still hold an edge thanks to division record, as that loss to Denver in Week 11 could prove costly to the Chargers. However, the Chiefs have a difficult game in Seattle next Sunday night before what should be an easy home game with Oakland in Week 17. The Chargers will host a competitive Baltimore squad before ending in Denver, a tough place to play, but not a great roster right now with injuries.
If you're a fan of the Chiefs, you should still feel confident in your team because of Mahomes' consistency, but there are real concerns over how this defense will fare when it comes to stopping a top quarterback at the end of the game. If you're a fan of the Chargers, then you know a team cannot make a living out of multi-touchdown comebacks on the road. But if Allen and Melvin Gordon can return healthy, then this offense can be even more explosive come January. Home-field advantage is now a real possibility, even though it's very debatable just how much of an advantage that is at the small stadium in Los Angeles. Still, that beats playing in places like Pittsburgh and New England without getting a bye.
It all could still play out just as things were before the game: Chiefs get home-field advantage and the Chargers are the top wild card. Either way, one of these teams will likely be favored in that wild-card game, so we could see a rematch in the divisional round in one month between these two. After the way this one ended, I don't think anyone would object to that matchup.
On a final note, if these teams do meet again next month, then hopefully Stephen A. Smith will know that the Hunter Henry-Derrick Johnson matchup will play out like it has all year: with neither player actually playing in the game since Henry was injured in May and Johnson hasn't been a member of the Chiefs since March.
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 57
Game-winning drives: 71 (plus three non-offensive game-winning scores)
Games with 4QC/GWD opportunity: 122/209 (58.4 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 30
Historic data on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives can be found at Pro Football Reference. Screen caps come from NFL Game Pass. Game-Winning Chance (win probability) data is from EdjSports.