Have Chargers Passed Chiefs in AFC West?

Los Angeles Chargers QB Justin Herbert
Los Angeles Chargers QB Justin Herbert
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes was one of several NFL stars who took part in a celebrity golf event, the American Century Championship, this past summer. During the final day of play, Mahomes was caught on camera playfully jawing back-and-forth with a member of the gallery. As Mahomes approached his ball, a fan could be heard in the background saying, "Watch out for Justin Herbert next year!" Mahomes' response? "I'll see it when I believe it." (He botched the line, not me.)

Well, Mahomes saw it on Sunday, and now he believes it.

A year and six days removed from Herbert's NFL debut (an overtime loss to the Chiefs at SoFi Stadium), the Chiefs hosted a very different-looking Chargers team. This wasn't a Justin Herbert who found out he was starting during the coin toss after a painkiller injection gone awry. Herbert is a reigning Rookie of the Year who has carried his momentum through the start of this season. The Chargers are no longer hamstrung by a conservative playcaller in Anthony Lynn, but now led by an analytically driven, risk-it-for-the-biscuit head coach in Brandon Staley. The offensive line is revamped, Derwin James is healthy (knocks on wood), and Mike Williams is finally looking like a sixth-overall draft pick. What a difference a year makes.

Looking back on it, the changes made between last year's Week 2 matchup and this past Sunday's game ended up being the deciding factor in this one. Staley's defense forced the Chiefs offense to turn the ball over four times, three times inside the Chargers' 35-yard-line. A healthy James is one of the few people who can guard Travis Kelce one-on-one, enabling the Chargers to double Tyreek Hill. Yes, Kelce still posted seven receptions and 104 yards on 11 targets, but nearly half of those yards came from two catches of 28 and 23 yards apiece. Hill, on the other hand, was held to five receptions and 56 yards on seven targets. Only two of those catches were on passes deeper than 10 yards. Instead of seeing Mahomes put on his usual high-flying offensive spectacle, Staley had the Chargers sitting back in Man-2 coverage, coaxing Kansas City to run the ball. Mahomes insisted on striking downfield anyway; he finished the afternoon 5-of-13 for 86 yards and two interceptions on passes 10 yards or more downfield.

Joe Lombardi's offense is also a far cry from what Anthony Lynn ran last year. The Chargers offense generated a 224.1% VOA on deep passes this past Sunday, best in the league. Having an improved offensive line certainly helps, allowing just one sack and six quarterback hits on 46 dropbacks in Sunday's contest. But this year's offense is much more threatening than last year's. Mike Williams is now being used as a legitimate, multi-faceted receiver instead of just being sent out on go routes and deep posts. Williams now commands respect from defenses, which creates more opportunity for Keenan Allen, Jared Cook, and Austin Ekeler in the passing game. Williams' seven catches for 122 yards and two touchdowns on nine targets is a far cry from last year's showing, a mere two receptions for 14 yards. The one-two punch of Allen and Williams is the ideal complement for Herbert's ability, making this one of the more difficult offenses to cover.

The one thing that has remained consistent between last year and this? The Chargers are still their own worst enemy. For the second week in a row, a Chargers touchdown was wiped off the board by a penalty on an illegal shift. Another illegal shift nullified a 30-yard Keenan Allen reception in the first half. A false start on rookie Rashawn Slater nearly cost the Chargers the game. While penalties have been a problem for the Chargers through these first three weeks, this is something that is correctable. These aren't the mistakes of last year, which were deliberate decisions made by coaching personnel that would cost the team opportunities to win. Which leads us to…

Where the Game Swung

Los Angeles Chargers WP

Qtr Time Down To Go Yard Line WP% Change Play
4 0:48 4 9 KC35 43.4% Chargers go for it, Jalen Guyton draws pass interference
4 1:55 3 8 KC27 30.1% Patrick Mahomes' second interception
4 0:51 3 4 KC30 -27.1% Herbert incomplete to Williams, sets up fourth-and-4
4 1:06 3 2 LAC49 23.6% Herbert connects with Allen to keep drive alive
2 11:06 1 10 LAC36 15.7% Clyde Edwards-Helaire fumble

Before we get into Staley's decision-making, it needs to be said: it is VERY hard to win a game after turning the ball over four times. That is reflected in EdjSports' WP data, where two of the five most impactful plays were turnovers. Los Angeles scored 21 of their 30 points off Chiefs turnovers, clearly a deciding factor in the game.

Hats off to Staley for his aggressiveness during this game on fourth down. Los Angeles went for it on fourth down four different times, but only one ended up counting after penalties. The one converted fourth down from fourth-and-4 on Kansas City's 28-yard-line set up Mike Williams' first touchdown of the game. However, the decision we'll all remember is the call to go for it on fourth-and-9. After Rashawn Slater drew a false start penalty when attempting to go for it on fourth-and-4, that's usually some sign coaches take from the Football Gods to give up on the play and kick. Staley stood his ground, Guyton drew a (questionable) DPI call. Herbert then completed a 16-yard pass to Williams to set up the game-winning touchdown.

This was the rare occasion where the numbers actually said to kick but the coach's gut said to go for it, and he did. Here is EdjSports' breakdown of the WP based on Staley's decisions, both on fourth-and-4 and fourth-and-9:

  • Fourth-and-4: 62.6% field goal, 58.8% go for it
  • Fourth-and-9: 55.7% field goal, 50.0% go for it

The Chargers also made an error by throwing the touchdown that won the game rather than sitting on the ball and then kicking a game-winning field goal. Who made the error is a question, as reports after the game suggested that the Chargers planned to run the ball twice and Herbert called an audible to throw the fade route for the touchdown. However, the numbers show that a chip-shot field goal is a better bet than giving Patrick Mahomes the ball back with time on the clock:

  • Hypothetical field goal after first-and-goal from the 4, including kneeldowns and timeouts: 98.4% win expectancy
  • Actual touchdown + missed PAT: 90.6% win expectancy

By the VOA

Team Off Def ST Total
KC 23.6% 24.6% 7.1% 6.1%
LAC 27.0% 17.3% -14.1% -4.4%

The fact that Kansas City had the higher VOA doesn't mean that "the wrong team won." Our new Post-Game Win Expectancy model (introduced in the Week 1 DVOA commentary) says that based on the splits of VOA in this game, we would expect the Chargers to win 55% of the time.

This game was won and lost in the red zone. Through three weeks, the Chiefs defense has allowed 12 touchdowns on 13 red zone trips. This week was no exception. Kansas City allowed four touchdowns and a field goal in the red zone, posting a 57.1% VOA in the process. The Chargers have struggled thus far to capitalize in the red zone, but they were finally able to overcome their woes in Week 3. Their offensive DVOA in the red zone was -82.6% in Week 1 against Washington and -156.6% in Week 2 against Dallas, but it climbed to 57.0% against Kansas City.

Arrowhead-ed in the Wrong Direction

Is the Chiefs' Super Bowl window closed? Absolutely not. Is the Chiefs' reign as a near-invulnerable juggernaut over? That remains to be seen.

This isn't the same Kansas City Chiefs team we have seen the last few years, and this game was a prime example. Headed into this game, the Chiefs offense centrally comprised of three players: Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, and Tyreek Hill. When those three are firing on all cylinders, there is little teams can do to stop Kansas City's offense. However, for the first time under Mahomes, the Chiefs lack that Plan C for when either Kelce or Hill isn't clicking. Sammy Watkins provided a much-needed third option in the passing game that defenses had to respect. Mecole Hardman, Byron Pringle, and Demarcus Robinson don't command that level of attention. In the time between Sunday's game and now, Kansas City has signed the recently reinstated Josh Gordon. Who knows what that means? Gordon is now 30 years old. The last time we saw him on the NFL field was in Seattle, where he finished his final game with one 58-yard catch. The last time we saw him play football, it was in the Fan Controlled Football League catching passes from Johnny Manziel. All Josh Gordon has to do is outplay Kansas City's current options, but is that even possible at this point?

Even if Gordon is the Flash Gordon of old, this offense still has a bevy of problems. While the Chiefs have always been a pass-heavy team under Mahomes, they have always had the ability to lean on a veteran running back to carry them (no pun intended) when needed. Kareem Hunt, Damien Williams, LeSean McCoy, and Le'Veon Bell come to mind. This year, the team is reliant on Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Frankly, Edwards-Helaire has yet to show he can really carry that torch. Despite boasting the third-best offensive DVOA in the league, Kansas City ranked 30th in offensive rushing DVOA through two weeks. With Edwards-Helaire in on nearly two-thirds of offensive snaps, some of this blame has to fall on him.

The offensive line that Kansas City invested so much money into this offseason has yet to find its stride. In fact, it has been downright bad at points. It didn't show in the boxscore, but Joey Bosa made himself at home in the backfield on Sunday.

Mahomes was frequently forced out of the pocket when dropping back to pass, which lines up with the fact that Next Gen Stats has him listed with the sixth-lowest time to throw in the league. He has the athletic ability to either scramble for yardage or throw on the run, but the latter option proved to be increasingly dangerous on Sunday. Mahomes' first interception was a pass on the run following pressure; if that pass was a little better, it doesn't pop off Marcus Kemp's hands and into a diving Asante Samuel Jr.'s arms. The second was another extended play, but Kelce had given up on the route because of how long the play had gone on. This is the quickest Mahomes has ever reached three interceptions in a season. Last year, he didn't clear that benchmark until Week 14.

This defense is also deeply concerning. Yes, Kansas City has operated with a bend-don't-break defense for the last several years. You can do that when you have a buzzsaw of an offense taking over after letting up a touchdown. However, the disparity between offense and defense has never been this wide. The Chiefs rank third in offensive DVOA but dead last in defensive DVOA. Kansas City has allowed 29, 36, and 30 points to start the season. Essentially requiring your offense to score 30-plus points per game in order to win is not a sustainable model for success.

Keep in mind that Kansas City has faced the Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Ravens, and Los Angeles Chargers. These are three of the most analytically minded teams in football. That is certainly going to play a factor in these teams' offensive aggressiveness pressing the Chiefs defense. However, we are seeing a notable uptick in fourth-down attempts. If more teams are willing to follow in the footsteps of Baltimore and Los Angeles, then perhaps these down-to-the-wire losses will become a recurring theme for Kansas City.

After a brutal three-game stretch to open the season, the Chiefs have a get-right game against Philadelphia before a pivotal matchup against the Buffalo Bills. If Kansas City struggles next week against the Eagles, THEN you have a right to panic.


17 comments, Last at 30 Sep 2021, 10:09am

#1 by theTDC // Sep 28, 2021 - 3:52pm

I don’t think there has ever been a team that demanded you go for it on fourth down quite like the KC Chiefs. An offense that can seemingly get points at will, and a defense almost as bad as the offense is good. I was a touch surprised by the Chargers going for it on 4th, and 9, but not because I thought it was bad, just because I thought it was unlike an NFL coach.

Same goes for settling for field goals against this team. Makes some sense against a poor offense that you think might score 19 points. Makes a whole lot less when you know the Chiefs are going to score 30, and you need to keep pace or go home.

Points: 0

#4 by DIVISION // Sep 28, 2021 - 5:26pm

Seeing the Chiefs in pre-season against my Cards, I wasn't all the impressed with them.  If you can get any kind of pressure on Mahomes and have a competent secondary, you'll be able to pick your poison against them.

It's basically the Bucs' blueprint from the SB, but not all teams can implement it.  Also, Mahomes is making more TO-worthy plays this year due to the O-line not being good.

The Cardinals got a endzone INT against Mahomes in pre-season on the same play he made against San Diego a few days ago.  He's too loose with the ball, or perhaps he's just unlucky now?

Points: 0

#15 by COtheLegend // Sep 29, 2021 - 3:10pm

In regards to "teams that demand going for it on fourth", the Manning Colts come to mind. I also remember when the strategy that teams tried from beat them was to try to keep running the ball and draining the clock, to prevent the offense from coming into the field. I remember a Monday Night Colts-Dolphins game (I think that it may have been from 2007) in which Miami held the ball for about three quarters of the game...And still lost.

Points: 0

#2 by Raiderfan // Sep 28, 2021 - 4:39pm

“it is VERY hard to win a game after turning the ball over four times. ”

The Buccaneers have entered the chat.

Points: 0

#3 by DIVISION // Sep 28, 2021 - 5:23pm

...Yes, the Chargers are currently better than the Chiefs.  Long-term, we don't know.  I see the AFC West as being wide open now.

If the Raiders had a better defense, I'd say they were the obvious favorite.  The Chargers have the talent, but make really bad mistakes that have already cost them one game (Dallas) and almost blew the Chiefs game.  I don't see the Broncos as having a dynamic enough offense to keep up in division play, good defense, though.

The problem for the Chiefs is that their defense has a talent/personnel problem, not a scheme problem.  They aren't getting pressure and the secondary can't cover.  Even if Mahomes and co. fix the problems on offense regarding continuity and consistency, they'll be in shoot-outs for the rest of the year.  Like I read in another article, it's going to be like the Favre-era Packers...

Points: 0

#5 by Bill96744 // Sep 28, 2021 - 5:29pm

So hard to repeat. Great job getting there 2 times in a row. Too early to tell, but Peter King made a point of how many close games they won down the stretch last year. Maybe regression to the mean on close ones? Especially if teams can steal an extra possession or 2 via turnovers and "go for it" approaches

Makes it crazy amazing TB12:  2014-2020  seasons:

Won SB; Lost Conference Championship; Won SB; Lost SB; Won SB; 1 and Done playoffs; Won SB.

Points: 0

#6 by BigBen07 // Sep 28, 2021 - 6:18pm

Actually it was the Patriots and Bucs, not TB12, but please continue your attempt to keep the cult alive and prospering.

Points: 0

#7 by ImNewAroundThe… // Sep 28, 2021 - 6:28pm

Obviously talking about Brady lol doesn't need to be such a reaction. 

Points: 0

#12 by Upnorth // Sep 29, 2021 - 11:19am

Qbs get way too much credit.  They are very important but are one major part in a bunch of parts.

I get why he pointed out the patriots and bucs made it to those games, not just Brady.

Points: 0

#17 by ImNewAroundThe… // Sep 30, 2021 - 10:09am

Specifically and how many SBs he's been to and how rare it is. 

That shouldn't be getting people that upset in 2021. Didnt anything about his credit (but based on responses, it's not enough)

Points: 0

#8 by AFCNFCBowl // Sep 28, 2021 - 7:25pm

It seems DVOA hates LAC and LV for some weird reason.

Points: 0

#9 by Spanosian Magn… // Sep 28, 2021 - 7:39pm

It's only 3 games and the Chargers ended up with a pretty middling play-by-play record against the Cowboys since they had about 400 TDs+FDs taken off the board by penalties. I'm not sure if there's any (D)VOA penalty for holding etc., but it erased a ton of successful plays if nothing else. I'd guess the successful play is more likely to carry forward than the penalty rate (barring bad injury luck) so DVOA should rise going forward... I'd guess.

Points: 0

#10 by jheidelberg // Sep 29, 2021 - 8:06am

It took 4 turnovers to win by 6 points.

You are an NFL coach, well not really, you are an NFL fan.  Your team is playing the Chiefs next week, but you have a choice, play the Chiefs or pick a name of a team out of a hat from the other 30 teams.  Your goal is to win next week.

If you picked the name out of a hat you or the coach did, the only disappointment should be  if the name picked was Tampa Bay.

Points: 0

#11 by jblnchrd // Sep 29, 2021 - 11:08am

Looking at that last Mahomes pick, it's clear (to me at least) that was far more on Kelce than Mahomes.

Points: 0

#13 by apk3000 // Sep 29, 2021 - 11:24am

I don't know, Chargers going for the TD with time left and Chargers going for a game ending FG seem like the same odds to me. Heck, they did miss two XPs including on what turned out to be the game winning TD

Points: 0

#14 by Lost Ti-Cats Fan // Sep 29, 2021 - 11:46am

KC's all-new OL taking some time to gel shouldn't be a surprise.  Assuming the players individually are as talented as expected, the line as a unit should get better-and-better as the year goes on.

Despite all the other analysis of KC's woes, I still see a team that lost a close game to a quality opponent because they lost the turnover battle.

Odds are KC doesn't make it back to the Super Bowl because odds are nobody makes the Super Bowl.  Yet somehow one team from the AFC gets there every year anyway, and KC seems to have as much of a puncher's shot at it as any of the other contenders, crappy D or no.  Exception:  BUF, as BUF seems to have the inside track at the no. 1 seed (thanks AFC East!) which would makes their playoff journey easier than KC's or anyone else's. 


Points: 0

#16 by Rufus R. Jones // Sep 29, 2021 - 6:30pm

With even 3 they would have won. They almost won despite the turnovers. I'm highly impressed with Herbert, but the contention that the Chargers have surpassed the Chiefs because of the result on Sunday is preposterous and unsupported by the article. Number of clicks aside.

Points: 0

Save 10%
& Support Cale
Support Football Outsiders' independent media and Cale Clinton. Use promo code CALE to save 10% on any FO+ membership and give half the cost of your membership to tip Cale.