The Kansas City Chiefs defeated the Los Angeles Chargers 31-21 during Sunday afternoon’s regular-season finale, completing the year with a 12-4 record that gives them a first-round bye in the playoffs.
Here are five things we learned in the game.
1. There’s never a respite from injuries
To be sure, the Chiefs have had plenty of trouble with injuries this season. It sometimes seemed as if half the team’s starters were unavailable.
So as the team returned to a fairly healthy state in the final weeks of the regular season, many thought it was a great sign for the postseason — that finally, the Chiefs could go into the playoffs with everyone healthy.
Well, that was never likely to happen. And now that it appears safety Juan Thornhill seriously injured his left knee in Sunday’s game, we can be pretty sure that it won’t happen.
But it’s not the result of some curse — or something the Chiefs are doing wrong. All teams have these problems.
On Sunday, the Green Bay Packers lost three players to injury as they secured a first-round bye in their win against the Detroit Lions. The Buffalo Bills lost a starting cornerback and an offensive tackle. The Minnesota Vikings lost a tackle on both sides of the ball.
If he misses time, Thornhill will certainly be missed; he’s been a key part of the Chiefs’ defensive improvement this season. But even when they are short key players, championship teams still have to find a way to win. That’s what the Chiefs — and these other teams — will have to do.
Considering that the Chiefs have already faced so many injuries in 2019 — and have still won 12 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time in franchise history — perhaps it won’t be as hard as we think.
In any case, it’s the only choice the Chiefs have.
2. Mahomes knows
Chiefs fans rave about their quarterback’s physical talent — as they should. But they should also note how Patrick Mahomes is able to see everything that happens on the field — not just what coverage is being arrayed against him or which receivers are open.
When a play ends with a penalty flag on the turf, television directors have learned to turn their cameras on Mahomes. More often than not, he’s signaling to his coaches and teammates what penalty has been called. Even when the flag is away from the play, Mahomes is usually right.
Mahomes is so good at it that he can trust his eyes in real time. In the Chiefs’ opening drive, two Chargers interceptions — one of them returned for a touchdown — were called back when Mahomes took advantage of a free play after noticing the Chargers had been offsides at the snap.
Neither of Mahomes’ throws were good; both richly deserved to be intercepted. But Mahomes knew they didn’t have to be good; there was no risk in giving his receivers a chance to make a play.
And he knew that before the flags had even been thrown.
After the first pick, CBS color commentator Rich Gannon suggested that since he didn’t know if the Chargers had actually been drawn offsides, Mahomes might have been taking a big risk.
But Mahomes always knows. It’s just another reason he will be a successful NFL quarterback for a very long time.
3. Philip Rivers might be done. Or not.
I’d like to say something in tribute to the man who has led the Los Angeles Chargers offense for the past sixteen seasons. But I just can’t.
It’s not because I think he’s... you know... whiny. Honestly... if I was an NFL quarterback whose team had been beaten like a drum by another squad for five or six years, I might be a little whiny myself.
Nor is it because I think he’s terrible. I’m old enough to remember when the shoe was on the other foot. Prior to Andy Reid’s arrival, Rivers was 13-4 against the Chiefs. By definition, anybody who can do that against another NFL team is not terrible.
And it’s certainly not because he plays for a division rival. On game day. I hate the opposing team as much as the next person — maybe more. But at the same time, a man who has always played the game well deserves our respect.
The real problem is that I just don’t know if the 38-year-old Rivers is done with his career. He might be finished with the Chargers — or vice-versa — but the clearly wants to keep playing. After Sunday’s game, reporters asked if he’d consider playing for another team.
“I plan to play football, so yes,” he said. “Where that is going to be will get sorted out over the next few months. I’ve never been in this position; I don’t even know when the league year starts. We’ll just kind of see. I’m very thankful for the 16 years — and if there is another, I’ll be thankful for that.”
But Rivers isn’t really interested in giving a definitive answer right now.
“If any of the 32 teams want me, I’ll be playing somewhere,” he said. “But maybe in a month, I’ll be ready to put on a headset and call the ballgame; I don’t know. I really don’t. But as honest as I can answer it right now, I’ll be out there if someone wants me.”
So we’ll just have to save that tribute for another time.
4. It ain’t over till it’s over
In the 1978 comedy Heaven Can Wait, NFL backup quarterback Joe Pendleton (played by Warren Beatty) is whisked off to Heaven before his time. This happens when the escort who is assigned to accompany Pendleton’s soul from his Earthly body to the hereafter (Buck Henry at his button-down best) chooses to remove him from a terrible automobile accident before it actually happens.
But according to the Big Book, Pendleton isn’t due to arrive for decades. When his mistake is discovered, the escort’s supervisor Mr. Jordan (James Mason) is most annoyed.
“Haven’t you learned the rules of probability and outcome?” asks Jordan icily. “Aren’t you aware that every question of life and death remains a probability until the outcome?”
So it is in the NFL — as Pendleton himself undoubtedly knew long before he met Mr. Jordan.
It’s always tempting to assume that because one team is favored by a couple of touchdowns over another — or to put it in probalistic terms, has only a 90% chance to win — that the outcome of the game is a foregone conclusion.
But it never is.
Just because the Miami Dolphins hadn’t defeated the New England Patriots in Foxborough in over a decade didn’t mean they couldn’t do it. It only meant it was unlikely.
Nor does the Dolphins’ victory over the Patriots — which made it possible for the Chiefs to unexpectedly ascend to the AFC’s second seed in the playoffs — represent a lucky break for the Chiefs. I feel certain that the Dolphins — a team that has been widely accused of tanking this season — would strenuously object to the idea that luck had anything to do with it. I’ll bet they played their butts off to win — even though they “had nothing to play for.”
So the next time you’re thinking about saying something like, “There’s no way Team A beats Team B,” remember what Mr. Jordan might say.
“Every question of winning and losing remains a probability until the outcome.”
5. The Chiefs are a complete team
There have been a couple of times during head coach Andy Reid’s seven-season tenure when the team has been dominant on either offense or defense — but never both. There have even been one or two seasons where the team was more balanced than any Chiefs team has been for a long time.
That’s true of the Chiefs in 2019.
But this team isn’t just a balanced team. It is a complete team. On Sunday, the Chiefs displayed that they have the ability to succeed in all three phases of a single game.
That’s not to say the Chiefs don’t have imperfections. All NFL teams have them. In the era of free agency and the salary cap, it’s virtually impossible to build a roster that can dominate in offense, defense and special teams. Even if you’re somehow lucky enough to do it, it’s not likely to last. That’s just the way it is.
Simply because the Chiefs have demonstrated they are a complete team doesn’t mean they’ll breeze through the playoffs to win their first Super Bowl in 50 years. Such teams can fail in the playoffs — sometimes even to lesser teams.
But it does mean that the Chiefs can go all the way. And on Sunday afternoon, by taking care of business against a tough division opponent — and being the beneficiary of a little Fitzmagic — they’ve doubled that chance they will do it.