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Final score: Chiefs defeat Chargers 31-21, clinch first-round bye

Kansas City beat the Chargers at Arrowhead — and the Dolphins’ upset over New England gave Kansas City a first-round bye

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

With the Kansas City Chiefs trailing the Los Angeles Chargers 14-10 at the beginning of the third quarter, wide receiver Mecole Hardman caught a ball four yards deep in the end zone, ran it out and returned it 104 yards for the touchdown.

The Chiefs took a 17-14 lead, eventually beating the Chargers 31-21 to finish their season with a 12-4 record.

With the Miami Dolphins upsetting the New England Patriots in Foxborough, the Chiefs enter the AFC playoffs as the No. 2 seed, clinching a first-round bye and homefield advantage against every team except the Baltimore Ravens.

Kansas City struck first when Harrison Butker hit a 40-yard field goal — his 11th made field goal in a row — but Los Angeles scored on the ensuing possession when Keenan Allen caught a 12-yard touchdown pass.

The most significant news of the half came on the Allen touchdown. Chiefs rookie safety Juan Thornhill hurt his left leg on the play in the second quarter, and he exited the game.

On back to back plays later in the second quarter, Mahomes found Mecole Hardman for 30 yards and then Demarcus Robinson for a 24-yard touchdown. The Chiefs entered the halftime locker room with a 10-7 lead.

Mahomes threw an interception to cornerback Michael Davis on the second play of the third quarter on what appeared to be a miscommunication. Starting on the Chiefs 21-yard line, the Chargers scored in just three plays. Running back Melvin Gordon finished the drive with a 5-yard touchdown run to give the Chargers a 14-10 lead.

Hardman’s return reversed the momentum. Running back Damien Williams followed with the next score, an 84-yard rushing touchdown on the first play of the next possession. After he appeared to have been stopped near the line of scrimmage, Williams shoved two Chargers to the ground and he was off to the races.

Despite being down 10 points late in the third quarter, the Chargers kept the offense on the field when they faced fourth-and-inches at the Kansas City 5-yard line. Rivers handed the ball to Gordon, who was stopped at the line.

The Chargers did make it a one-score game with a little more than five minutes remaining, and the Chiefs faced third-and-7 on their next possession. Mahomes connected with wide receiver Tyreek Hill on a 47-yard pass for a first down. Five plays later — all of them running plays to Williams — the Chiefs running back extended the Chiefs’ lead with a 7-yard touchdown.

Chiefs highlights

Rapid reaction

This game was much closer than the final score indicates, and it came down to key moments.

First, Pro Bowl return specialist Mecole Hardman’s 104-yard touchdown, proving special teams coordinator Dave Toub’s opinion — namely, that Hardman can be a home-run hitter for this club — correct. In the playoffs, teams will now have to respect Hardman even more.

Second, in recent weeks, the Chiefs have needed to rely on their defense at the end of their games. On Sunday, with the Chargers rallying back, the Chiefs needed the offense to put the game away. On third-and-7, facing another disappointing punt, Patrick Mahomes aired it out to an open Tyreek HIll, who came down with 47-yard catch, essentially icing the game.

It was exactly what you wanted to see from the the Chiefs as they head into their Wild Card game bye week.

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