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Chiefs-Chargers Instabreakdown: Chiefs survive low-energy start

In the season finale, the Chiefs started slow but built up steam to get a timely win

Final Score: Kansas City Chiefs 31, Los Angeles Chargers 21

The Chiefs had a lackluster start to the game. They were locked into the playoffs — and the Chargers weren’t playing for much.

Surely someone in the Chiefs organization had an eye on the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots matchup, right? It seemed as if the Chiefs turned it on that contest became a real game.

The biggest news from the game will remain safety Juan Thornhill’s injury. He was taken off the field on a cart. His loss could prove to be a big blow heading into the playoffs. We await an update on his injury.


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

The Chiefs started the game with a very unique offense relying heavily on read-option plays. It was probably to put a bunch of new twists on tape — but even though the Chiefs looked a bit unorganized running them, they had some early success with them.

Early in the game, the Chargers played a lot of zone coverage, trying to force the Chiefs to throw underneath; then they were crashing hard on those shallow passes. But late in the first half, the Chiefs flipped a switch and began throwing downfield. That helped open up the offense.

Patrick Mahomes wasn’t as sharp as he has been in recent weeks. But despite facing a fair amount of pressure, he showed a lot more comfort in the pocket. One of the more prevalent issues was that there were many miscommunications between Mahomes and his receivers. It led to a few incompletions — and even an interception early in the second half — as Mahomes and his receivers appeared to be seeing different things.

For much of the game, the running game wasn’t working. But then Damien Williams busted off a huge 84-yard touchdown run. It looked like he was done after a very short gain, but then Williams spun out of the contact and was off to the races. It was an incredible play. Williams had another impressive run in which he was cut down, kept his knees off the ground and somehow sprung up to finish a touchdown run.

If Williams could marry these explosive, hard-earned runs with moderate gains in between them, the Chiefs running game could turn a corner in the playoffs. Darwin Thompson saw more work as a running back — and he looked like he belonged on an NFL field.

As usual, the ball was spread around among the receiving targets — but Mecole Hardman had himself a big game. Not only did he score on a 104-yard kickoff return, he helped kickstart the offense with a deep 30-yard post route. Demarcus Robinson capped off that drive with a 24-yard touchdown catch. Otherwise, Travis Kelce and Damien Williams were the most common targets — but no one really put their stamp on the game.

The offensive line was still inconsistent — but with the addition of Stefen Wisniewski, they appear to be holding up just a bit better. As a unit, the run blocking still left a lot to be desired, but their pass protection up the middle seemed more stout — and they did a better job keeping the pocket clean. Eric Fisher appeared to struggle the most in pass protection. While Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa are extremely difficult matchups, you’d want to see a bit more from Fisher.


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

From the get-go, the defense seemed to have a bit more energy than the offense — and it started with Tyrann Mathieu. Whether manning-up on larger receivers like Mike Williams, patrolling shallow zones or flying up into the flats against the running game, he continued to be everywhere — turning in another All-Pro-level performance.

After Thornhill left the game early in the first quarter with what looked like a non-contact injury, the Chiefs used a combination of Kendall Fuller and Armani Watts in his place, allowing Mathieu to continue in his usual role(s).

The defensive line picked up where they left off in Mexico City — beating up on a poor, injury-riddled offensive line. Frank Clark and Terrell Suggs had a lot of success getting in Rivers’ face. Clark was just as dominant as he was in the first Chargers game — but only had a good stat line to show for it.

Suggs and Clark are doing a great job setting the edge, which could affect teams trying to run outside against the Chiefs during the postseason; it’s definitely something to monitor going forward. Chris Jones, Mike Pennel and Derrick Nnadi all had big plays in short-yardage situations — and did a good job forcing Rivers into the pressure off the edge.

Chiefs linebackers continued to show their limitations out in space; the Chargers were able to attack the Chiefs with outside runs, screen plays and running backs getting out into the flats. Reggie Ragland and Damien Wilson somewhat make up for their limitations by being sure tacklers. Anthony Hitchens, however, is another story. On more than one occasion, he was unable to wrap up Melvin Gordon or Austin Ekeler, giving up extra yards. That’s not to say Hitchens didn’t also make some timely plays and have an overall positive impact — but if he’s not going to show elite range, you’d like to see him finish more tackles.

Bashaud Breeland left the game early but was able to return, playing sporadically in the second half. In his place, the Chiefs were able to get Rashad Fenton some important reps; he played pretty well on the outside. He was physical throughout the routes he covered, looking much more natural on the boundary than in the slot. Charvarius Ward had an up-and-down day, showcasing some nice sticky coverage on elite route runner Keenan Allen — but he also gave up a couple of contested catches to Williams.

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