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Chiefs vs. Chargers Instabreakdown: Kelce rocks while Bolton rolls

Bryan Stewart and Ron Kopp Jr. have their initial reactions on an incredible Chiefs game in Los Angeles.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Los Angeles Chargers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Final score: Kansas City Chiefs 34, Los Angeles Chargers 28

Offense (Ron Kopp Jr.)

I suspected the Chiefs’ offensive coaching staff to be relying on their base playbook to beat the Denver Broncos and Las Vegas Raiders — but I had a feeling that wouldn’t be the case during Thursday Night Football in Los Angeles. And it wasn’t.

The opening drive consisted of designed plays to quickly get the ball into the hands of wide receiver Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce. Then a screen pass to fullback Michael Burton was set up perfectly for a 20-yard gain. Throughout the drive, they ran the ball — but not just the typical zone runs; I saw a guard-tackle counter, off-tackle stretch runs and then their classic short-yardage play: a fullback dive to Burton that turned into a game’s first touchdown.

On the second play, we saw the inevitable reverse to wide receiver Mecole Hardman — but it didn’t gain any yards. Then a well-designed pass play for running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire led to him being wide open over the middle of the field for a first-down conversion.

After having to settle for a field goal on that second drive, the Chiefs’ offense just never looked in rhythm — or as creative — for the remainder of the first half.

Early in the game, Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Darrel Williams both looked great in the running game — but it only lasted for a few runs. For the game, the duo combined to average 3.1 yards on 14 carries. After their first few attempts, they couldn’t find any room — which is disappointing, considering what appeared to be a mismatch between the Chiefs’ offensive line and the Chargers’ run defense.

Mahomes made his fair share of beautiful throws — but in certain situations, he still struggled with processing the defense. In the red zone, there were two instances where an open receiver was missed: wide receiver Mecole Hardman found a lot of open space between two deep safeties on one play, while a later snap had Kelce coming open across the middle — but Mahomes checked down instead.

He also had multiple inaccurate throws in this game; some were just barely off target — but the most significant one fell at the feet of Mecole Hardman on a short pass to the end zone. The fourth-down attempt concluded a long, successful drive with no points.

However, Mahomes’ performance against the blitz or in scrambling situations stood out in a few significant spots. On the game-tying drive in regulation, he narrowly escaped extra pressure and found Hill past the sticks as he sprinted away from pass rushers. On the next play, he recognized the open field in front of him and took off for a gain of 32 yards. Yet in an earlier, crucial spot, his scrambling led to a fumble and turnover.

Tyreek Hill had a few incredible plays, catching one beautifully-thrown ball for a 27-yard gain in the first half — then a 40-yard bomb where he showed incredible adjustment to complete the catch. He finished with 12 catches for 148 yards and a touchdown.

At the end of the day, Mahomes moved past what felt like a down performance to lead a game-tying touchdown drive on a two-minute drill, making smart decisions to use both his arms and legs to convert first downs. The scoring play was a great pass to Kelce — low and away from the defender.

Then in overtime, Mahomes finished his clutch performance with two incredibly accurate throws — one to Kelce in traffic for 27 yards and another to Hill after stepping up and away from pressure. Then Thursday night’s best offensive player finished off the game.

Offensive Player of the Game: Tight end Travis Kelce

Amazingly, Kelce’s game-winning touchdown reception wasn’t the most impressive display of yards-after-catch ability — even though he avoided multiple defenders and weaved his way into the end zone without a true tackle attempt. Instead, it was in the fourth quarter — when Kelce took a quick pass 69 yards all the way down to the one-yard line. In total, Kelce racked up 191 receiving yards on 10 receptions. He scored the game-tying touchdown — and the game-winner, too.

Defense (Bryan Stewart)

The Chiefs entered this game extremely shorthanded on the defensive side, playing without defensive lineman Chris Jones, linebacker Willie Gay Jr. and cornerback L’Jarius Sneed. Despite not having those three incredibly impactful athletes at each level of the defense, the unit did more than enough to give Kansas City a chance to win.

When key stops were needed — and there were multiple instances where they were — the Chiefs made most of them. There were so many that Chargers head coach Brandon Staley’s aggressive playing style was being questioned as the game wore on. Ultimately, the Kansas City defense came up with stops on three of five fourth-down plays.

Surprisingly, the Chiefs really struggled to defend the Chargers’ rushing offense, surrendering 192 yards total and 4.9 yards per carry. This was problematic because it allowed the Los Angeles offense to really dictate the tempo of the game; for quite some time, the Kansas City defense struggled to get a grasp of it. Because the Chargers were consistently effective with their running game, the Chiefs were never able to generate a consistent pass rush — which was disappointing — and as the game wore on, it was clear that the unit was quite fatigued. Get well soon, Chris Jones.

For weeks now, I have laid out in film reviews why this defense is the real deal — and something you can count on down the stretch to help the team win games. Following this game, I feel even more confident about it. Once again, we saw how big of a difference it makes to have the best possible athletes available to fulfill their individual roles. In the end, the defense did just enough to play complementary football — resulting in some good old-fashioned Mahomes Magic for the victory.

The Chiefs’ defense will now have 10 days to rest up and prepare for their next opponent: the Pittsburgh Steelers on December 26. Most importantly, they will need to use this time to get the COVID issues under control down the final stretch of the season. Your Chiefs are currently sitting as the AFC’s No. 1 seed — and they are almost certainly headed to a sixth-straight AFC West title. Enjoy these times, Chiefs Kingdom.

Defensive Player of the Game: linebacker Nick Bolton

With 14 total tackles, a huge pass breakup on a fourth-down play and the deflection that led to Anthony Hitchens’ interception, Bolton is the no-brainer pick here. Whenever this rookie is given opportunities to produce, he simply does the job — and then some.

Without Bolton, it is very possible the Chiefs wouldn’t have won this game. As long as they have Nick Bolton and Willie Gay Jr. taking the majority of the snaps, the Chiefs’ future at linebacker looks incredibly bright.