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Chiefs-Chargers rapid reaction: the fight to AFC’s first place

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Los Angeles Chargers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Can anyone believe what we just saw?

As the Kansas City Chiefs trailed the Los Angeles Chargers by eight points with less than 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter, I had begun writing in this space about how the offensive performances against the Las Vegas Raiders seemed much more like the outliers than the norm — and how the offense that we knew and loved was dead and buried.

Then — like the Chiefs' chances to win the game — the offense rose up.

For three quarters of the game, quarterback Patrick Mahomes looked to be pressing again. His accuracy was shaky. Back-to-back possessions that ended in a ball in the dirt in front of a wide-open Mecole Hardman in the end zone and a defensive line interception seemed to be a new low point. But not for Mahomes, who simply kept on firing.

With the game and potentially playoff home-field advantage on the line, Mahomes turned to his ever-reliable targets in Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. Through three quarters, Mahomes had 207 passing yards. He finished with the vintage line of 410 yards, three touchdowns and the one interception — and for the first time in a long time, Hill and Kelce each finished with more than 100 yards. Hill had a touchdown, and Kelce had two — including the game-winner.

As sharp as Mahomes was in the fourth quarter and in the overtime period, the game-winning play belongs to Kelce, who has built his Pro Football Hall of Fame career on yards after the catch. Now he has another incredible highlight to add to the Canton reel. Kelce has been fighting through it this season, with defenders physically challenging him at the line — and sometimes, that battle has extended to the officiating crew.

When you're a 32-year-old tight end in the NFL, the career arc questions will always arise. This seemed like a moment to realize that Kelce still has it.

As the offense trudged in the game, the Chiefs defense — missing three stars in Willie Gay Jr., Chris Jones and L'Jarius Sneed — did enough to keep the ship afloat. Steve Spagnuolo's crew knows that eventually, Mahomes is going to find Mahomes. And he did.

And the outstanding defensive effort wasn't led by Tyrann Mathieu or Frank Clark, pillars of the 2019 team that raised the Lombardi. It was rookie Nick Bolton, who has only risen to the occasion when needed this season. Bolton led the team with a staggering 14 tackles (10 solo). He isn't necessarily known for his coverage — at least not yet — but don't tell him that. Bolton knocked down three passes.

The Chargers remained aggressive all night, going for it on five fourth-down tries. The Chiefs stopped three of them — including two near their goal line. One of Bolton's tipped passes ended up in the hands of Anthony Hitchens, and Turk Wharton knocked a ball away from Joshua Kelley that the Chiefs recovered at their 2-yard line.

And with their walk-off win, their third straight division win — and seventh straight win, period — the Chiefs are in first place in the AFC. We'll see if that's still true after the New England Patriots play on Saturday and the Tennessee Titans play on Sunday — but regardless, the pressure now shifts to those teams as Kansas City enjoys a few days off.

The road for this Super Bowl contender hasn't been the same as 2019 — or 2020, for that matter — when sometimes, it seemed that points came easy.

That just hasn't been the case in 2021 — yet regardless of that truth, the Chiefs find themselves in that same, familiar position. Kansas City is again one of the best teams in the league — and the adversity they have faced (and overcome) makes them all the more dangerous.

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