Here are five things we learned.
1. The Chiefs are the best in the West — but the Chargers are knocking
For five consecutive seasons, the AFC West has run through Kansas City. Over that stretch, the Chiefs have not just won the division — they have dominated it. After reclaiming the AFC West crown from the Denver Broncos in 2016, the team went 26-4 against divisional opponents over the next four seasons.
But with quarterback Justin Herbert’s arrival in Los Angeles last year, a new threat to Kansas City’s reign has emerged. Entering Thursday night’s game, Herbert was 2-1 against the Chiefs — although one of his wins came in a meaningless Week 17 game in which Patrick Mahomes was on the sidelines. If any doubts remained about the legitimacy of the challenge Herbert presents to the Chiefs, the second-year quarterback answered them in Week 15.
As Mahomes and Herbert found their stride in the fourth quarter, it felt like the game would be decided by whichever quarterback had the ball last. Down the stretch, the NFL Next Gen Stats Twitter account was tripping over itself trying to keep up with the completion probabilities for all the high-difficulty throws these two quarterbacks were making.
Justin Herbert & Keenan Allen (8-yd TD)— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) December 17, 2021
Route Type: Hitch
Target Separation: 0.9 yards*
Completion Probability: 37.7%
*Herbert: 75th tight window completion since entering NFL in 2020 (most in that span)#KCvsLAC | #BoltUp pic.twitter.com/K3LoNrJ3h7
Patrick Mahomes & Travis Kelce (7-yd TD)— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) December 17, 2021
Mahomes Speed: 13.79 mph*
Target Separation: 1.4 yds
Completion Probability: 28.4%
*Mahomes On the Run (8+ mph): 6/8, 118 yards, TD#KCvsLAC | #ChiefsKingdom pic.twitter.com/fVraHL9SR9
Kansas City’s defense deserves a lot of credit for stalling the Los Angeles drive at the end of regulation. The Chargers would not get the ball again — and Mahomes Magic would ensue in overtime.
Yet despite the loss, the Chargers do not seem like they are going anywhere. If Los Angeles continues to make sound moves in the draft and free agency, Kansas City cannot afford to miss, either. For the next decade, it looks like the Chiefs will be in a divisional battle.
2. The Chiefs just know how to win
When you zoom out, Kansas City’s 10-4 record — coupled with its current position atop the AFC — shows a steady team that has stacked wins. But those who have followed the team closely this season know the reasons for its success have been anything but steady. The 2021 Chiefs have been a pendulum, swinging the responsibility for the team’s progress back and forth without warning.
In Weeks 1-6, the offense took the lead as the defense rounded into form. While the Chiefs started the season with a 3-3 record, the offense’s 30-plus points per game were critical to helping the team weather a historically bad start from its defense.
Then — after the offense ran into a brick wall against the Tennessee Titans in Week 7 — the Chiefs’ defense took responsibility for keeping the team on track. Down 27-0 at halftime in that game, Kansas City’s previously shaky unit shut out the Titans in the second half. From there, the defense took the reins for a six-game winning streak. As the offense struggled to score against teams not named the Las Vegas Raiders, the defense held opposing offenses to under 11 points per game over that stretch.
On Thursday night, the pendulum swung back again. All the staples of Kansas City’s winning streak struggled to materialize against the Chargers. The run defense was gashed to the tune of 192 yards. The pass rush struggled to get pressure. The running game couldn’t get going. Special teams made early mistakes. All that was left was a passing game that had not proven it could perform consistently against two-high safety looks — and when the team needed it the most, it rose to the occasion.
So long as the Chiefs keep a wrecking ball affixed to the pendulum, it might end up that all this swinging back-and-forth will end up as a net-positive.
3. You can only hope to contain Mahomes, Kelce and Hill
The trio of Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill and Mahomes authored Kansas City’s offensive explosion on Thursday night — but only after a pedestrian (and at times dreadful) three quarters of football. As we’ve seen many times in recent weeks, the Chiefs followed a surgical opening touchdown drive with an extended period of sloppy play. Kansas City’s offense gained 111 yards in its first 15 plays (7.4 yards per play) — but only 74 yards in the 18 plays that followed (4.1 yards per play). After their opening drive, the Chiefs mustered just six points during their next six drives.
Their struggles peaked during a sequence that began at the end of the third quarter. Trailing 14-13, the Chiefs showed signs of life on an 11-play drive that went 70 yards. Then, on fourth-and-1 from the Los Angeles two-yard line, Mahomes threw one of the worst passes of his career. He never got a solid grip on the ball, which caused him to throw it into the turf. The pass fell way short of a wide-open Mecole Hardman and gave possession back to the Chargers.
After the Chiefs’ defense stalled the subsequent Los Angeles drive with a momentum-shifting turnover at the Kansas City two-yard line, the offense would (again) fall flat in spectacular fashion. On third-and-3 from the Chiefs’ nine-yard line, Mahomes floated a pass to the flat that was intercepted by Chargers linebacker Uchenna Nwosu. On the next play, the Chargers scored to take a 21-13 lead.
With 9:29 to go in the game, you could start to feel the familiar talking points creeping in. The offensive output against the Raiders was a mirage. Mahomes is broken. Kelce is washed up. Hill can’t create explosive plays.
Then, Kansas City’s stars flipped the switch. The Chiefs rattled off three 75-yard touchdown drives that averaged six plays and only 1:21 off the clock. Over that stretch, Mahomes was 10-for-13 for 197 yards and three touchdowns. Kelce accounted for many of those yards — including a 69-yard gain on third-and-5 and the game-winning 34-yard touchdown reception in overtime.
Kelce exploded for 10 receptions, a career-high 191 yards and two touchdowns. Hill followed suit, contributing several big plays down the stretch en route to 12 receptions, 148 yards and a touchdown. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Thursday night marked the second time Kelce and Hill each had 10 receptions and 100 receiving yards in a game. They’re the first duo in NFL history to do it more than once.
In other words, the holy triumvirate is still holy... and a triumvirate. Defenses may be able to hold down the talented trio for consecutive drives, quarters and even games. But make no mistake about it: Kansas City’s best offensive weapons still have the ability to become unstoppable at a moment’s notice. Thursday’s game was a terrifying reminder to the rest of the league that these guys are far from finished.
4. The defense runs through Chris Jones — but in his absence, its strides were apparent
Against the Chargers, the performance of Kansas City’s defense was simultaneously worrisome, revelatory and encouraging. The absences of L’Jarius Sneed, Willie Gay Jr. and Jones were felt throughout the night; the Chargers amassed 428 yards of offense (236 passing and 192 rushing).
In particular, replacing Jones proved to be an uphill battle. The Chargers routinely ran the ball into gaps that Jones would typically fill — and the Chiefs’ pass rush struggled to generate pressure without his game-wrecking presence on the interior. Many Chiefs observers credit Jones’ return to defensive tackle as the primary catalyst for the defense’s midseason turnaround. Given the number of relevant variables, that’s challenging to prove definitively — but Thursday night certainly gave credence to the argument.
Yet despite all the yards they surrendered with three of their stars sidelined, Kansas City’s defense showed maturity. The Chiefs forced the Chargers to give up the ball five times in Kansas City territory: one interception, one fumble and three turnovers on downs. Nick Bolton was a force throughout the night, accounting for a whopping 14 tackles (10 of which were solo) and three passes defended (one that led to an interception and another that caused a turnover on downs).
Earlier this season, offensive coordinators would have been champing at the bit to face a Chiefs’ defense giving significant snaps to the likes of Ben Niemann, Daniel Sorensen, Anthony Hitchens, Mike Hughes and Bolton. But on Thursday night — with its back against the wall — the group rose to the occasion to help seal a victory. Kansas City’s defense is playing with renewed confidence and toughness — and regardless of who is on the field, those traits are persisting.
5. Analytics is a liar sometimes
While watching the Chargers repeated turnovers on downs while deep in Chiefs territory, I couldn’t help but think of one of my favorite scenes from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. In it, Mac (played by Rob McElhenney) tries to disprove the theory of evolution by proclaiming that “science is a liar sometimes.”
“I’m not going to stand here and present some egghead scientific argument based on fact. I’m just a regular dude. I like to drink beer. You know, I love my family... I won’t change my mind. Because I don’t have to. Because I’m an American. I won’t change my mind on anything — regardless of the facts that are set out before me. I’m dug in — and I’ll never change.”
Well, Thursday night was a win for old-school football folks who are dug in and won’t change — because as it turns out, analytics is a liar sometimes.
Against the Chiefs, the Chargers attempted five fourth-down conversions — and the NFL Next Gen Stats Decision Guide agreed with all of them.
The #Chargers have gone for it on 4th down five times tonight. The NGS Decision Guide has agreed with Brandon Staley on all five decisions ✅— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) December 17, 2021
GO by 3.3% (5 to go)
GO by 4.8% (1)
GO by 0.3% (1)
GO by 3.9% (2)
GO by 5.1% (1) ️#KCvsLAC | Powered by @awscloud pic.twitter.com/J6QwgKoci0
Yet the Chargers failed to convert on three of those attempts — which occurred at Kansas City’s 5-yard line, 1-yard line and 28-yard line. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Chargers became the first team since at least 2000 to fail on fourth-and-goal twice before halftime.
These decisions may have cost the Chargers the game. But to be fair, the play-calling could have been more to blame than the math — and in Week 3, Los Angeles benefitted from similar gutsy decisions.
If I’m honest, once you write down “analytics is a liar sometimes” in your game notes, it simply has to be in the article. Count on it: in the next few days, the football world is going to implode while discussing this topic. Before that happens, we might as well have some fun with it.