Just before the end of the third quarter during Thursday night’s game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers, Kansas City found itself with a fourth-and-1 at the Los Angeles 2-yard line. Trailing 14-13, the Chiefs felt they needed more than a field goal. It was hard to argue otherwise. After a typically-crisp opening drive — followed by a string of typically-uneven possessions — the Chargers had the upper hand.
So the Chiefs called a reliable play in such a situation: a quick pass to Mecole Hardman in the left flat. Lined up on the left, his motion to the right carried Chargers cornerback Chris Harris Jr. across the formation. Then Hardman’s motion back to the left forced Harris to follow him — and also to swing out deeper into the end zone to avoid the Los Angeles defenders who were stacked up to stop what looked like a handoff to running back Darrel Williams. This created the separation Kansas City was looking for. At the snap, Hardman was wide open.
And quarterback Patrick Mahomes threw the ball into the dirt.
Getting the ball at their own 1-yard line, the Chargers did exactly what they needed to do: execute a long drive to go the length of the field — just as they had been doing all evening. But on third-and-1 at the Kansas City 1-yard line, the Chiefs’ defenders did what they had been throughout the game: with their backs to the wall, they made a big play.
Defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi went low, taking Chargers left guard Matt Fell to the ground — creating an opening for linebacker Ben Niemann to meet running back Joshua Kelley head-on as he tried to vault over Nnadi and Fell’s bodies. Niemann jarred the ball loose — and defensive tackle Tershawn Wharton flipped it away. When officials cleared the scrum, Niemann had the ball in his hands.
But three plays later, Mahomes didn’t allow for Los Angeles linebacker Uchenna Nwosu, who tipped his pass to running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire high into the air — and then came down with it at the Kansas City 2-yard line. On the next play, running back Austin Ekeler scored effortlessly around the left end to make the score 21-13.
But by then — after their head coach Branden Staley had made multiple bad decisions that had left as many as nine points off the scoreboard — the Chargers had already made their most crucial error of the night. Midway through the fourth quarter — just after Nwosu had intercepted Mahomes — they posed in the end zone for a group photo.
This time, Mahomes didn’t come to the sideline and ask offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, “Is there time to run WASP?” Already on the sideline, he turned to backup quarterback Chad Henne and said, “Hold my beer.”
OK... I made that up. Mahomes didn’t say that. But he might as well have said it.
After just four minutes and three seconds of offensive game time — and 18 plays that gained 225 yards over three drives — the Chiefs were walking off the field with a 36-28 overtime victory.
Mahomes didn’t do it by himself. He had help from tight end Travis Kelce, who accounted for at least 93 of those yards after his catches. Tyreek Hill also made key receptions — including a spectacular touchdown grab to close the first drive. On the two-point conversion that followed, Edwards-Helaire changed his role from “outlet receiver” to “wideout helping his quarterback,” slicing into the end zone from the right flat and getting open across the middle to make the catch that made all the rest of it possible.
The Chiefs still have a lot of problems to solve.
Despite its explosion at the end of the game, the offense has to find a way to be more consistent. Against good teams, the defense needs to find a way to be successful without first being backed into critical situations — although in fairness, just getting Chris Jones, L’Jarius Sneed and Willie Gay Jr. back into the lineup might do exactly that. And after spectacular outings in recent games, the Chiefs’ special teams showed some plays on Thursday night they’d probably like to take back. None of these issues are new; Kansas City has had such problems over most of the 2021 season.
But on Thursday night, the Chiefs showed us something that we hadn’t seen for quite a while: that they still have the hearts of champions.
As we learned in the 2019 postseason... sometimes, that’s all you need.