The Los Angeles Chargers carried plenty of hype entering the 2022 NFL season, and for good reason. They have their franchise quarterback in Justin Herbert. They have a great collection of skill players, and they added two premier defenders in Khalil Mack and J.C. Jackson during the offseason.
There was a feeling that Los Angeles could be the new team to beat in the AFC West and one of the best in the conference. For the better part of four quarters against the Kansas City Chiefs on Thursday night, this seemed to be the case.
Then, a critical miscue by the offense changed everything.
The Chargers had the ball on the Kansas City three-yard line with 10:45 remaining in a tie ball game. He threw an accurate pass to Gerald Everett at the goal line, but the route was jumped by Chiefs rookie cornerback Jaylen Watson—who took it 99 yards to the house.
This was the only glaring mistake Herbert made during the game—and one could argue that while Herbert was a tad late on the delivery, Everett didn't work back to the ball and it was a great defensive play by Watson. One could also argue that Everett gave up on the play and should bear the blame in L.A. However, it completely changed the complexion of the contest.
The Chargers made things interesting late with a touchdown drive and an onside kick.
One mistake cost Los Angeles a chance to take over the division and become the team to chase. The good news is that the Chargers can learn a few lessons from the loss and battle back over their final 15 games.
(Almost) Everything was Going the Chargers' Way
Let's be clear. This wasn't a perfect game by the Chargers outside of the pick-six. However, Los Angeles was in clear control in the first half and could have regained control with a score instead of an interception on the drive in question.
Los Angeles only led 10-7 at halftime, but the Chiefs were very fortunate to be that close. The Chargers defense had Patrick Mahomes flustered, offensive tempo changes limited the Kansas City pass rush, and Herbert's connection with Mike Williams seemed unstoppable.
Williams finished the first half with six catches for 84 yards.
Things got tougher in the second half, especially with offensive linemen Corey Linsley (knee) and Trey Pipkins III (ankles) leaving with injuries. The Chiefs pass rush started to put pressure on Herbert, and the game became much more even.
The teams traded touchdowns in the third quarter, and Kansas City tied it up with a fourth-quarter field goal. However, a personal foul on the ensuing kickoff put L.A. in prime field position at their own 40-yard line.
A few plays later, Los Angeles was inside the five-yard line and poised to regain the lead. Then, the interception happened, and Kansas City jumped to a 10-point lead before the Chargers' final drive. And there's no sugarcoating it, Herbert's interception was a backbreaker.
However, that turnover is not the only reason why L.A. failed to come away with the win.
Missed Opportunities Cost the Chargers Late
For as well as the Chargers played early, missed opportunities cost them late. Watson's interception will remain the highlight of the night, but it might not have mattered much if Los Angeles had capitalized.
Cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. should have had two interceptions, one in the end zone and one that was eventually overturned after review.
Nasir Adderley also had a pick that was nullified by a penalty. The Chiefs scored touchdowns after each interception that was called back. Obviously, the game would have been much different had any one of these turnovers stood. Against a quarterback like Mahomes, the defense has to hang onto errant passes and not extend drives with penalties.
The Chargers also missed on a chance to turn this game into a blowout in the first half. Usually-aggressive head coach Brandon Staley opted to punt on 4th-and-2 from the Chiefs' 47-yard line in the second quarter. He did it again on 4th-and-2 from the Chiefs' 48 on the next possession.
This seemed like a big departure from what we saw from Staley last season. The Chargers converted a league-high 22 4th-down attempts, and Staley has preached a need for aggressiveness.
"There has to be a fearlessness to play in this game, and what I wanted to establish was that," Staley said this summer, per Daniel Popper of The Athletic.
The Chargers had a chance to impose their will on the Chiefs by staying aggressive in the first half—they did convert on fourth down on their first touchdown drive and convert on 4-of-4 for the night—but they punted instead.
Letting Kansas City hang around was a mistake.
Third-down efficiency was also a problem for the Chargers, who converted only five of 16 attempts. It's also curious that Williams largely disappeared in the second half. He did have a touchdown reception, but he also caught a mere two passes after catching six in the first half.
With Keenan Allen (hamstring) out, Williams is the most dangerous pass-catcher on L.A.'s roster. His lack of usage in the second half and for the vast majority of Week 1 is curious.
Had the Chargers scored more points in the opening half, created takeaways extended drives more frequently and got Williams involved more often over the final two quarters, their lead might have been insurmountable by the time Watson made the night's big play.
There's No Reason to Panic
While this loss is going to sting for more than a week, there's no reason to believe that the Chargers can't be an elite team. Kansas City has remained one of the most consistently great teams over the past few seasons.
Let's not forget that the Chiefs have appeared in four consecutive AFC title games.
The margin for error against Kansas City will always be slim, and the Chargers now know what they need to do in the next meeting. They can't give up on plays late in games, can't afford to miss turnover opportunities and they cannot let up when the Chiefs are on the proverbial ropes.
The injuries along the offensive line are a concern, as is the hard shot Herbert took on Los Angeles' final drive. He appeared to be in a lot of pain after reentering the game, though he still made some incredible throws to get L.A. into the end zone.
Staley said after the game that Herbert is "OK" and that the injury, likely abdominal or ribs, shouldn't be an issue going forward, according to Popper.
If the Chargers can clean a few things up and learn a few lessons from Thursday's defeat, they'll be one of the most unstoppable squads in the conference. There's also a good chance that the Chargers start and finish as the better team when the Chiefs come to L.A. on Nov. 27.