Ever since the Kansas City Chiefs beat the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 1, the Chargers have been looking up at the Chiefs in the AFC West. Even after the Bolts peeled off nine wins in 10 games following a 1-2 start, Kansas City's victories overshadowed L.A.'s success.
On Thursday night, many expected the Chiefs would put the matter to rest. That Philip Rivers would continue to struggle at Arrowhead Stadium. That the Chargers would do what the Chargers have always done: come up short when the lights are brightest.
Instead, Rivers rallied his team from a 14-point deficit for the 11th time in his career, finding Mike Williams for a two-point conversion with four seconds left to stun Kansas City and set up a two-game race to the finish for the AFC West title and potentially the conference's No. 1 seed.
In doing so, Rivers and the Chargers sent a message. It was one the team's been sending all season—not that anyone was listening.
They are the most dangerous team in the AFC.
You read that correctly.
In the early going Thursday, it appeared that the only message that'd be sent was: "Chargers gotta Charger." Rivers' first pass was a terrible throw to Tyrell Williams that resulted in an interception. The Chiefs scored on their first two drives. Before the cheese on your nachos had time to congeal, it was 14-0 and looked like Kansas City would cruise.
However, the Chargers hung around. Despite a second bad throw from Rivers that the Chiefs picked off deep in their territory, the Los Angeles defense kept the Chargers from falling any further off the pace. It was 14-7 after two quarters. When Kansas City took the second-half kick and scored after a seven-play drive, L.A. answered.
Then came a 13-play, 73-yard drive aided by four Chargers penalties that took seven minutes, 55 seconds off the clock. That gave the Chiefs a 14-point lead about halfway through the final quarter, and it appeared the Chargers would again lose a huge game.
Except someone forgot to tell the Chargers. Rivers led the Bolts on an 11-play drive to get back within a score. The Chargers forced a three-and-out. And with 2:37 to go, L.A. had the ball with a chance.
Rivers engineered an eight-play, 60-yard drive that included overcoming a hold on the first snap and a fourth-down conversion. When Rivers found Mike Williams for the receiver's third touchdown of the game with four seconds left, jaws hit the ground all over Arrowhead.
When Rivers hit Williams again for the two-point conversion that sealed the deal and shocked the Chiefs, those jaws fell clean off.
(As an aside, if that conversion didn't work, Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn would've been roasted for days. It's how that works: If you're successful, you're a gutsy genius. If it's not, you're a shortsighted knucklehead. Ask Mike Vrabel.)
In news that should surprise no one, Rivers was jazzed after the win while he spoke to Kristina Pink of Fox Sports.
"This team just kept fighting," Rivers said. "I had two terrible turnovers in the first half that I thought were gonna cost us. Every other category we held our own. We had more first downs, more time of possession and kept that dangerous offense off the field some. We ran the ball well without our two starting running backs. We just turned the ball over, and I thought it was going to cost us. But we overcame it. Heck of a team win."
The Chargers overcame quite a lot in this game. There were the turnovers. Seven penalties—many at the worst time. As Rivers said, the Chargers entered the contest without tailbacks Melvin Gordon (knee) and Austin Ekeler (neck, concussion) and lost top wideout Keenan Allen to a hip injury early.
But rookie Justin Jackson led a ground game that picked up 119 yards on 24 carries. Williams had the best outing of his career with 95 combined rushing and receiving yards, three touchdowns and that game-winning two-pointer. Even Antonio Gates dialed back the clock and made some huge catches.
Never mind that Melvin Ingram and the Los Angeles defense held the Chiefs 133.3 yards under their season average—in Kansas City.
The Chargers got big games from a number of players on both sides of the ball—and that's what makes them so dangerous. This team is loaded and balanced.
When he's healthy, the Chargers boast a top-five tailback in Gordon. A top-10 receiver in Allen. And a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback who's having an MVP-caliber season in Rivers. And the Chargers have the depth at running back (with Ekeler and Jackson) and wideout (with Mike and Tyrell Williams—no relation) to keep moving the ball even when Gordon and Allen are out.
They also have the best defense of any of the AFC's leading contenders—by a fair margin. With Joey Bosa back on the field, his batterymate, Ingram, appears to have recaptured last year's form. Los Angeles has one of the leading Defensive Rookie of the Year candidates in safety Derwin James, the NFL's most perennially underrated cornerback in Casey Hayward and a rising star in cornerback Desmond King II.
The Chargers entered Week 15 eighth in total defense and seventh in scoring defense. Sixth in total offense and fifth in scoring offense. There isn't another AFC contender that can boast top-10 rankings in all four of those categories. Not the Patriots. Not the Steelers. And not the defensively deficient Chiefs.
Now, this win, huge though it may be, may not be enough to capture the AFC West. By virtue of L.A.'s loss to the Denver Broncos in Week 11, the Chiefs have a better division record than the Chargers. They also have an easier final two games than L.A. The Chiefs will go to Seattle and face Oakland at home, while the Chargers will take on Baltimore at the StubHub Center and travel to Denver.
However, L.A. has won at Seattle. And at Pittsburgh. And now in Kansas City. It isn't sweating a road trip.
This win did two things: It punched the Chargers' ticket to the tournament for the first time since 2013. And it ratcheted up the pressure on every other division leader in the AFC to avoid the No. 4 seed at all costs.
Like the Steelers needed another reason to freak out.
Actually, the win did two more things: It cast off the notion that the 2018 Chargers were anything like past iterations of the team that couldn't seal the deal. And it opened the eyes of people around the country to the fact that the Chargers are a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Maybe the best team in the AFC.
Or even the NFL.
Again, you read that correctly.