KC's Big 3 Comes Up Clutch at the Right Time as Chiefs Seize Control of AFC West

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistDecember 17, 2021

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes reacts after throwing a touchdown pass to wide receiver Tyreek Hill during the second half of an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Chargers, Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

They're the Jordan-Pippen-Rodman of the NFL, or at least the LeBron-Wade-Bosh for a more contemporary comparison. In strictly football terms, they're the Aikman-Smith-Irvin of modern times. Their names are Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, and much to the relief of the Kansas City Chiefs and their fans, they appeared to finally turn a corner Thursday night. 

It wasn't supposed to take this long. Nobody expected Kansas City's triplets to struggle as much as they have with a lack of consistency and reliability this year.

Entering Week 15, Mahomes was merely the league's 17th-highest-rated passer, thanks in part to a tied-for-career-worst 12 interceptions. Kelce was on track to put together his worst season on paper since the Mahomes era started in K.C., and he and Hill had dropped a combined 17 passes (compared to just 18 in the previous two seasons combined). 

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Better late than never. 

In a critical 34-28 overtime victory over the division-rival Los Angeles Chargers, Mahomes completed 31 of 47 passes for 410 yards and three touchdowns. Kelce and Hill caught a combined 22 of those for 339 yards and all three scores. 

It truly was a three-man show. On short rest. On the road. In prime time. And with the AFC West lead on the line. 

The Chiefs have now won seven consecutive games to take relatively firm control of that highly competitive division, but this victory might wind up standing out as the ultimate turning point for a team that didn't look right in September, October or November. 

And it starts with that trio.

B/R Gridiron @brgridiron

.@tkelce and @cheetah WENT OFF for KC: Kelce: 10 REC, 191 YDs, 2 TDs Hill: 12 REC, 148 YDs, 1 TD WOW 🔥 https://t.co/Z24qN5lcXA

Mahomes completed 85 percent of the passes on which he targeted either Kelce or Hill, while no other player on the Chiefs offense compiled even 25 receiving yards. 

You know what's wild? As NFL Network's Rich Eisen rightly pointed out, that was still "widely considered an off-night" for the highest-rated passer in league history. He turned the ball over twice and was "only" 4-of-9 on deep passing attempts.

But he's the guy you worry the least about. Because he's good enough to dominate on off-nights, because he's remained more consistently effective than his top two targets this season and because he's a former MVP who has earned many benefits of doubt. He also recently lit up the Las Vegas Raiders twice in a four-game span, while Kelce hadn't recorded 70-plus yards and a touchdown in a single game since Week 2, and Hill had been held below the 100-yard mark in nine consecutive outings. 

Maybe this is all it'll take. Maybe, a Chargers defense that has some talent but ranked 20th in DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average at Football Outsiders) through 14 weeks woke a pair of sleeping giants Thursday night. 

If so, the rest of the AFC could very well be screwed. 

INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 16: Tyreek Hill #10 of the Kansas City Chiefs warms up before the game against the Los Angeles Chargers at SoFi Stadium on December 16, 2021 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

The Chiefs had already figured it out on defense. That unit was an embarrassment in September but has surrendered just 13.3 points per game during the seven-game winning streak. Thursday's defensive performance wasn't epic, but they did make several key fourth-down stops and did record a pair of takeaways. 

Put it all together, and the Chiefs are good again. Just as they move into the top spot in the AFC (at least until the New England Patriots and Tennessee Titans play this weekend), it's becoming obvious they'll be the team to beat in that conference in January. 

Nobody from the AFC has slayed that dragon the last two postseasons, and if that three-headed monster is even half as awesome as it was under difficult circumstances Thursday night, nobody is likely to do it this time around, either. 

The inevitable was delayed for longer than most would have expected. That's over with. The Chiefs are officially back, with their Big Three leading the way.


Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter: @Brad_Gagnon.