Philip Rivers couldn’t have had a worse start to Thursday night. His very first pass was intercepted by Steven Nelson, and — before the first quarter ended — the Kansas City Chiefs used that early jolt to build a 14-0 lead.
The Los Angeles Chargers didn’t get their first lead of the night until eight seconds were left on the clock in the fourth quarter at Arrowhead Stadium. Rivers found second-year wide receiver Mike Williams for a 1-yard touchdown, then threw to Williams again on a two-point conversion to capture a 29-28 win for the Chargers.
The come-from-behind victory meant a few things:
- The Chargers are going to the playoffs for the first time since 2013. It wasn’t really in doubt, but Los Angeles made it official and clinched a spot Thursday.
- The Chiefs couldn’t win the AFC West this week, and the race is still alive.
- Home-field advantage will probably belong to the AFC West winner, but the Patriots and Texans still have a shot.
- The Chargers’ nine-game losing streak against the Chiefs is over.
But what the win doesn’t mean is that the Chargers are now on the AFC West favorites. Even after the loss, the Chiefs are still just two more wins away from locking that up due to the divisional record tiebreaker. There’s still a chance for the Chargers (3-2 in the AFC West) to climb to even in the divisional tiebreaker if they beat the Broncos in Week 17, but that would involve the Chiefs (4-1 in the division) losing to the Raiders.
No matter how the AFC West drag race finishes, either the Chiefs or the Chargers will own the No. 5 seed, and the other will probably be the top-seeded team in the AFC. And if we’re lucky, it’ll set us up with a rubber match.
The Chiefs and Chargers are the two best teams in the AFC
After the Chargers’ win Thursday, both teams are 11-3. That’s two wins better than any other team in the conference heading into the weekend.
Kansas City is on pace to finish as the third-most prolific scoring offense in the history of the NFL. Patrick Mahomes is having a season that will probably end with him earning the NFL MVP award, and it will also go down as one of the best seasons a quarterback has ever had.
He’s now at 45 passing touchdowns on the year — the sixth-most in a season — after throwing two more against the Chargers. He’ll have two more games to try to join Peyton Manning and Tom Brady and become the third quarterback to ever reach 50 touchdowns in a season.
And despite all that, the Chargers may be even better.
While the Chiefs are the better team on offense, it isn’t by that much. Los Angeles is light years ahead of Kansas City on defense, though. Down the board, the Chargers are just plain good at everything.
Meanwhile, the rest of the AFC leaves much to be desired.
The Patriots are always dangerous — especially in January. They even beat the Chiefs this season. But they also have puzzling blowout losses to the Lions and Titans, an inexplicable blow-it against the Dolphins, and an early-season loss to the Jaguars that is aging horribly.
Houston notched nine straight wins to climb out of an 0-3 hole. Then just when it looked like the Texans were ready to step into the spotlight, they got pieced up by the Colts’ Andrew Luck in Week 14.
The Chargers’ only losses were September games against the Chiefs and Rams, as well as a 23-22 loss to the Broncos in Week 11. Prior to Thursday, Kansas City’s only losses were to the Patriots and Rams. The Chiefs lost those three games by a total of seven points.
Without question, the Chiefs and Chargers have been the most consistently impressive teams in the conference all year.
Does home field even matter in Chiefs vs. Chargers?
Kansas City opened the season by traveling to play the Chargers in StubHub Center — which was absolutely loaded with the Chiefs fans.
How many Chargers fans do you see in this image of a Chargers home game pic.twitter.com/F97c2YiQuu— Rodger Sherman (@rodger) September 9, 2018
Less than two minutes into the game, Tyreek Hill returned a punt 91 yards for a touchdown. Later in the first quarter, Hill caught a 58-yard touchdown, and — just like that — it was 14-3 Chiefs.
Two fourth-quarter touchdowns for the Chargers closed the gap some, but the Chiefs held on 38-28 for a key road win to get the season started strong.
That all sounds really similar to the Thursday Night Football game, right? Except in Week 15, the Chargers actually pulled off the comeback.
The Chargers erased a 14-point deficit in the final 5 minutes to stun the Chiefs, 29-28.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 14, 2018
Entering Thursday, teams were 0-88 this season when trailing by 14+ points in the final 5 min of regulation. Philip Rivers was 0-20 in his career in those situations. pic.twitter.com/7nk902lypr
The win Thursday improved the Chargers’ road record to 6-1. That’s even better than their home record of 5-2. Maybe it’s that they’re a mature team capable of handling adversity, or maybe the Chargers are just used to playing in front of opposing fans, whether they’re home or away.
Whatever it is, the Chargers seem unfazed by hostile territory.
“Games like today. Games like the one in Seattle. At Pittsburgh. This is as playoff-like as you can get,” Rivers told NFL Network after the win Thursday. “We’ve had to be in a lot of close games — we lost a couple, we won a handful — and so I think we’re as equipped [for the playoffs] as you can get.”
That’s a good thing, because — barring another Chiefs loss — it’ll probably be nothing but road games for the Chargers in the playoffs. That doesn’t look like much of a problem.
How likely is the threematch?
In a perfect world, the NFL playoffs are designed to build a path for the two best teams to face off in the conference championship. It doesn’t always work out that way — especially if the two best records are in the same division.
There’s a real chance a 13-win team will wind up with a wild card berth for only the second time in NFL history. The only other team to do it was the 1999 Tennessee Titans, but that team went to the Super Bowl anyway and literally lost by only a couple feet.
In the case of the Chargers and Chiefs, a meeting as early as the Divisional Round is very possible.
The top-seeded team in the conference — which will likely be the AFC West winner — will play the lowest-seeded team to advance through the Wild Card Round. That could be the No. 5 seed.
It’s not that uncommon for divisional opponents to meet for a rubber match. It just recently happened in four consecutive years with the Vikings and Packers in 2013, the Seahawks and 49ers in 2014, the Steelers and Ravens in 2015, and the Steelers and Bengals in 2016.
The way to guarantee that third game happens for the Chargers and Chiefs is for both teams to just keep winning.
“I imagine they’re going to be deep in the playoffs and for us to get to our ultimate prize, we may have to play them again,” Rivers told Fox’s Kristina Pink of the Chiefs. “Now, I’m not jumping ahead — there’s a lot of other good teams in the AFC — but this is a good football team and we overcame some turnovers early and found a way.
“The Chiefs can still win out and win the division, but at least we gave ourselves a chance and we know we’re in the tournament. Hopefully we get to play them again.”
The Chargers couldn’t come back against the Chiefs in Week 1, and just barely pulled it off Thursday. But they also managed to hold the Chiefs offense to an average of 328 yards in those two games, while the Chargers offense averaged 474.
They found that success Thursday, despite having running backs Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler out of action, and No. 1 receiver Keenan Allen sidelined for the entire second half.
Maybe a third game would finally have stars like Joey Bosa, Gordon, Allen, Eric Berry, and Sammy Watkins all healthy and ready to play, and we could see what both teams are close to 100 percent. Regardless, Thursday was more proof that another game between the Chiefs and Chargers is something worth crossing our fingers for.