The ball landed softly in Antonio Gates’ hands, and the Arrowhead Stadium crowd came to a sudden hush.
The yells from thrilled Los Angeles Chargers hung in the air, and for a moment –– just a moment –– you could feel the palpable concern in the announced crowd of 75,011 at Arrowhead Stadium as the Chargers took a three-point lead early in the third quarter of the first Saturday night home game in Arrowhead history.
But while this game had important ramifications in the AFC West race –– which, let’s face it, would have set the perfect backdrop for Gates’ touchdown catch to become the turning point in yet another crushing result for Chiefs fans –– whatever angst there was would quickly prove to be unfounded.
Because on this night, the Chiefs –– the same team that recently lost six of seven games –– responded with a vengeance and fury not seen since the 5-0 start to this season that seems so long ago. They rattled off four straight turnovers and 20 consecutive points to bury the Chargers 30-13.
“During that (losing) stretch, it just felt like it was one thing off,” tight end Travis Kelce said. “(But) sure enough, we have all manned up and taken it upon ourselves to be more accountable for each other.”
The win was the second straight overall, and eighth straight over the Chargers, 7-7, for the Chiefs, who improved to 8-6 and seized command of the AFC West.
With the win, the Chiefs’ magic number is now one. They can clinch their second straight division title with a win in one of their last two games against Miami, 6-7, or Denver, 4-9. They can also clinch the division if the Chargers and Raiders each lose a game.
And appropriately enough, there were no shortage of heroes, who all redeemed themselves in a massive victory after dealing with recent adversity.
Start with cornerback Marcus Peters, who missed the Chiefs’ win over the Raiders last Sunday due to a one-game suspension for his actions in a loss to the Jets the week before.
“He had the suspension and then he came back, he was great all week and he was great today,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said.
Peters recorded two of the interceptions in the victory, pacing a more aggressive defense under defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, who dialed up more blitzes to force four turnovers and hold the league’s third-ranked passing offense in check for only 227 yards, the Chargers’ lowest total in weeks.
“They were aggressive –– everybody rallied to the ball from the defensive side,” Reid said.
And don’t forget the much-maligned offensive line, which failed to create any movement in the running game during the losing streak but helped running back Kareem Hunt gash the Chargers for 155 yards and a touchdown in 24 carries as he surpassed Joe Delaney for the most rushing yards ever by a Chiefs rookie, set in 1981.
“You’ve seen we’ve spread people out a little bit more –– we’ve given Alex a few more of the run-pass options,” Reid said. “The offensive line I think’s done a nice job.”
And on and on it went.
“Those are the traits you were seeing in the beginning of the season, man,” defensive tackle Rakeem Nunez-Roches said. “And to getting back to it, man? It feels good.”
The good vibes paid off from the start, when tight end Orson Charles saved the Chiefs from disaster by chasing down a punt that deflected off safety Daniel Sorensen and recovering it to prevent the Chargers from a potentially easy score.
The offense followed Charles’ lead and mounted a 15-play, 82-yard scoring drive in which they overcame a second-and-18 at one point and took a 3-0 lead into the second quarter, thanks to a 31-yard field goal by Harrison Butker.
That was just the start, however. The Chiefs quickly added to the lead on their next drive, courtesy of a big-boy throw by quarterback Alex Smith, who uncorked a gorgeous deep ball down the right sideline that receiver Tyreek Hill –– who had multiple steps on Pro Bowl cornerback Casey Hayward –– ran under and hauled in for a 64-yard touchdown that put the Chiefs ahead by 10.
“He almost overthrew me,” said Hill, who surpassed 1,000 receiving yards on the season. “I went to the sidelines and gave him (guff) for it. It was a good ball and I was able to run up under it.”
The Chargers, however, wouldn’t go down without a fight, as quarterback Philip Rivers (20 of 36 for 227 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions) came out slinging on their next drive. Three completions –– and a pass-interference penalty on Darrelle Revis –– later, running back Melvin Gordon (19 carries for 78 yards and a touchdown) capped the 75-yard march with a 2-yard touchdown run.
Chargers kicker Travis Coons missed the ensuing extra point, and the Chiefs still led 10-6 with 2 minutes left. That would be the score at halftime, too, after Butker pushed a 52-yard field goal wide left with only seconds remaining in the half.
The bad vibes caused by the missed field goal continued in the second half. The Chiefs’ offense accomplished little on its first drive and punted the ball after four plays.
The Chargers got the ball back, and Rivers promptly showed them how it’s done by completing his next five passes. On the first play, Rivers found Gordon in single coverage on inside linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis, who couldn’t keep up with the speedy back and could only watch as Gordon took a short catch 49 yards.
Rivers showed more gumption by standing in the face of a blitz on third and 10 and delivering a strike to receiver Keenan Allen for a first down, then delivering a gorgeous throw to Gates –– who had several steps on Chiefs inside linebacker Derrick Johnson in the end zone –– for a touchdown that silenced the crowd and gave the Chargers a 13-10 lead with 9 minutes left in the third quarter.
Given the amount of heartache the Chiefs have caused their fans this season –– let alone over the years –– it’s hard to blame the crowd for the self-reflection.
But the Chiefs and Smith, who completed 23 of 30 passes for 231 yards and two touchdowns, would soon give them reason to cheer again.
Like Rivers, Smith was perfect on the Chiefs’ ensuing scoring drive, completing all five of his passes, with the last being a 3-yard toss to Hunt, who leaked into the flat for a touchdown that not only gave the Chiefs a 17-13 lead, but the momentum as well.
Three plays later, Rivers –– who had done such a good job protecting the football over the last month –– uncorked a deep ball into double coverage that Peters hauled in for his team-leading fourth interception of the season.
Peters returned it 62 yards to give the Chiefs’ offense the ball at the Chargers’ 6-yard line, and it marked the first of four straight turnovers the Chiefs forced.
“Once we got one,” cornerback Steven Nelson said, “they just kept coming.”
After a 5-yard gain by Hunt put the Chiefs on the doorstep of a score, a false-start penalty on guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif made for a tougher task against one of the league’s best red-zone defenses.
And after an incompletion by Smith and a drop in the end zone by Hunt –– which was challenged by Reid and overruled –– the Chiefs were forced to settle for a 24-yard field goal that gave them a 20-13 lead entering the fourth quarter.
Peters, however, wasn’t done making his presence felt. On the Chargers’ next drive, he teamed up with inside linebacker Reggie Ragland to strip running back Austin Ekeler, forcing a fumble that was recovered by safety Ron Parker to put the Chiefs in business once again.
And though the offense failed to get it in the end zone, Butker’s ensuing 51-yard field goal made it a two-score game as the Chiefs took a 23-13 lead with approximately 11 minutes left.
The Chargers’ desperation continued to increase, and the Chiefs continued to take advantage. After an important open-field tackle by Peters –– who hauled down speedy receiver Travis Benjamin on third and 8 just short of the sticks –– Rivers, who was under pressure, lofted a desperation throw that Parker hauled in for the Chiefs’ third straight takeaway.
“We kind of fell apart in a sense,” Rivers said. “We didn’t execute how we have been executing.”
The Chiefs’ offensive line would soon finish the Chargers off by leading the way for a 5-yard touchdown run by Hunt that pushed the lead to 17 with 4 minutes left. Peters finished the night off with his second interception of Rivers to effectively bury the Chargers.
The pick was the perfect ending on a night that was full of redemption stories.
“Everybody leapt off of the bandwagon the last couple of weeks but that’s good –– we stuck this thing out the last couple of weeks together as a family and that’s good,” Parker said. “I think we did a good job as a team just staying together.”