KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- You can talk about rosters and talent and offseason moves all you want when it comes to the Los Angeles Chargers. What they learned on Thursday night is that none of that stuff means as much in the NFL as knowing how to win. The Bolts clearly have a ways to still go in grasping that reality. The Kansas City Chiefs, on the other hand, proved yet again that they have that skill down to an art form.
There are a lot of ways to make sense of what happened in Kansas City's 27-24 win over Los Angeles. The simplest is to say the Chiefs just have a better knack for making the key plays when they matter most. While the Chargers controlled three quarters of this game, the Chiefs were the ones who ran away with it when they had the opportunity. It's a major reason behind their current streak of six consecutive AFC West titles -- and why all those division opponents need to pay close attention to how this one went down.
The Chargers came into Thursday night looking for an opportunity to send a message about their hopes for divisional supremacy. The Chiefs made an even louder statement about what it takes to beat the champs.
"When you get chances against that team, you have to make sure you capitalize," Chargers head coach Brandon Staley said. "We had some opportunities tonight and we didn't finish them."
This was billed as the biggest game of the week for good reason. The Chargers came into the season with a lot of hype about winning the division, especially after adding outside linebacker Khalil Mack and cornerback J.C. Jackson to their defense during the offseason. The Chiefs were relying on an assortment of changes to their roster as well, with a number of new receivers on offense and plenty of turnover on defense. Of course, the quarterbacks for both teams -- Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City and Justin Herbert in Los Angeles -- are already elite talents.
The question facing the Chiefs was how all their changes might impact a team that has hosted four consecutive AFC title games, played in two Super Bowls and won a championship over the last four years. Now we know. The Chiefs beat up on the Arizona Cardinals in Week 1, producing a 44-21 win. This one was far more impressive because of the quality of the opponent and the importance of every victory in a division that featured major roster moves by every team.
The first thing to know about the Chiefs is that they're still scrappy. The trade that sent Pro Bowl wide receiver Tyreek Hill to Miami during the offseason has created a team that relies more on longer drives and a variety of options in the passing game to make plays. It says plenty that both of Kansas City's offensive touchdowns were scored on passes from Mahomes to backups -- a 9-yard catch by running back Jerick McKinnon and a 41-yard grab for wide receiver Justin Watson. It says even more that the Chiefs' young defense met the moment.
Kansas City wouldn't have won this game without the key stops that its defense achieved in the second half. The Chargers wound up with more total yards (401 to 319), but they converted just five of their 16 third-down opportunities. They also committed the game's only turnover, a 99-yard pick-six by rookie cornerback Jaylen Watson that gave Kansas City its first lead of the game, at 24-17, in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, Chargers cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. dropped two potential interceptions and Los Angeles had two other picks negated by penalties.
"We just hung around," Mahomes said. "That's the biggest thing: Our defense kept us in the game. We didn't play our best football and it was huge for our defense to keep us in the game, make some plays and get some points on the board -- and just give us a chance. With a young defense like that, to see that so early in the season, I think that will carry us the rest of the way."
The importance of this game to Kansas City can't be underestimated. The Chiefs came into this season facing one of the toughest schedules in the league, as seven of their first eight games involved teams that qualified for the postseason in 2021. The next two weeks feature road trips to Indianapolis and Tampa Bay, followed by matchups with the Raiders, Bills, 49ers and Titans. Every victory the Chiefs gain at this point will matter before the schedule lightens up in the second half.
There's also some pride at play here. The Chiefs heard the questions about how this offense might function without Hill and whether that revamped defense might be too young to handle all that comes with so many high-pressure games. The Chiefs spent the last six years letting their trophy case speak for their abilities. It's obvious they don't expect to take a step back just because the star power on the roster has been diminished.
Thursday night's game proved Kansas City still has the two most important stars in this run of success: Mahomes and head coach Andy Reid. Herbert generated nice numbers (33-for-48 passing, 334 yards and three touchdowns) and played through a rib injury sustained late in the game, but that pick-six was devastating. Staley also has to wonder about the offensive play-calling and lack of execution in short-yardage situations on third downs. The Chargers continually failed in those moments and those issues kept them from seizing control of the game.
It is smart to remember that we are very early in the season. There are still 15 games to go for both the Chargers and Chiefs; a lot will happen over the next few months. It's quite likely that every AFC West matchup will have this level of drama and suspense baked into the competition. All these teams think they have a chance to take the crown the Chiefs have held for so long.
The difference is that Kansas City hasn't been this dominant in the AFC West solely because of the talent amassed over the years. The Chiefs have accomplished that much success by learning a variety of critical tricks during their reign. The most important of those is that great teams understand how vital it is to not beat yourself. If the Chargers ever want to get past Kansas City, they'd better start paying attention to that one.
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