Before Thursday Night Football at Arrowhead Stadium, NFL teams this season were 0-88 with a 14-point deficit in the final five minutes of the game.
That zero just ticked up to one, and it came off the back of a huge effort from Philip Rivers and the Chargers on the road in maybe the toughest environment in football, as Los Angeles beat Kansas City 29-28 to pull even with them at 11-3 for the best record in the AFC.
There’s a ton to unpack from both sides of this, from playoff scenarios to a perfect two-point conversion play from the Chargers to steal the win from right under Patrick Mahomes’ nose. But there’s really only one major takeaway from each side here. And it comes in the context of two other games each team played this season.
First, the victors, who had a quarterback in his 15th season who had never come back from a 14-point deficit in the final five minutes of a game before tonight.
Rivers did so by going 10/16 for 126 passing yards on the final two drives, including the game-tying touchdown and game-winning two-point conversion with four seconds left. He made a throw to Antonio Gates on a pivotal third-and-2 to keep the first possession alive, and a huge clutch throw on fourth down with the game on the line to Travis Benjamin for 26 yards with 1:11 remaining.
Despite the fact that he threw two ugly interceptions earlier in the game, Philip Rivers answered the bell every single time the Chargers needed him to in the fourth quarter. They absorbed an early punch from Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs when they fell behind 14-0, and stayed in the game long enough to throw a haymaker of their own late.
It was reminiscent of how he stood and delivered at Heinz Field against the Steelers with his team trailing 23-7, going 13/16 for 152 yards while leading three second-half scoring drives to erase that deficit with a last-second win.
It also looked similar to how Rivers—despite not playing his best game—led three touchdown drives of at least 65 yards in front of the vaunted “12th Man” in Seattle. His defense made a goal-line stop on the final snap that day to preserve a 25-17 victory.
Put it together, and the Chargers have won one-possession games that came down to the final snap in Seattle, Pittsburgh and Kansas City this year, three of the toughest road environments in the league. Those three teams are a combined 13-6 (.684) at home this year, and 48-19 at home in the last three years (.716). None of them could beat these Chargers in their own building.
What these three wins showed is that the Chargers don’t care where they have to play in the playoffs, they don’t care about lining up against offensive juggernauts, and they certainly don’t care about their long, long history of crumbling in big moments.
The Chiefs, on the other hand, took crumbling in a big moment to another level again. Even with all of the fun Patrick Mahomes has brought to their offense and the video game-like numbers he puts up, there is a haunting truth for Kansas City about their three big games this year.
There is a strong argument to be made that the Chiefs have played in the three most exciting games of the NFL season—one in each of the three nationally televised slots—and lost all of them in similar fashion.
First, there was the Sunday Night Football game in Foxboro against the Patriots. Kansas City had a 33-30 lead in the fourth quarter, and they let New England march 75 yards in just over three minutes to take the lead. And after the Chiefs tied it back up with 3:03 to go, they let Tom Brady drive another 65 yards to give Stephen Gostkowski up for a game-winning field goal. The Patriots only even had to face a third down twice on the two drives, and they were both just third-and-1.
On Monday Night Football against the Rams, they let Los Angeles drive 75 yards down the field on two separate fourth quarter occasions for 14 crucial points. The first one came with the Chiefs up 44-40, and the second up 51-47. Like the Patriots, the Rams only needed three plays to pick up a first down on two occasions.
And now, on Thursday Night Football, drives of 60 and 75 yards propelled the Chargers to the win in the fourth quarter. Drives that included six different chunk plays of at least ten yards out of the Chargers.
When you total it all up, that’s six fourth-quarter drives on defense for the Chiefs in these three primetime games, and six touchdowns allowed. Those drives totaled 425 yards on 45 plays, good for a whopping 9.44 yards per play. The Chiefs have the seventh-worst fourth-quarter defense of any team in the league, and third-worst of any team currently in a playoff spot.
One defensive play in any of those fourth quarters would have been enough for a statement win – and would have left home-field advantage throughout January all but locked up. In reality, the Chiefs are a shaky 3-3 against teams currently in playoff spots, with two of those wins coming many moons ago in September.
Thursday night was the third time the Chargers played a nervy fourth quarter in an intimidating road environment, and they came out 3-0.
It was also the third time the Chiefs had a fellow Super Bowl contender on the ropes with a fourth-quarter lead under the lights, and they came out 0-3 with three defensive collapses.
In a league with a lot of quickly changing variables, those concrete three-game sample sizes perfectly sum up how both teams should feel heading into the playoffs.