Someday, the Chargers hope, quarterback Justin Herbert regularly will pull off the kind of dramatic, heart-stopping drives that turn likely defeats into nail-biting victories and make the Chargers a playoff team with realistic championship aspirations.
Herbert and the Chargers haven’t reached that stage yet. They’re far from it. And on Sunday they got a painful lesson in how a good team gets it done, absorbing a stinging 30-27 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs that made their path to the postseason a lot more treacherous, though not yet impossible.
Once Kansas City got the ball back with 1 minute 46 seconds left in the fourth quarter Sunday before a crowd overwhelmingly wearing Chiefs red at SoFi Stadium, it wasn’t a question of whether quarterback Patrick Mahomes would engineer a winning comeback. The only question was how he’d do it.
“He gives you that confidence,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “The more you’re around him, the more you see what he does, you know you have a shot.”
Last week, while preparing to face the Chiefs, Herbert expressed his admiration for Mahomes.
“There is not a throw on the field that he can’t make. He’s able to do everything,” Herbert said. “He’s obviously one of the best to ever do it.”
Mahomes proved him right, to the Chargers’ disappointment.
Poised, precise and deadly accurate, Mahomes led the Chiefs through a seven-play, 75-yard drive capped by a 17-yard touchdown pass to Travis Kelce that ate up 1:15 on the clock.
The Chargers got the ball back with 31 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter but got nowhere, with Herbert sacked and then intercepted.
The Chargers, riddled by injuries and without wide receiver Mike Williams after he reinjured his ankle in the second quarter, deserved an A for effort, even if their grade for execution is much less.
“It seems like every time we come here it comes down to something like this,” Reid said. “It’s ridiculous.”
The Chiefs, 8-2 and winners of four straight games, have a stranglehold on first place in the AFC West. The Chargers are 5-5 after losing two straight and three of the last four. There’s never a good time to stumble, but this is especially bad timing. As Chargers coach Brandon Staley noted last week, “the games start to get bigger later on in the season. Each game means more once you get past halfway.”
That also makes every stumble that much more magnified, every missed tackle and missed opportunity a setback that leads them closer to another playoff miss.
“We’ve got to make more plays, simple as that,” Staley said after the game. “We didn’t make enough plays in the fourth quarter, in the second half.”
With the defending Super Bowl champion Rams losing again and spiraling toward oblivion, the Chargers had a chance to grab the city’s attention, if not a permanent hold on fans’ hearts. A victory over Kansas City would have brought them into the spotlight and closer to a playoff position. Herbert, young and vibrant and strong-armed, has the talent and magnetism to shine.
But on Sunday, Mahomes showed him and the Chargers how far away they are from dominating the city or the division.
“We didn’t put up enough points today,” said Herbert, who completed 23 of 30 passes for 280 yards and two touchdowns, and also rushed for 17 yards. “We’re going to keep battling. We’ll watch the film, painful as it may be, and get better.”
The film will show some good things. They regained receiver Keenan Allen, who had missed the previous two games because of a hamstring injury, and he made five catches (on eight targets) for 94 yards. Joshua Palmer made eight catches for 106 yards and two touchdowns, including the six-yard touchdown pass that gave the Chargers a 27-23 lead late in the fourth quarter.
But that wasn’t enough to hold off Mahomes and the Chiefs.
“This team is special. We believe in each other,” Herbert said with admirable loyalty, though it was difficult to see his point while the memory of the loss was still fresh.
What now for the Chargers? They have to pick out the good points from Sunday, hope they’ll regain some bodies as players get healthier, and wish the situation will be reversed someday and that they’re the team pulling off exciting rallies that lead to season-changing wins.
For the short term, what’s next is that they must win their next two games, at Arizona next Sunday and at Las Vegas the week after that, because their path will only get tougher in the following weeks, against the Dolphins and Titans at home.
Is a playoff berth doable? Yes, but they’ll need a lot of help, and that’s never guaranteed.
“We competed at the high level that we need moving forward,” Staley said. “Everything’s in front of us.”
Including that misty, far-off day when they do to others what Mahomes and the Chiefs did to them on Sunday.