There is only one way to play the Kansas City Chiefs: with guts.
Teams punt at their own peril. It doesn’t end well.
Those that would work the clock with an analytics guru at their hip quickly find out how far that gets them.
All conventional football wisdom flies out the window when it comes to Patrick Mahomes, Andy Reid and this juggernaut Chiefs offense. But it finally appears that a coach, a quarterback and a team in the A.F.C. West understand all that.
In a thrilling 30-24 win at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday, the Los Angeles Chargers proved they possess the swashbuckling mentality needed to compete in the Mahomes Era.
Chargers Coach Brandon Staley called pass plays often, early and late, and his quarterback, Justin Herbert, was up to the aggressive task, finishing with 281 yards on 26-of-38 attempts with four touchdown passes and no interceptions. Herbert now has a 2-1 record against Kansas City.
And these Chargers proved they aren’t those Chargers of old with a signature win.
Staley can match wits with Reid, who was taken by ambulance to a hospital after the game.
Herbert can swap haymakers with Mahomes.
This rivalry is going to be a lot of fun.
Even with the Chargers taking a 14-point lead in the first half, it seemed there was more than enough time for the usual Mahomes magic to develop. And that’s what happened in the third quarter as Mahomes threw two unanswered touchdown passes to trim the Kansas City deficit. The drama really ramped up when the Chiefs scored on an 8-yard pop pass to Mecole Hardman to take a 24-21 lead with 6 minutes 43 seconds to go.
But the Chargers punched back. First, Herbert directed a 10-play, 69-yard drive to tie it at 24. That’s when, just one week after his costly turnover in a loss to the Baltimore Ravens, Mahomes had another backbreaking error. His third-and-8 overthrow of tight end Travis Kelce was intercepted by Alohi Gilman at the Chargers’ 41-yard line with a little less than two minutes left.
The 23-year-old Herbert went back to work. On third-and-2 on that first set of downs, Herbert fired a 15-yarder to Keenan Allen in stride.
On fourth-and-4, with 48 seconds left, Staley bypassed a 47-yard field goal attempt to win it. And when his rookie left tackle, Rashawn Slater, was flagged for a false start? Staley kept the offense on the field for fourth-and-9. Herbert uncorked another fastball at receiver Jalen Guyton, who was interfered with by Chiefs cornerback DeAndre Baker. No, Staley and Herbert were not done. With the clock ticking to 41 seconds, and the ball at Kansas City’s 20-yard line, at Arrowhead, most teams would have opted to play for the field goal.
Not these Chargers.
Herbert lobbed a perfect 16-yard pass to Mike Williams, who got out of bounds, and then lofted a 4-yard score to Williams on first-and-10 with 32 seconds remaining, a call that had CBS analyst Tony Romo questioning whether the Chargers left Mahomes too much time.
But the former M.V.P.’s three pass attempts went uncaught and a final Hail Mary try fell short.
So much could have gone wrong for the Chargers while throwing the ball so late. Each incompletion made the case for a go-ahead field-goal attempt instead of forging ahead for a touchdown that would have required the Chiefs to go the length of the field to answer it. One sack could have been disastrous. One interception would have handed Kansas City the game.
Staley’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-4 and then again on fourth-and-9 marks a new fearlessness in the face of the Chiefs’ magic. It came the week after Ravens Coach John Harbaugh played for the win against Kansas City in Week 2. Those two coaches had to have recalled last season’s A.F.C. playoffs.
In the divisional round, down 22-17 to the Chiefs, Browns Coach Kevin Stefanski opted to punt on fourth-and-9 from his own 32-yard line with 4:19 remaining. The Browns never touched the ball again.
In the A.F.C. title game, Bills Coach Sean McDermott opted to kick a field goal from Kansas City’s 2-yard line at the end of the first half to cut Buffalo’s deficit to 21-12. And in the second half of that game, McDermott opted for another field goal on fourth down from the Chiefs’ 8-yard line. The Bills were blown out, 38-24.
Both are perfectly fine coaches building long-term winners.
Both made grave mistakes against the Chiefs.
Recognizing that the Chargers have one of the best young quarterbacks in football — one who is surrounded by talented receivers — there was zero need for Staley to play it safe.
Josh Allen is A-OK.
Buffalonians are overcome with the same “We can’t have nice things” fear every year. Eventually, we reason, everything is bound to go wrong. So even after Josh Allen finished second in the M.V.P. Award voting last season and even after the Bills won their first division title since 1995, a feeling of dread lingers in Western New York.
In a Week 1 loss to Pittsburgh, Allen looked like that raw rookie out of Wyoming.
In a Week 2 rout of Miami, he didn’t look much better.
Week 3? Allen eviscerated the Washington Football Team in a 43-21 win. With three touchdown passes to build a 21-0 lead early in the second quarter, Allen looked like the pinpointing thrower the Bills thought worthy of a six-year, $258 million contract this off-season.
He rolled right and slung a 28-yard pass to wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders in the end zone to cap Buffalo’s first drive.
Allen didn’t panic on the Bills’ third drive, when Washington defensive tackle Daron Payne brought pressure in the red zone. On third-and-4 from Washington’s 7-yard line, Allen shimmied to his right and hit running back Zack Moss in-stride with a touchdown pass.
When Jordan Poyer intercepted Taylor Heinicke on the ensuing Washington possession, giving the Bills a short field, Allen found tight end Dawson Knox’s back shoulder for a 14-yard score. The ball placement was perfect.
Washington cut the Bills’ lead to 21-14 with quick scores in the second quarter, but Buffalo smothered the threat with offense, scoring on five of its final seven possessions. Allen was accurate as ever, throwing for 358 yards, four touchdowns and no picks with a 129.8 passer rating.
Everything came so easy for the Bills’ passing game in 2020. Not since Jim Kelly in the early 1990s could locals expect something good to happen late in the fourth quarter instead of something bad.
Short-circuiting for two weeks ushered back in that feeling of impending doom. Sunday’s win brought on the realization that, as good as Stefon Diggs is, this Bills team is at its best when Allen is dealing to receivers — like Emmanuel Sanders, who hauled in two touchdown catches — all over the field.
The Steelers may have made a bad bet.
This was the massive risk the Pittsburgh Steelers took heading into 2021. They had no interest in a total rebuild and so they welcomed 39-year-old Ben Roethlisberger back — on a pay cut — to a division where Lamar Jackson (24), Baker Mayfield (26) and Joe Burrow (24) are the other starters.
With a lot of defense, and just enough of a ground game, Pittsburgh bet that a team that started 11-0 in 2020 could again rev into form as a Super Bowl contender. That may still turn out to be the case. Pittsburgh opened this 2021 season with a stunning win in Buffalo. But on Sunday, we learned this will be a very difficult bet to ride through another full season.
The A.F.C. North’s forever doormat waltzed into Heinz Field and dominated, winning at Pittsburgh, 24-10.
Burrow, a second-year quarterback who is coming off a heinous knee injury last season, finished with a 122.9 passer rating on 14-for-18 passing for 172 yards. The Steelers’ talented secondary struggled keeping up with Burrow and his former L.S.U. teammate Ja’Marr Chase, who caught two of his three touchdown passes.
Roethlisberger threw the ball a ridiculous 58 times, which is about 38 more times than Coach Mike Tomlin would probably like. Najee Harris, the running back drafted in the first round to change the ethos of this offense, has not been able to dominate fronts like he did at Alabama and that remade Steelers line may have something to do with it.
Pittsburgh got down early, was not able to play a clock-controlling run game and likely cannot help but wonder if Roethlisberger will be able to keep up in this division.
A Bit About Sunday’s Other Games
Ravens 19, Lions 17: Kickers matter. Justin Tucker’s game-winning, 66-yard field goal showed him as maybe the most clutch kicker of his generation. But let’s not forget what set up the longest kick in N.F.L. history: Lamar Jackson’s 36-yard strike to Sammy Watkins on fourth-and-19 from his own 16-yard line.
Cardinals 31, Jaguars 19: It was not pretty. A 68-yard field-goal attempt by the Cardinals backfired, badly, in the form of a 109-yard touchdown return. But Arizona sure lacked ugly wins last season. Now that they’re 3-0 for the first time since 2015, they should make no apologies.
Saints 28, Patriots 13: If Mac Jones needs to throw 51 times per game like he did Sunday, the Patriots aren’t going to win much. The play script got away from New England at home and, of course, Jameis Winston supplied the sort of touchdown pass only he can.
Falcons 17, Giants 14: The good news: Saquon Barkley scored his first touchdown since 2019. The bad: everything else. Barkley managed 3.2 yards per carry against the hapless Falcons, Daniel Jones was average and the Giants are 0-3.
Titans 25, Colts 16: Colts quarterback Carson Wentz gave it a go on two sprained ankles and played like a quarterback on two sprained ankles. He didn’t run the ball once, threw it away several times and the Titans rolled despite their three turnovers. Tennessee’s offense proved it is talented enough to win even when Derrick Henry and Julio Jones don’t score.
Browns 26, Bears 6: Chicago fans wanted to see Justin Fields. They got Justin Fields. The former Ohio State star has a long road ahead — especially with this roster. Fields had only six completions the entire game, while getting sacked nine times — 4.5 times by Myles Garrett — and hit 15 times in all.