Dee Ford laid on the muddy Arrowhead Stadium field near the back of the east end zone, the announced crowd of 72,314 erupting all around him. The game was over, finally — yet another Chiefs win — and the young outside linebacker had just made the play of the game in what was easily his best overall performance as a professional.
Ford’s tight pass coverage on running back Danny Woodhead, which led to an end-zone incompletion in the final seconds of the Chiefs’ 10-3 victory on Sunday, was a fitting end to a day that likely will be remembered one day as Ford’s coming-out party or biggest tease.
In only his second career start, Ford, the Chiefs’ 2014 first-round pick, finally saw his explosive first step and closing burst pay off in the form of seven tackles and a career-high three sacks as he led a defense that came up big more often than not Sunday — and especially when times got rough.
Ford’s defense of Woodhead on the final play of the game thwarted a late San Diego rally, one guided by star quarterback (and bi-annual Chiefs nemesis) Philip Rivers that, as time rattled off the clock, seemed destined to end in a gut-wrenching San Diego touchdown that would either set up a game-tying extra point or game-winning two-point conversion attempt.
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That said, it would be hard to blame Ford, who unintentionally slid several yards after making the final play and was swarmed by teammates as he laid on the ground, for soaking in the moment. But that’s not all he was doing, he’d later admit.
“Yeah,” Ford said with a smile, “I was tired. I fell out for, like, three seconds.”
He’d earned that brief rest, and the teammates who ran over to him at that moment couldn’t have been happier for a man who has largely struggled to distinguish himself behind Pro Bowlers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali.
“I’m proud of him,” linebacker Derrick Johnson said. “He had a tough break because he’s got two superstars in front of him, and it’s been one of those things where he can’t really get on the field, he’s a first rounder (and) everybody’s like ‘Where’s Dee?’
“Well, Dee’s been with Tamba and Justin (and they’re) mentoring (him). He got his chance to shine, and I’m happy for him. That’s big.”
But make no mistake, the win was even bigger for a Chiefs team that won its seventh straight game and improved to 8-5. It was about overcoming adversity, in the form of penalties (eight for 53 yards), turnovers (two) and the dreary weather (cold and rainy), and in many ways, this was the kind of game — albeit against a disappointing Chargers team that dropped to 3-10 — that good teams find a way to win, and fraudulent teams find a way to lose.
“If you can win games like that in December,” rookie cornerback Marcus Peters said, “that’s big time, for sure.”
Rivers, the 12-year veteran, certainly didn’t make it easy on them, though. And the Chiefs’ propensity for shooting themselves in the foot — a rarity during their winning streak — Sunday didn’t help their cause, either.
For instance, a 58-yard punt return by Frankie Hammond on the Chiefs’ first possession was wiped out due to a illegal block, so instead of having the ball on the Chargers’ 26-yard line, the Chiefs had it on their own 16. They did not score. And later in the first quarter, Hammond later fumbled for the second time in as many weeks, and the Chargers took over at the Chiefs’ 25-yard line.
Fortunately for the Chiefs, the struggling Chargers were unable to capitalize, as rookie kicker Josh Lambo missed a 42-yard field goal that kept the game scoreless heading into the second quarter.
The Chiefs’ offense seemed primed to score on its next drive, especially when quarterback Alex Smith found receiver Albert Wilson on a 29-yard jump ball over the middle — on third and 14, no less — that gave them the ball at the Chargers’ 38-yard line.
But on the very next play, Smith tried to go up top to Jeremy Maclin, and cornerback Jason Verrett beat him to his spot, recording a diving interception near the goal line.
The interception was Smith’s first since a 38-28 loss to the Green Bay Packers on Sept. 28, nearly 2 1/2 months ago. It brought an end to a streak of 312 passes without an interception, the second-longest in NFL history behind New England star Tom Brady (358).
“If I had it over again, I’d kind of take the shot,” said Smith, who completed the Chiefs’ strong running game (150 yards in 25 carries) by completing 15 of 23 passes for 191 yards. “(I was) just trying to give him a chance, the kid (Verrett) made a good play. If you’re going to throw one, it’s not bad.”
Smith kept firing, though. Facing a second-and-4 at the Chargers’ 44 on their next drive, he spotted the Chargers in Cover 0, which means zero safety help. He communicated a hot route to Wilson, who caught a short slant and galloped 44 yards into the end zone to give the Chiefs a 7-0 lead.
“When he gave me a slant route,” Wilson said of Smith, “I just knew I was going to get inside.”
After the Chargers’ next drive was thwarted by a Johnson interception, Smith guided another scoring drive, one that was set up by an impressive 18-yard scramble on second-and-10 in which he kept his poise in the pocket amongst a swarm of rushers and scurried to the Chargers’ 22-yard line. The run led to a 40-yard field goal that gave the Chiefs a 10-0 lead into the break.
The Chiefs got the ball to start the second half and had an opportunity to add to the lead, but a 46-yard field goal attempt — which appeared to have an ugly snap — wobbled far short of the uprights, and the Chargers answered with a field goal of their own to cut the deficit to seven.
From there, Chiefs continued to shoot themselves in the foot. On their next drive, running back Charcandrick West turned a short catch in the flat into a 63-yard touchdown, but a pass-interference penalty on tight end Travis Kelce negated the touchdown, and the Chiefs were eventually forced to punt.
The defense, however, stood tall. Ford, who made a crucial third-down stop on the Chargers’ previous drive that prevented a possible touchdown, forced a punt with a third-down sack of Rivers, and on the Chargers’ next drive — after receiver Malcom Floyd inexplicably dropped a wide-open deep ball that would have gone for a touchdown — Ford again showed off his speed, as he jumped the snap and drove Rivers into the ground to force a punt.
But when Rivers, who carried the Chargers’ offense by completing 24 of 43 passes for 263 yards, got the ball back at his own 11-yard line with five minutes left, the Chiefs knew he wasn’t going down without a fight.
“Phil is a competitor, man,” said nose tackle Jaye Howard, who had one of the Chiefs’ five sacks Sunday. “You can’t ever let down with him. We knew we had to get to the quarterback. All the d-linemen, we looked at each other and said we’ve got to pick it up, let’s go.”
Only, it didn’t matter, as Rivers converted three consecutive fourth-down conversions, including a 22-yard throw to receiver Vincent Brown on fourth-and-10 that gave the Chargers the ball at the Chiefs’ 1-yard line with 5 seconds left.
Rivers’ magic would eventually run out, though. A delay-of-game penalty pushed the Chargers back 5 yards, and two straight incompletions — and a false-start penalty that pushed them back 5 more yards — set up the final play, when Ford had the coverage on Woodhead to seal the win for the Chiefs, whose playoff hopes are looking very bright, especially with their last three games coming against sub-.500 teams.
Afterward, Ford made it clear that the team’s success is what really mattered to him, though his broad smile — not to mention the extended amount of time he spent laying on the ground after the game’s final play — also revealed a sense of joy about finally being able to contribute to his team in a meaningful way.
“Anybody’s number could have been called at that time — I’m just glad I was able to do my job,” Ford said of the final play. “That’s what this league is. Everybody’s good in this league, but it’s all about doing your job.”