Never has 3-3 felt so good.
The Chiefs, weathering a brutal opening portion of the schedule and enduring a barrage of crippling injuries to key players, may have saved their season with a 23-20 victory on Sunday over the high-riding San Diego Chargers.
Rookie Cairo Santos, whose season got off to a shaky start, booted a 48-yard field goal with 21 seconds left in regulation that put the Chiefs, 3-3, back in the AFC playoff picture.
Had the Chiefs fallen to 2-4 and 0-2 in the AFC West, they’d be spending the next month climbing uphill in chasing Denver and San Diego, which fell to 5-2.
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Instead, they can start building a playoff resume by playing six of their next 10 games at home, starting with visits by NFL bottom-feeders St. Louis and the New York Jets in the next two weeks.
“This team is in a good place mentally,” said quarterback Alex Smith, who directed the Chiefs’ drive in the final 2 minutes that led to Santos’ field goal. “We understood that coming into this game we were a couple of plays away from being 4-1.
“And we understood that we didn’t make the plays, though. This was an opportunity to show what we’re made of, to show the country. … It was a tough road game, and four of our first six were on the road.
“We had two weeks to get ready with the bye week, and took it on as a challenge … and we’re going to keep going.”
Ah, the bye week. Chiefs coach Andy Reid came into the game with a 13-2 career record coming off bye weeks. Reid and his staff spent the last two weeks scouting their team’s shortcomings and looking for ways to exploit the Chargers.
San Diego had won five straight, but while the Chiefs spent the last four weeks playing at Denver, at Miami, home against New England and at San Francisco, the Chargers’ last four games were wins at Buffalo, over Jacksonville, the Jets and at Oakland, teams that had a combined 4-20 record entering Sunday’s play.
Though the Chiefs had lost four straight to the Chargers and six straight at Qualcomm Stadium, they came to San Diego with a plan to run the football and keep quarterback Philip Rivers off the field — and to pressure Rivers, forcing the NFL’s highest-rated passer to hurry his passes.
It all worked. The Chiefs controlled the clock for an astounding 39 minutes, while the Chargers, who ranked second in the league in time of possession at 34:34 had the ball for 21 minutes. And while Rivers threw two touchdown passes, he completed just 17 of 31 for 205 yards and had a 83.4 passer rating, all season lows.
“Our identity is we keep the ball from the other team and eat up the clock,” said Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles, who punctuated breaking Priest Holmes’ franchise career rushing record with a dazzling 16-yard touchdown run.
“If we can keep doing that to every team, it’s possible to win any game. When we get the chance to keep the other team off the field, it gives us the advantage to win the game.”
Smith said that while the Chargers clearly knew what was coming, he said, “They were playing it soft, especially early. It opened up a lot of lanes.
“We’ve got a bunch of running backs, obviously starting with Jamaal. He sets the tone. Those guys ran hard and put us in good third downs, and when we’re in good third downs, we convert more often than not.”
That was never more apparent than in the clock-eating, yard-chewing third quarter, when the Chiefs, who trailed 14-10 at halftime, ran 21 plays in 13:58 to the Chargers’ three plays in 62 seconds.
The first drive ended with a 40-yard field goal by Santos that drew the Chiefs within 14-13 and gave the rookie kicker some confidence for what was to come next.
The Chiefs’ defense held the Chargers to a three-and-out, and then the offense went on an 11-play, 70-yard drive that ended with Smith’s 11-yard toss to fullback Anthony Sherman, who shed three tackles en route to the end zone on the first play of the fourth quarter.
They overcame an offensive pass interference penalty on tight end Anthony Fasano and a holding call on center Rodney Hudson on the drive. Smith converted third-down passes to A.J. Jenkins and De’Anthony Thomas before a defensive holding penalty on the Chargers’ Richard Marshall on third down sustained the drive.
“Any time you have penalties, sacks, things like that, negative plays, they’re tough to overcome,” Smith said. “We did a good job of overcoming on third-and-long conversions.”
The Chiefs’ defense limited San Diego to a pair of Nick Novak field goals that tied the score at 20-20, setting up Santos’ heroics.
“It means everything,” said Santos, who has made six straight field-goal attempts. “Going through what I went through the first two weeks, I wanted a chance to redeem myself and prove … I want to be a Chief. I want to be here for a long time, and was thankful for the opportunity.”
To reach Randy Covitz, call 816-234-4796 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @randycovitz.