There were 37 seconds left in regulation, and as the Chiefs came out of a timeout and set up in shotgun formation in the red zone, the stakes for the Chargers could not have been clearer: Keep Patrick Mahomes out of the end zone, and they win the game.
All of SoFi Stadium knew where Mahomes wanted to go with the ball as Sunday night wound down: His favorite target, tight end Travis Kelce, who already had 98 yards and two touchdowns receiving. Brandon Staley included. So, on this first down, Staley called man-to-man coverage and matched up Derwin James Jr. — who the Chargers made the highest-paid safety in the league in August — on Kelce.
Initially, Kelce was lined up in the right slot, with receiver Justin Watson off his outside shoulder. Mahomes waved his hand, and Waston came in motion from right to left, settling in the left slot. Michael Davis followed Watson.
Mahomes took the snap. Watson and Kelce ran mirrored crossing routes — Kelce running from right to left and Waston running from left to right. It was a classic pick play, and Watson nearly collided with James. The traffic forced James to hesitate slightly. Kelce came free. Mahomes hit him in stride. Kelce sprinted out of James’ diving tackle attempt and scored easily. The Chiefs took the lead and, after a game-sealing Justin Herbert interception on the ensuing Chargers drive, won the game 30-27.
“We had our best cover guy on him,” linebacker Drue Tranquill said of Kelce’s touchdown.
That is what this game came down to: The Chargers’ best is not as good as the Chiefs’ best. It was true Sunday night, and it has been true for a long time. The Chargers poured resources into their defense this offseason to win this game, against this opponent, in this crucial juncture of the season. They gave James the contract extension he was seeking to make this play, in this crunch-time moment, against this All-World player who has killed them season after season.
And the Chargers came up short.
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