INGLEWOOD – Fans or no fans, you could feel the chess game intensity of playoff football in the Los Angeles Chargers-Kansas City Chiefs AFC West battle in Week 2 of the NFL season at SoFi Stadium. On one side of the coin, Chargers rookie quarterback Justin Herbert looked to earn his keep by pulling off an upset of the reigning Super Bowl champs.
Then you had Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes trying to shake off one half of offensive funk to lead his ballclub to an improbable comeback victory. The inexperienced novice going up against a league megastar. On paper, this matchup looks like a one-sided affair. It didn’t turn out that way.
Prior to their 2020 home opener against the Chiefs, the Chargers had not beaten their AFC West Division rivals in 11 of the last 12 times they have played each other. Since he became head coach of the Chargers, Anthony Lynn’s first six encounters against Chiefs coach Andy Reid have gone mostly in the loss column. Lynn’s teams have come up on the short end five (1-5) out of six tries.
Those numbers went one deeper on the minus side after the Chargers lost in overtime to the Chiefs, 23-20, thanks to a 58-yard field goal by Kansas City placekicker Harrison Butker. Despite the agonizing defeat, Lynn found some superlatives in the way his team played.
“I thought we ran the ball extremely well against this team, we felt like we could,” Lynn said during a postgame press conference. “We felt like we could manage the game that way, but at some point, we have to create some explosive [plays]. This team, they are just too dynamic to play ball control for four quarters. They are going to strike at some point. We tried to create some explosive plays down the field, a couple of times it just didn’t work out. I thought for the most part, we executed the game plan, we just didn’t finish it and when you are going up against the champions, it can’t come down to a decision, we have to knock them out and we did not do that.”
Last week, the Chargers had their game against the Cincinnati Bengals on the line at the end of the game, only to come out with a win after Cincinnati placekicker Randy Bullock’s flub a potential game-tying field goal at the end of regulation. Such luck would not happen two weeks in a row. The defeat to the Chiefs is going to be a toughie to swallow, but Lynn and the Chargers have some positive takeaways that they can pay it forward with.
One is the play of Herbert, who actually outgunned the league’s top gunslinger in Mahomes. The final stat line between the two quarterbacks had Herbert completing 22 of 34 passes for 311 yards and a TD through the air. Mahomes finished the day with a ho-hum 302 yards passing after misfiring on 20 passes (27 of 47 passes with two scores).
“He is our backup quarterback so whatever we put in for Tyrod, we felt he could do the same thing,” Lynn said about Herbert’s performance. “He understood, but he didn’t get the same reps that Tyrod got, especially down in the red zone. So, some of those play calls got a little bit tricky down there with him, but it’s all part of the experience there for him. I thought he handled it well, to be honest with you. A couple of throws I know he would like to have back but that’s just the way it was. I thought he handled the situation well, but we lost the game last time I checked, so those grades are not too high right now.”
The question for perhaps many Chargers’ fans is the future now? With starter Tyrod Taylor being ruled out of the contest because of a chest injury, Herbert stepped in and played like the moment was not too much for him.
“I was really excited,” Herbert said. “That was one of those moments that I’ve waited for my entire life. To be out there on the field going against the Kansas City Chiefs and playing alongside some of these guys on offense, that was really special. It’s a moment I’ll never forget.”
That announcement came just before Herbert was about to take the Chargers down the field on a game-opening 8-play, 79-yard series for a touchdown. How’s that for a fastbreak offense? Putting his stamp early on the game, Herbert showed off both some deft passing and his underrated running ability on the Chargers’ opening drive.
Herbert displayed that strong right arm of his on a 16-yard pass to Austin Ekeler which led to the Chargers knocking on the Chiefs’ goal-line door. Herbert then served the Chiefs with a change-up by lumbering four years into the endzone for the first touchdown of his NFL career.
“It was great,” said Herbert. “The play was designed to get the tailback out in the flat. Unfortunately, he was covered so I tried to take off and make a move. In the end zone, I actually thought the penalty was on us. I thought we were going to bring it back. Running off to the sideline, shaking hands and doing things like that was a really cool moment.”
Herbert played that first series against the Chiefs like he was unbothered to be making his first career start. Herbert carried that coolness throughout the first half. Sure, he had a couple of passes sail on him, but by and large, Herbert looked very comfortable being in charge of the Chargers offense.
That level of comfortability was further exhibited in the second quarter when Herbert fired a 13-yard touchdown pass to Jalen Guyton in the left corner of the endzone. By halftime, Herbert had already left his imprint on the game, running for one touchdown and passing for another score (13 of 20 for 195 yards, TD) to prop the Chargers up to a 14-6 lead.
As great as Herbert played there was one miscue he and the Chargers would like to have back. As the third quarter was nearing a close, Herbert, flushed out of the pocket, scrambled out in the open field and could have easily extended the drive with a first down. Instead, in his eagerness to come up with a big play, Herbert did a no-no by trying to throw across his body on a downfield pass to the middle of the field.
The mistake would be a game-changer. In trying to connect with wide receiver Keenan Allen deep inside the redzone, Herbert’s throw wound up being picked off for an interception by Chiefs safety L’Jarius Sneed. Holding on to a 17-9 lead at that time, the Chargers let Mahomes and the Chiefs off the hook.
Following Herbert’s pick, a potential Desmond King interception of a pass thrown by Mahomes was nullified because of a defensive offside penalty. Mahomes would then later connect Tyreek Hill for a stunning pass-and-catch for a touchdown which would then lead to a two-point conversion for the Chiefs to tie the game just like that.
“I just saw a spectacular throw,” Reid said the 54-yard touchdown hookup between Mahomes and Hill. “For 10 [Hill] to make that grab, that was a great catch. Those two have a special connection between them. We keep saying it week after week, year after year here. “It’s time tested.  was exhausted. He ran like a center fielder out there. He put in a lot of miles. He reached down deep and kept it going. He also had some big catches there, too, down there the stretch.”
So instead of having a possible two-score advantage, the Chargers found themselves all knotted up with the Chiefs. Lynn said he spoke with Herbert about not trying to do too much at one time.
“I just told him you don’t have to try to win the game,” Lynn said. “Just execute. One play at a time. I feel like he had eight yards in front of him on that second and two and he turned that down and he was looking downfield. I like the fact that he was looking downfield and not looking to run it, but that was a bad decision.”
Editor’s note: Feature image of Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) appears courtesy of the Los Angeles Chargers