INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Travis Kelceis known for his passion and playfulness. The Chiefs tight end loves to joke and dance and typically wears a smile that’s as bright as his game, which remains impactful even at an NFL-graybeard age of 32. Don’t believe it? Witness his 191 yards receiving and back-to-back touchdowns Thursday night in SoFi Stadium, the first of which forced overtime and the second of which ended the game, giving Kansas City a critical 34-28 victory over the Chargers before a capacity crowd.
But there are moments when his swagger is replaced by vulnerability, when his voice cracks ever so slightly and his upper lip appears to quiver. Such was the case at the postgame news conference while discussing his love for his team, his belief in his teammates and his older brother’s words that he took to the field in his heart and mind.
Jason Kelce, the starting center for Philadelphia, was speaking to the media the previous day about being named the Eagles’ Walter Payton Man of the Year candidate. The bearded lineman focused on his teammates rather than himself, particularly tackle Lane Johnson who went public this season with his mental health battles that caused him to miss several games.
“Lane Johnson and what he’s openly come back from this year and to think … about the amount of people that he’s given hope to,” Kelce said, while struggling to keep his composure. “That’s the business we’re in … We’re in the business of hope. What we do every day, what we do every game inspires millions of people. What we do off the field, hopefully, inspires people.”
Ted Crews, the Chiefs’ executive vice president of communication, showed a video of the media session to Travis early Thursday, and the decorated tight end carried the words — and the power of hope — into the divisional showdown against the Chargers, who had beaten Kansas City 30-24 earlier this year. The Chiefs committed four turnovers that led to 20 points in that game, so they knew they would have to be more efficient in the rematch. And they were initially, taking a 10-0 lead.
But things turned from there. The Chargers scored consecutive touchdowns to lead 14-10 at the half, and a Chiefs offense that flowed so smoothly was now sputtering. It was so bad that Patrick Mahomes, whose passes typically are sweeter than a Georgia peach, threw the ugliest ball of his career on fourth-and-1 from the Los Angeles 2-yard line, bouncing it into the turf in front of open wideout Mecole Hardman.
“Just a really (bad) throw,” Mahomes would say.
Even after the defense made one of several stands inside the Chargers’ 5-yard line, forcing a fumble on third-and-goal from the 1, Mahomes gave the ball back three plays later when he was intercepted by fourth-year linebacker Uchenna Nwosu, who had never picked off a pass in 1,533 snaps entering the game.
Mahomes was clearly agitated when he reached the sideline. He tossed his helmet to the turf and rolled his eyes. Then he watched Austin Ekeler score from the 1 for a 21-13 Los Angeles lead. When Mahomes and the offense returned to the field, Kelce was among the first to speak with him.
“He was just like, ‘Hey, let’s show that heart. Get back out there, we believe in you,'” Mahomes said.
The result: Three consecutive Kansas City touchdowns, excluding the decision to allow the clock to expire to reach overtime. Not surprisingly, Kelce was a central figure in the rally, although those questioning whether he was still the same dominant force after catching just three passes for 27 yards in each of the previous two weeks might have been surprised.
Fact is, there was no containing the three-time All-Pro and six-time Pro Bowler. He not only found holes in the zone but made the Chargers pay when playing man coverage against him. After Los Angeles went up by eight, he took a pass from Mahomes on third-and-5 and went 69 yards to set up a 1-yard scoring pass to Tyreek Hill. The successful two-point try tied the score.
And when the Chargers responded with an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown march, regaining the lead on an 8-yard laser from Justin Herbert to Keenan Allen, Kelce concluded a 75-yard drive with a 7-yard touchdown reception that forced overtime.
But he saved his best for the end, taking a short pass at the Los Angeles 29 and slaloming through the Chargers defense, taking advantage of poor tackling angles to make at least two defenders miss, and sprinting into the end zone for the game-ending 34-yard score. He shimmied after reaching the end zone and being mobbed by teammates, who love everything about him.
“He’s just so slippery with his routes, it’s hard to even imagine,” said Mahomes, who finished 31 of 47 for 410 yards and three scores. “His shoulders start rocking and that’s why he dances, I think. He’s running and it looks like he’s running slow, but he’s moving fast. I think you’ve seen that on some of the long runs that he has. People even take bad angles on him and they don’t understand where he’s going because it doesn’t look like he’s moving fast, but he is.”
Kelce’s 10 receptions were one fewer than he had in the previous three games combined and his 191 yards were 23 more than his previous high, set against the Raiders in 2018. When he’s on his game, and Hill is doing his thing, as he did Thursday with 12 catches for 148 yards, it’s hard to slow the Chiefs. And when matched against an offense that’s comparably lethal, as the Chargers’ is, it can make for a game like Thursday that left onlookers as exhausted as the players and coaches.
Like any good drama, the game built toward its climax. The teams combined for just 27 points through three quarters, then put up 29 in the fourth quarter alone. There were unexpected momentum shifts, such as Kansas City holding the Chargers scoreless on three trips at or inside the Chiefs’ 5-yard line, or Mahomes following a drive-ending poor throw, with a Los Angeles turnover, with a Mahomes turnover.
The final quarter and overtime highlighted the prodigious talents of both Mahomes and Herbert, who finished 22 of 38 for 236 yards and two touchdowns passing while also rushing for a score. He fit passes into windows that appeared closed, not cracked, like the strike to Allen for the score. The touchdown would have been enough to give the Chargers the victory had coach Brandon Staley not been so aggressive in the red zone, unsuccessfully opting to go for it twice on fourth-and-goal, from the 5 and the 1.
In the first instance, Herbert threw incomplete on four consecutive passes from the 5. In the second, he threw incomplete to Allen. Throw in the fumble by Joshua Kelley on third-and-goal from the 1 and that’s a minimum of nine points the Chargers missed out on had they converted field goals instead.
“That’s going to be the mindset no matter who we play,” Staley said of keeping his offense on the field on fourth down. “I felt really comfortable with all of those decisions. The first one, it was a perfect pass, then you have this really tragic thing happen on the way down (Donald Parham was taken from the field on a stretcher; the team announced he was in stable condition at UCLA Harbor Medical Center, where he was being evaluated for a head injury). The one at the end of the half, I loved that. We just missed (tight end) Jared (Cook) on the stick (on second down). That’s the way that we’re going to play around here. That’s the way we’re going to play. When we have a quarterback like ours, and we have an offense like ours, that’s the way we’re going to play because that’s how you need to play against Kansas City, for sure. That’s how we’re going to become the team that we’re ultimately capable of being, by playing that way.”
The win was the seventh in a row for the Chiefs, who lead the AFC West by two games over the Chargers. Los Angeles could have moved into first place with a victory, but now finds itself in a battle to earn one of the three wild cards. They’re currently among seven teams with six losses, which means there is little room for slippage. But if we were reminded of anything Thursday night, it was the power of hope.
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