This was the big game the Chargers needed, the night to control their destiny.
But instead of seizing the moment Saturday night in Kansas City, the Chargers got caught in a spiral of missed chances, failing bodies and plenty of disappointment.
Needing a win to grab control of the AFC West and to keep from becoming a mathematical miracle in the wild-card race, the Chargers played one of their worst games of the season, losing 30-13 to the Chiefs.
“We kind of fell apart in a sense,” Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said.
Kansas City has now beaten its AFC West rivals eight consecutive times.
The Chargers (7-7) either need Kansas City (8-6) to lose its final two games or they need plenty of help from the other playoff contenders in the conference to keep their season alive beyond the next two weeks.
“Our playoffs have begun,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said. “There’s no absolute that we’re going to the playoffs even if we win the next two games, but if we don’t, we’re damn sure not going.”
The Chargers also lost 19-7 in the 2014 finale in Kansas City, a defeat that eliminated them from the playoffs.
Saturday wasn’t without opportunities for the Chargers to erase that disappointment and take control of their postseason fate.
They led by three early in the second half after Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates connected on a 10-yard touchdown pass.
The two, part of a handful of players who have worn a Chargers helmet and won a big game for the team, made history on the play, becoming the second-most-prolific quarterback-receiver duo in the NFL’s history.
It was the last good thing to happen to the Chargers.
Rivers had three passes intercepted by Kansas City, with more than half of his 10 picks this season (six) coming against the Chiefs. He had thrown zero interceptions in the Chargers’ previous four games — a correlation definitely not lost on the veteran quarterback.
And the Chargers’ defense, so tough for most of the season, missed tackles in space, their confidence and effectiveness eroding as players limped to the sideline like it was Noah’s Ark — two at a time.
“Our muscle was out, and that hurt us,” running back Melvin Gordon said. “All of our playmakers were dropping like flies and it sucks. But there are some things we can’t help,”
Denzel Perryman was the first to go down, a hamstring injury knocking the team’s best linebacker out of the game. Then in the second half, safety Adrian Phillips, defensive tackle Corey Liuget and linebacker Jatavis Brown, Perryman’s replacement, all came off the field injured.
The offense wasn’t any more immune, as tight end Hunter Henry, tackle Russell Okung, running back Austin Ekeler, tackle Joe Barksdale and wide receiver Keenan Allen all received attention from the medical staff.
Ekeler, who fumbled early in the fourth quarter, stood on the sideline with his left hand in a cast. Henry had to jog to the locker room after being blindsided after that turnover. And with the AFC West title disappearing with every second, Allen wasn’t on the field because of a bad back.
After the game, Ekeler stared at the hand, swollen and red, and tried to figure out if he could still tackle on special teams before deciding he couldn’t make plays with one arm.
Allen sat in front of his locker, his torso curled, as the pain from simply talking forced him to double over.
While the injuries were a factor, the Chargers made far too many mistakes and couldn’t capitalize early in the game.
The Chargers’ special teams did them few favors, as the unit couldn’t finish big plays that were placed right into their hands.
On Drew Kaser’s second punt of the game, confusion between Tyreek Hill and safety Daniel Sorenson led to the ball bouncing off Sorenson’s back. The Chargers seemed in prime position to recover the fumble, but instead of falling on it deep in Kansas City territory, Nick Dzubnar’s dive knocked the ball away from the Chargers.
Then in the second quarter, Ekeler had a chance to down a Kaser punt inside the 5-yard line. But his brakes failed as his momentum carried him an eyelash into the end zone.
The Chiefs turned the two mistakes into their first 10 points.
In addition to all of that, the Chargers had two penalties on their own returns and missed an extra point.
“We reverted back,” Lynn said.
Saturday, it didn’t matter that Gordon had more than 150 yards from scrimmage — not when Kareem Hunt had more than 200 for the Chiefs, 155 on the ground.
And it didn’t matter how the two teams, who were tied for the AFC West lead, got there.
The Chargers had won seven of their past nine games. The Chiefs had lost six of their last eight.
Wednesday, Rivers said the momentum that existed shouldn’t hide that the Chiefs were good enough to open the year 5-0 and that the Chargers were flawed enough to start the season 0-4.
He was more right than he could’ve ever imagined.