Kansas City quarterback Steve DeBerg, playing with a cast on his left hand because of a broken little finger, completed his first eight passes and threw a pair of touchdown passes in leading the Chiefs into the playoffs with a 24-21 victory over the San Diego Chargers Sunday.
The victory, before 45,135 fans at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, assures the Chiefs (10-5) of a wild-card berth.
A win over Chicago Saturday, coupled with a Charger victory over the Raiders on Sunday, would give Kansas City its first AFC West title since 1971.
The Chiefs have defeated the Chargers in eight of their last 10 meetings, and used Nick Lowery’s 32-yard field goal with 2:46 to play to snap a 21-21 tie.
Safety Deron Cherry intercepted his second Billy Joe Tolliver pass of the game with 1:48 remaining to squash a Charger rally.
“I wasn’t real pleased with that last pass,” Charger Coach Dan Henning said. “I told Billy that we had to take the shot and be sharp with the football. I’ll have to see what he was looking at when he threw the ball down field.”
The pass was 15 feet higher than Ronnie Harmon, who was the nearest Charger receiver.
Tolliver, who has remained responsive through the toughest times, left the locker room Sunday with no comment.
“You get frustrated, as he does, because you want the process to happen,” Charger quarterback coach Ted Tollner said. “When you play that position, your mistakes are magnified.”
Tolliver’s second-quarter interception, which came off an incorrectly called play in the huddle, killed a Charger drive at the Kansas City 23-yard line as he badly overthrew Anthony Miller.
Tollner said Tolliver should have moved on to another receiver rather than trying to force the ball to Miller. He made the same mistake, said Tollner, when he tried to beat coverage and go to Harmon in the fourth quarter.
Again the Chargers (6-9) are poised to finish 6-10, as they have in each of the past two seasons. They have never beaten the Raiders in a non-strike game at Coliseum.
Against the Chiefs, the Chargers fought back from a 21-7 halftime deficit to tie the score on a three-yard touchdown run by Rod Bernstine and a 55-yard punt return by Kitrick Taylor.
They had the momentum, a boisterous crowd on their side and the Chiefs pinned on their own one-foot line with 7:51 to play.
The Chiefs managed to get out to the five-yard line, from where DeBerg retreated into his own end zone on third and five to set up a screen pass to running back Todd McNair. He completed the pass to McNair and linebacker Henry Rolling was in position to stop him for no gain.
“I had him,” Rolling said. “I thought I tackled him, but when I rolled over, he was still running.”
McNair broke through Rolling’s tackle, ran through Vencie Glenn and then reached back to shuck aside a pursuing Donnie Elder. Sam Seale eventually brought McNair down, but not until he had gained 65 yards.
Last week against the Chargers, running back Melvin Bratton took a short pass from John Elway and went 63 yards in the fourth quarter to set up a David Treadwell field goal for Denver.
McNair’s play led to Lowery’s game-deciding field goal, and handed the Chargers their 13th defeat by seven or fewer points in the past two seasons.
“About a minute before I went onto the field, I hurt my knee,” said Lowery, who has made 16 field goals in a row. “I think I must have overextended it or something while I was practicing. It felt really strange for awhile, but during the timeout I practiced some and it felt OK.”
At the outset of the game it didn’t look like the Chiefs were going to have to go to Lowery. They scored without much trouble on their first two possessions with DeBerg throwing an eight-yard touchdown pass to Stephone Paige and Barry Word running 11 yards for a score.
The Chargers scored on their initial possession with Tolliver connecting from five yards out with Miller, but the Chiefs jumped ahead 21-7 on DeBerg’s 40-yard pass to McNair.
DeBerg completed 13 of 16 passes for 174 yards in the first half and Word ran 13 times for 50 yards. After gaining 238 yards by halftime, the Chiefs were limited to 138 yards in the second half. Word finished with 106 yards in 28 carries.
“The defense is a little bit of a mystery right now,” Henning said. “They play tremendously in spurts and then they don’t play very well at all.”
The Chargers’ offense, missing the services of NFL rushing leader Marion Butts (foot), got a boost from Bernstine and Ronnie Harmon. Harmon caught seven passes for 72 yards, and Bernstine came off injured reserve to run 15 times for 76 yards.
“It’s definitely depressing what’s happened to us,” Bernstine said. “But the season isn’t lost for us yet. We can go up to L.A. and upset the Raiders.”