Anatomy of a comeback: How the Chiefs did it

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Some fans bailed on the Chiefs at halftime, down 21-3 to the San Diego Chargers Sunday, and a few more left early in the fourth quarter when the Chiefs fell behind 27-10.

Just felt good all day. We were in a groove and rolling good. It’s rare in a game like this, you don’t turn the ball over, score 27 points and you lose.
— Philip Rivers, Chargers quarterback

Kansas City's Spencer Ware, right, breaks a tackle by San Diego's Manti Te'o during the second half of Sunday afternoon's overtime win over the Chargers, 33-27, at Arrowhead. (Chris Neal/The Topeka Capital-Journal)
Kansas City’s Spencer Ware, right, breaks a tackle by San Diego’s Manti Te’o during the second half of Sunday afternoon’s overtime win over the Chargers, 33-27, at Arrowhead Stadium. (Chris Neal/The Topeka Capital-Journal)

The real exodus began when Chargers cornerback Jason Verrett made a spectacular interception, ripping an Alex Smith pass from what seemed like a reception to Jeremy Maclin with 12:53 left to play.

Who could blame them? The Chiefs had picked up just 188 yards through nearly 48 minutes of game time. No one had reason to believe Arrowhead Stadium had any magic in it this day.

We were down, no energy
— Spencer Ware, Chiefs running back

The comeback truly began at the end of the third quarter when the Chiefs scored their first touchdown of the season.

Ware got the ball rolling, as he did all day long, with a reception for 45 yards. Smith found Ware in coverage against linebacker Manti Te’o, and the running back snared the ball as if he were a possession receiver.

We’ve just got to finish. The effort was there. We’ve got to make the little plays, just play and stay together. One individual can’t do his own thing, everybody has got to stay together and play as one.
— Te’o

Three plays later the Chiefs faced fourth-and-5 from the San Diego 25-yard line. Smith found tight end Travis Kelce beyond the chains, and Kelce worked to get the ball to the 12-yard line.

You could slowly see their will, their energy start to dive. That’s when you’ve really got to put your foot on the throat and put your foot on the gas pedal and keep things going. …  From that point on, I feel like everything kind of changed. The momentum, the attention to detail on our behalf really changed, and changed for the better.
— Kelce

On second-and-7 from the 9-yard line, Smith found wide receiver Tyreek Hill in the flat for a short pass. Jeremy Maclin laid a block to spring Hill. As he saw the goal line in reach, Hill shook his fist as and raced into the end zone to celebrate. The Chiefs now trailed 24-10.

It’s a blessing just to be able to score my first touchdown. … It’s just a playmaker play. Coach put me in, and I took advantage of it, that’s it. Instincts took over.

The Chargers drove again, but with seemingly less ease than they did in the first half. The team lost wide receiver Keenan Allen just before halftime to a knee injury. Rivers had 151 yards passing in the first half, with Allen accounting for 63. Rivers threw for just 93 yards in the second half.

He (Allen) was getting me in the first few series, but that’s football. He’s a great player and you hate to see great players go down like that. We were jawing back and fourth but it’s a competitive element of the game. I don’t wish an injury on anyone.
— Marcus Peters, Chiefs cornerback

A SanDiego field goal made it 27-10, and two plays later Verrett’s interception seemingly sealed the win.

Make it 27-10 and and then Verrett gets a great pick obviously. Right there is when I feel like — and that was in the fourth — you left like it’s over if we can go finish this right here.
— Rivers

The Chargers took possession following the interception at the Chiefs 44-yard line. The defense had surrendered 343 yards of total offense to the Chargers at the point. But on a 3rd-and-2, the defense held. Kicker Josh Lambo stepped on to the field for a 54-yard field that would almost certainly ice the game away.

He (Lambo) had all the confidence in the world. Auk (special teams coordinator Craig Aukerman) came up to me and told me he was crushing the ball, he’s putting it in there, he’s dead on. … He had all of the confidence in the world so I had all of the confidence in the world with him too.
— Mike McCoy, Chargers head coach

Wide right.

Smith brought his team back out and quickly crossed midfield with a 9-yard pass to Chris Conley. On a fourth-and-2, the team that seemingly couldn’t convert a first down suddenly hit blackjack on two fourth downs in a row. A 7-yard pass to Charcandrick West sustained the drive.

Two plays later Smith brought the crowd back to life with a perfect back shoulder throw to Maclin. The receiver turned and secured the catch in tight coverage for a touchdown. Chargers 27, Chiefs 17.

You’re going to have games like this that you have to rely on your character, your grit and those things. You’re going to have those throughout the season. You have to bank on those things that you’ve built there in your training camp, OTAs and all that hard work.
— Andy Reid, Chiefs head coach

The Chargers looked for one play as though they had regained their momentum. Rivers found backup tight end Hunter Henry for a 20-yard gain. But the reinvigorated Chiefs defense stiffened, forcing a punt.

Smith led the Chiefs on a steady drive, converting three more third downs. The 12-play drive finished with a 33-yard field goal by Cairo Santos. Chargers 27, Chiefs 20.

Now the Chargers began to feel the pressure. The Chiefs defense showed no mercy. Following a three-and-out, punter Drew Kaser let loose a horrific punt. The ball took a generous Kansas City bounce, netting just 17 yards. The Chiefs set 42 yards from the end zone with 1:49 to play.

“That hurt. That’s something we have to do a better job with, and that’s why I said it’s all of us. It’s not just one thing, it’s not just one kick, one offensive snap, one defensive snap, it’s the whole team. We have to do a better job.
— McCoy

Two short passes to Ware and West picked up 10 yards. Smith next fired a laser to Maclin, in tight coverage against Brandon Flowers. Maclin made the catch, then found himself drilled by Chargers safety Jahleel Addae.

Maclin laid on the ground for a moment before leaving the game. The team put him through the NFL’s concussion protocol to assess a possible head injury.

Always, we always have 100 percent confidence. I don’t think there was a time in that game where anybody thought we were out of it. That  is the mindset we have on this football team.
— Maclin

The hit drew an unnecessary roughness flag, which put the Chiefs at the San Diego 5-yard-line. That’s all Ware need to rumble exactly five yards to tie the game at 27-27.

One minute, three seconds remained on the clock for Rivers. He found Chiefs nemesis Danny Woodhead for a 12-yard gain to the 37 before the defense once again asserted itself. Linebacker Dee Ford sacked Rivers for a 10-yard loss, and the Chargers punted the ball away as time expired.


You’ve got to give them credit, they had an awesome fourth quarter and we didn’t do anything to counter it. All of a sudden you look up and you’re in a tie ballgame in overtime when it was a game for three quarters and a little change that we had it in complete control.
— Rivers

Kansas City's Alex Smith, right, gets hit by San Diego's Williams Tourek before falling into the end zone for the game winning touchdown in overtime of Sunday afternoon's game at Arrowhead Stadium. (Chris Neal/The Topeka Capital-Journal)
Kansas City’s Alex Smith, right, gets hit by San Diego’s Williams Tourek before falling into the end zone for the game winning touchdown in overtime of Sunday afternoon’s game at Arrowhead Stadium. (Chris Neal/The Topeka Capital-Journal)

The Chiefs won the coin toss and the rest became history. Smith to Ware for 20 yards along the sideline. Ware around the right side for 13 yards. Smith to Kelce for 8 yards. Smith to Kelce for 15 more.

On third-and-goal from the 2, Smith ran the option to the right side. He kept the ball and dived for the end zone.

They had been playing that defense all day, a lot. Got a look down there, third-and-2, and was able to take advantage of it. I was expecting to pitch the ball, but the D-end widened, and luckily got in. The right side there did a great job sealing it.

Players around Smith began celebrating. But the officials needed to review the play.

I heard immediately they went to review, and you have no idea. Sometimes when there’s bang-bang plays on the goal line, a knee hits a fraction early or something — where’s the ball? I knew I had the ball in my right hand. Where’s the ball? Everybody was kind of going nuts, and I literally was just like, ‘I know they’re reviewing it.’ I didn’t want to start celebrating and come out and get it taken back.
— Smith

It didn’t matter; hundred of players and assorted onlookers trampled across the field before the officials ruled the call on the field stood.

When he finally said, ‘Touchdown,’ after he reviewed it, I definitely kind of lost it. For one, crazy comeback, lot of emotions, and then a play like that on third down, it was fun to be a part of.
— Smith

Matt Derrick is the lead beat writer for and the Topeka Capital-Journal. Use the contact page to reach him or find him on Twitter: @MattDerrick.