KANAS CITY, Mo. — The Kansas City Chiefs stressed a message about starting the season fast, leaving behind the ghosts of a 1-5 start from a season ago and ending talk about a slow start against the run in the preseason.
Then the Chiefs found themselves down 21-3 at halftime and trailing by three touchdowns late in the third quarter.
“We were down, no energy,” running back Spencer Ware said.
Turns out sometimes it doesn’t matter how you start, it only matters how you finish.
The Chiefs put on an historic rally, erasing a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit to tie the game with 1:03 remaining. They then took the ball to open overtime and drove 70 yards down the field to complete a wild 33-27 win over the San Diego Chargers.
The 21-point rally set a franchise record for largest second-half comeback and tied the record for largest fourth-quarter comeback.
Much of the team’s confidence heading into the new season stemmed from the belief the offense led by quarterback Alex Smith could carry the team while the defense finds its equilibrium. But for three quarters against the Chargers, that optimism seemed misplaced.
“You can’t start out that bad,” Smith said. “You can’t play that bad in the first half all the way around, every single phase.”
Smith rallied the Chiefs in the fourth quarter and overtime, completing 19 of 26 passes for 187 yards and a touchdown down the stretch. He finished the game 34 of 48 passing for 363 yards with two touchdowns and an interception along with the game-winning touchdown run.
“I think everybody on offense has a good feel for what we’re capable of when we’re playing well,” Smith said.
The Chiefs first drive of the season began with promise and ended with a 47-yard field goal by Cairo Santos. But the offense’s engine shut down there, and struggled to restart until late in the third quarter.
The season opener appeared virtually over when the Chiefs faced a 4th-and-5 from the San Diego 25-yard line down 24-3. Smith fired a short pass to tight end Travis Kelce, who turned it into a 13-yard gain.
Kelce said at that point he could feel the energy level of the Chargers drop while the Chiefs finally found their focus.
“From that point on, I feel like everything kind of changed,” Kelce said. “The momentum, the attention to detail on our behalf really changed, and changed for the better.”
Two plays later rookie wide receiver Tyreek Hill caught a short pass from Smith and raced into the end zone for a 9-yard touchdown thanks to a key block by Jeremy Maclin.
The Chiefs could do no wrong after that, and the Chargers did little right.
Ware, filling in for Jamaal Charles, carried the Chiefs offense through its early struggles, then pounded away late in the game to keep the momentum going. He earned his way to the starting role as a punishing runner, but it was though the air that he punished the Chargers.
Ware snagged seven catches for 129 yards, adding another 70 yards and a touchdown on 11 rushes.
Reid said Ware’s energy provided the spark the Chiefs needed.
“He’s an emotional player,” Reid said, “and has a knack for making plays when you need them. He did that today.
On the sideline, Ware said he never gave up despite the big deficit. He implored his teammates to keep driving and told them he believed in them.
“The guy is incredibly positive,” Smith said, “always going, wanting to be involved, seeing what he can do. I think certainly today that really lit a fire under us, got us going.”
In the end, Ware’s teammates proved him right.
“As an offensive unit, we showed our character today,” Ware said. “I’m extremely proud of that.”
The 21-point second-half comeback eclipsed the 18-point deficit the Chiefs erased at New Orleans on Sept. 23, 2012. The Chiefs lost that game in overtime 27-24.
Twice the Chiefs have come back from 17-point deficits in the second half to win. The last came at Green Bay in 2003, when the Chiefs rallied for 40-34 win over the Packers after trailing 31-14 in the fourth quarter. The Chiefs scored 28 unanswered at Oakland for a 28-17 win in 1981.
Linebacker Sam Barrington suffered a strained hamstring in the first half. Reid said he would be evaluated again tomorrow to determine the extent of the injury. Sunday’s game marked Barrington’s Chiefs debut after the team claimed him on waivers from the Packers last weekend.
Maclin left the game following a hard hit by Chargers’ cornerback Jahleel Addae. Maclin made a tough catch for 22 yards to the San Diego 10-yard line. The officials flagged Addae for unnecessary roughness, moving the ball to the 5-yard line and setting up Ware’s touchdown run on the next play.
Reid said Maclin successfully cleared the NFL’s concussion protocol. He returned to the game for the team’s overtime drive.
Staring right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif rose slowly from the ground on the game’s final play, a touchdown run by Smith. The offensive lineman appeared to limp off the field following the game. No status on his condition was available immediately following the game.
Matt Derrick is the lead beat writer for ChiefsDigest.com and the Topeka Capital-Journal. Use the contact page to reach him or find him on Twitter: @MattDerrick.