Best of the West: Chiefs in total control of their division and only getting better

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — For almost a decade, their divisional rivals have schemed, plotted and made changes — at head coach, quarterback and other positions — to put an end to their dominance.

The Kansas City Chiefs, though, keep thwarting their AFC West foes — the Los Angeles Chargers, the Denver Broncos and the Los Angeles Raiders — by continuing to win. And win. And win.

Sunday’s battle between the Chiefs and the Chargers was the latest example, an outcome that felt familiar for both teams: a Chiefs’ 31-17 victory.

Even with a defensive-minded coach (Brandon Staley), a star quarterback (Justin Herbert) and several above-average defenders (pass rushers Khalil Mack and Joey Bosa and safety Derwin James Jr.), the Chargers never led.

Even when the Chargers devoted several defenders to disrupt the connection between the superstar duo of quarterback Patrick Mahomes and tight end Travis Kelce, the pair generated 12 completions on 13 targets for 179 yards.

Even though most analysts pegged the Chargers as the Chiefs’ biggest threat, the AFC West is not a tight race after seven weeks.

“These games count twice,” safety Justin Reid said of the Chiefs winning 39 of their last 44 divisional games. “We know how big of a deal this is for other teams and for us. You want to win your division first.”

No team is closer to winning its division in the NFL than the Chiefs (6-1), who widened the gap between them and created an even wider gap Sunday between themselves and the Raiders (3-4), the Chargers (2-4) and the Broncos (2-5).


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The Chiefs are alone atop the conference and — here’s a scary thought for the rest of the AFC — they’re only getting better.

“We’re definitely taking steps in the right direction,” Mahomes said of the Chiefs offense.

Mahomes enjoyed his best performance of the season, throwing for a season-high 424 yards and four touchdowns. Within the pocket, Mahomes’ accuracy and decisions were exquisite as he completed at least one pass to 10 teammates. His first highlight included improvisation as he scrambled to his right to find speedy receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling for a 46-yard touchdown.

When the Chargers blitzed, Mahomes often scrambled for a first down or threw a completion — usually to Kelce — to keep the Chiefs moving downfield. The Chargers’ secondary spent much of the first half in zone coverage. Mahomes responded by targeting Kelce in the middle of the field nine times. Each target was a completion as Kelce produced 143 yards before halftime.

“The main thing is the way he’s able to recognize coverage and adjust on the fly,” Mahomes said of Kelce. “It’s almost like he’s playing ‘Madden,’ like he can read the coverages and stop in the (zone) windows and be open and be on the same page as me at all times. He did a great job. He’ll be a Hall of Famer one day.”



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Mahomes’ final completion of the half was to Kelce, who caught the ball behind the offensive line and was still able — with the ball above his helmet — to score a 1-yard touchdown.

“Kelce keeps getting better with time, and Taylor can stay around all she wants,” coach Andy Reid said, referencing pop superstar Taylor Swift, who watched the game in a suite sitting next to Mahomes’ wife, Brittany.

The Chargers kept pace with the Chiefs for the game’s first 28 minutes. They used an up-tempo offense to prevent Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo from rotating defenders. When the Chargers snapped the ball faster than usual, they had Herbert throw the ball deep. On another quick snap, the Chargers scored on a 49-yard rushing touchdown from running back Joshua Kelley, the longest gain the Chiefs have surrendered this season.

“They got us on a few,” Reid said of the Chargers. “But the guys figured it out. The pressure on (Herbert), that was an unsettled position for him. Whether they were sacking him or hitting him, he had people around him all the time.”

The Chiefs finished with a season-high five sacks, each from a different player not named Chris Jones. Defensive ends George Karlaftis, Mike Danna and Charles Omenihu and linebackers Willie Gay and Drue Tranquill took Herbert down.

In the second half, Herbert completed just seven of his 16 passes for 100 yards. The Chiefs shut out the Chargers in the second half and have yet to allow an opponent to score more than 21 points.

Omenihu was one of the unit’s most impactful contributors. The free-agent acquisition played in his first game with the Chiefs after serving a six-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. He finished with a sack, two quarterback hits, a tackle for loss and a pivotal pass deflection near the line of scrimmage in the third quarter that led to an interception in the red zone for cornerback L’Jarius Sneed.

“He went crazy,” Jones said of Omenihu. “If we continue to get that effort from Charles, we can be a dynamic defensive line.”

Entering Sunday, the Chiefs ranked 25th in the league in TruMedia’s special teams expected points added (STEPA), a metric used to gauge the scoreboard impact of special team plays. Receiver Mecole Hardman provided a much-needed spark for the return game with a 50-yard punt return in the fourth quarter.

Just four days earlier, the Chiefs acquired Hardman in a trade with the New York Jets, sending a 2025 sixth-round pick for a 2025 seventh-round pick. Later in the quarter, Hardman’s first reception was a 6-yard gain that led to a first down inside the red zone. The Chiefs finished the drive with an 8-yard touchdown on a screen pass from Mahomes to running back Isiah Pacheco.

“I just wanted to give our team some momentum, man,” Hardman said. “(Punter JK Scott) had been kicking it high and short the whole game. Finally, I saw a ball I could return. I made the most of it. Making an explosive play for the team means a lot.”

Perhaps the most encouraging part of the Chiefs’ improvement is their offense scored 31 points for the first time in almost a month and the unit finished with a touchdown in the fourth quarter without much of a contribution from Kelce.

Mahomes connected with a different teammate for each of his touchdowns — Kelce, Valdes-Scantling, Pacheco and rookie receiver Rashee Rice.

“Guys just stepped up,” Mahomes said. “If they’re going to focus that much on Travis, obviously we’re going to still try to throw him the ball in certain areas, but other guys have to make plays. I think that’s what our offense is going to continue to be.”

Injury update: In the fourth quarter, linebacker Nick Bolton sustained a dislocated left wrist after tackling receiver Keenan Allen. “He really had a heck of a game up to that point,” Reid said of Bolton, who had a team-high nine tackles.

(Photo of Travis Kelce: Jay Biggerstaff / USA Today)

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