INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- For a few minutes Sunday night, it was possible to imagine what the Los Angeles Chargers would be capable of if they were intact. Keenan Allen was catching deep passes from Justin Herbert, and the running game was slashing through the Kansas City Chiefs defense that suddenly had to beware of offensive weapons again, and the Chargers had a late lead.
But the Chiefs are intact with new weapons like Isiah Pacheco, Skyy Moore and Justin Watson -- and, most formidably and reliably, Travis Kelce. While Tyreek Hill has ignited the Miami Dolphins' challenge to the Chiefs' supremacy, Kansas City may again have the deepest array of weapons, and that is more than enough for Patrick Mahomes. With a sizzling, come-from-behind drive in the final two minutes featuring receptions by Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Moore, a few Mahomes scrambles and then -- this will sound familiar -- Kelce’s third touchdown reception of the night, the Chiefs beat the Chargers, 30-27, to take a three-game lead in the AFC West, solidify their hold on the top seed in the AFC and remind everyone that, for all the competitive balance in the conference, Kansas City is very likely to again play a big role in who goes to the Super Bowl.
Kelce, with six receptions for 115 yards and the three touchdowns, remains the stalwart, and he had to fight through tight, physical coverage from the Chargers' star defender, Derwin James. Andy Reid called the chemistry Kelce and Mahomes share "ridiculous," and he said that, knowing the tight end's age (33), he tries to enjoy every minute of every play the two have together. He said Mahomes and Kelce eventually figured out how to beat James, although Mahomes had a simpler explanation.
"I go through my reads, and if Kelce is manned up, I throw him the ball," Mahomes said.
But what was most striking about this version of the Chiefs was that, in a tight game that featured six lead changes, so many new names were called -- and they stepped in seamlessly. This was a huge development, seeing how injuries to JuJu Smith-Schuster and Mecole Hardman kept them out of the game, Clyde Edwards-Helaire suffered a high ankle sprain on Sunday, and Kadarius Toney was sidelined by a bad hamstring.
Reid said Kansas City rotates in all of its newer players during practices, going all the way back to training camp. All of these guys' growth was always going to be critical for the Chiefs this season, and the fact that they are now able to contribute at the most critical moments in the biggest games means that the loss of a player as dynamic as Hill has been reduced to a blip for the Chiefs, who are again functioning as the league's best, most consistent offense.
Mahomes, Reid said, does not worry about who is or is not on the field. Whoever is in is who he rolls with. He entered the game with the highest yards-per-game average of his career (326.2) and he finished Sunday with 329 yards on 20 completions.
"It hasn't come natural and easy," Reid said. "They've had to work their tail off to get themselves in position where the quarterback trusts them or the coaches trust them to play them."
It is clear their moment has arrived. Pacheco had 107 rushing yards. Moore had 63 receiving yards, Watson 67. Valdes-Scantling, who arrived from Green Bay this season, had just one reception, but it was a huge one. With 1:46 remaining and the Chargers having just taken a 27-23 lead, the Chiefs started their drive on their own 25-yard line. Mahomes went to Valdes-Scantling for an 18 yard gain.
"I actually thought it was cool today when I went into the huddle, everybody was like, 'OK, let's do it,' " Mahomes said. "There was no doubt we were going to be fine."
Mahomes, of course, is the biggest reason for that. He is the calming influence on the sideline, Reid said, for both the offense and defense, which also used its share of young players Sunday. But Mahomes is also the ultimate soother for a coach facing another two-minute drill to win a game.
"We've done it with 13 seconds, so a minute seems like an eternity," Reid said, recalling how Mahomes rallied the Chiefs against the Buffalo Bills with just 13 seconds remaining in the playoffs last season. "Yes, he gives you that confidence. You know you have a shot."
The Chiefs have more than that now. They have variety and depth, and now, that depth has experience, too. That will be especially important as a crowded AFC field -- there are eight teams above .500 -- battling for seven playoff spots.
"That game was a lot more than Mahomes to me," Kelce said. "A guy like Skyy Moore coming up big. Justin Watson. Even that last drive for us, Marquez gets us going early. Pat makes a huge play with his feet. Those are the best, when everybody gets a piece of the pie. It's important that they're going to have battle wounds, things that happen throughout a game, throughout a season, that they're going to have to learn from. It typically happens when they lose on a play, maybe how we lose in a game. And then we learn from it."
And the rest of the league learns that the Chiefs have not missed a beat.