Chiefs seize control of AFC West, begin chase for No. 1 seed

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The about-face of the Kansas City Chiefs from their 3-4 start to their seven-game winning streak can be traced to the abrupt turnaround of their defense, and that in turn can be traced to the arrival of defensive end Melvin Ingram.

Turns out he's doing more than making tackles and pressuring the quarterback, though.

It was Ingram who correctly called the pre-game coin flip against his former team Thursday night, then did the same trick at the beginning of overtime. That gave the Chiefs the ball, and Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce did the rest, driving for the winning touchdown in a 34-26 victory that kept them in first place in the AFC West.

“It's kind of crazy. Until the moment has ended, you're just tunneled in on the game plan,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said after the win. “Then when it's over, you go, ‘Whoa!’ If I could jump, I would jump with excitement.”

The Chiefs (10-4) are now a half-game ahead of New England and Tennessee, both of whom play this weekend, for the best record in the AFC. Perhaps more importantly, they now have a two-game edge on the Chargers (8-6) in the division race, and they wiped out the tiebreaker the Chargers had by virtue of their victory in Kansas City earlier this season.

It was a comprehensive team effort, too.

That suddenly stingy defense held Justin Herbert to 236 yards passing with two touchdowns and an interception. They forced a fumble near the goal line late in the game, holding Los Angeles to 4 for 7 in the red zone. And they stopped the uber-aggressive Chargers three times on fourth down, including a couple times near the goal line.

On offense, Mahomes merely threw for 410 yards and three touchdowns. Kelce had a career-best 191 yards receiving along with the tying touchdown in regulation and the winner in overtime. Tyreek Hill added 12 catches for 148 yards and another score. And the Chiefs did just enough on the ground to keep the Chargers honest on defense.

“We didn’t win those games kind of at the early part of the year,” Mahomes said, “but we always had the confidence that we knew we had the guys in the locker room to win them. I think we’re still building on trying to become great, but I think we got the guys to do it, so I’m excited for these last few weeks and the playoffs. “

Now the Chiefs turn their attention to a tough finish. They play Pittsburgh the day after Christmas in their regular-season home finale, then head to Cincinnati and Denver, giving them three straight games against wild-card contenders.

WHAT’S WORKING

The Chiefs have learned to deal with defenses that sell out to avoid allowing the big play, putting together long drives that ultimately serve the same purpose. It hasn't been an easy adjustment for Mahomes, who loves nothing more than throwing the deep ball. But by taking what the defense gives them, the Chiefs' offense is showing some newfound flexibility.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

The Chiefs were missing defensive tackle Chris Jones because of COVID-19 protocols. His absence in the middle of the line was a big reason the Chargers ran for nearly 200 yards, and why Kansas City didn't produce a sack.

STOCK UP

Many folks were wondering whether the 32-year-old Kelce had lost a step. But his big night of big plays pushed him over 1,000 yards receiving for the sixth straight season, a record for both the Chiefs and NFL tight ends.

STOCK DOWN

Wide receiver Demarcus Robinson's value has continued to plummet this season. He was targeted three times without a catch Thursday night, despite playing 68% of the offensive snaps. It was the third time in four games he did not have a catch.

INJURIES

The Chiefs are healthy when it comes to traditional injuries. But they lost Jones along with LB Willie Gay Jr. and WR Josh Gordon to the COVID-19 list this week. By playing on Thursday night, and staying away from the team facility for a few extra days, the Chiefs might have an advantage in avoiding the kind of larger outbreak affecting the rest of the league.

KEY NUMBER

7 — Mahomes had his seventh game with at least 400 yards passing and three touchdowns, breaking a tie with Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino for the most by a player in his first five seasons.

NEXT STEPS

The Chiefs get a little break before facing the Steelers on Dec. 26, then finish with the Bengals and Broncos. Pittsburgh (6-6-1) plays the Titans while division-rival Cincinnati (7-6) heads to Denver (7-6) this weekend.

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