Three times the Los Angeles Chargers faced fourth down in manageable field-goal range Thursday night against the Kansas City Chiefs. Three times coach Brandon Staley eschewed a potential three points to go for it. Each failed, and L.A. lost 34-28 in overtime.
On the game's opening drive, the Chargers failed on fourth-and-goal from the 5-yard-line -- on a scary play in which tight end Donald Parham wound up hospitalized after hitting his head on the turf. On the final play of the first half on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard-line, Justin Herbert had Keenan Allen open, but defensive back Daniel Sorensen batted the ball down. The third failure came on the Chargers' opening drive of the third quarter on fourth-and-2 from the K.C. 28-yard-line (passing up a potential 45-yard field goal).
The misfires wiped out a potential nine points.
But that's not the way Staley looks at it: He wanted seven points each time.
"From where my mindset is, I know that the quickest way to win a game like that is to score touchdowns, not field goals, especially considering who's on the other side," he said after the loss. "To me, when you feel like you're in an advantage situation, when you don't feel like it's a gamble, and you feel like this is an advantage for you, then that's going to be our mindset. I don't think that any decision that I made tonight was a gamble. We felt like it was an advantage situation for us. That's why we did it. If we didn't feel like that was the case, then we would have kicked a field goal or we would have punted. That's the way that we're going to do things around here. I know that our team embraces that mindset. We're going to continue to do it every game we play moving forward."
If the Chargers had kicked field goals -- changing the overall tenor of the game and potentially forcing the Chiefs to play with more urgency earlier -- and still ended up losing, many would decry: You don't beat Patrick Mahomes kicking field goals!
Staley believes his best shot to beat the Chiefs is to go for it. Sometimes it works in his favor. On Thursday, it did not.
Let's not forget, the Week 15 matchup was for the division lead largely because Staley went for it on fourth down in a big spot against the Chiefs in Week 3 and converted (via penalty), leading to an L.A. victory. Otherwise, K.C. would have already owned a commanding division lead.
That needed context underscores Staley's mentality throughout the season: He's going to trust his best players to make plays. It's a do-or-die mentality that has won L.A. games this season. On Thursday, it hurt. But Staley isn't going to change his identity after a defeat.
"That's going to be the mindset no matter who we play," he said. "I felt really comfortable with all of those decisions. The first one, it was a perfect pass, then you have this really tragic thing happen on the way down. The one at the end of the half, I loved that. We just missed [TE] Jared [Cook] on the stick. That's the way that we're going to play around here. That's the way we're going to play. When we have a quarterback like ours, and we have an offense like ours, that's the way we're going to play because that's how you need to play against Kansas City, for sure. That's how we're going to become the team that we're ultimately capable of being, by playing that way. I'm really proud of our guys. I thought we competed like champions today. They made a couple of more plays in the fourth quarter and in overtime than we did. I felt like our guys laid it on the line tonight. I'm very, very proud of them for that."
On Thursday night, L.A. became the first team since at least 2000 to fail on fourth-and-goal twice in the first half, per NFL Research.
The Chargers failed to get points on three drives that ended inside of the Chiefs' 5-yard line (two turnovers on downs and one fumble lost by Joshua Kelley), marking just the second time in the last 30 years that a team had zero points on three drives inside the 5-yard line (Browns in Week 5, 2017 vs. Jets).
The Chargers ran 12 plays from the 5-yard line or closer that did not result in a touchdown (tied for most since 1991).
"It's always tough and you'd love to be able to convert those," Herbert said. "I think we need to be better on third downs so that we're not in those situations, but we believe in each other. We believe in the guys in that locker room and that huddle, and we believe in the defense. I think that's a statement of trusting everyone on the field and off the field, as well. We love to be put in those situations. Unfortunately, we didn't convert as many as we would've liked to have today, but we're going to ride with each other and we're going to be right back."
For players, knowing Staley trusts them to make plays in critical situations adds a vote of confidence. The Chargers went 2-of-5 on fourth downs and 4-of-7 in the red zone.
Moving the ball up-and-down the field all night, the only L.A. punt came on its final possession in regulation -- the only time in 10 drives they didn't take a snap in Chiefs territory.
The Chiefs prepared for the fourth-down calls, and the defense repeatedly made great plays to keep points off the board.
"That's what they do," said coach Andy Reid, who also went for it on fourth down from the 2-yard-line and failed. "They do it with everybody. It wasn't just us. We knew that coming into the game, if it was fourth down -- the head coach has said it, he said that it is like third down to them. But, you have to stop them. Our guys got enough of those to help. We kind of went through the same thing, we got stopped, too. But, it is a long field to drive. Both teams ended up driving the length of the field with pretty good drives."
In the end, Travis Kelce and the Chiefs iced the victory in overtime without allowing Herbert to touch the ball.
The loss dropped the Chargers to 8-6, now two games back of the 10-4 Chiefs in the AFC West. L.A. is currently the No. 5 seed in the conference ahead of this weekend's games.