KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Chiefs cornerback Sean Smith shut his eyes, a look of frustration and disappointment washing over his face.
It was Sunday, late in the fourth quarter of the Chiefs’ 41-38 loss to San Diego, and quarterback Philip Rivers had just connected with Seyi Ajirotutu for a 26-yard touchdown down the left sideline that put the Chargers ahead by three with only 24 seconds left.
The throw — Rivers’ last of the day — was probably his best, no small feat on a day in which he completed 27 of 39 passes for 392 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. It was also his most important throw, one that cemented his 19th career game-winning drive. So while Smith sulked, Rivers celebrated.
“You just kind of lose your mind when that happens,” Rivers said. “It’s nothing really planned, you don’t know how to react in that situation. But it was awesome.”
That’s probably a good way to describe his touchdown throw to Ajirotutu, which came on second and 15 from the Chiefs’ 26. Chiefs safety Quintin Demps took responsibility, later saying he should have been in better position to help Smith over the top, but Chiefs coach Andy Reid took nothing away from Rivers.
“They say it’s a game of inches; we were off by an inch right there on the coverage,” Reid said. “We had a man over the top of him and a man underneath him, and Philip hit it right in the right spot.”
Reid would know — he saw Rivers dissect his defense all day, particularly once star pass rushers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston were forced out of the game because of injuries.
But aside from the Ajirotutu throw — and a 54-yard completion to Eddie Royal down the right sideline over rookie cornerback Marcus Cooper in the third quarter — Rivers did most of his damage with short and intermediate crossing patterns that the Chargers seemingly swiped right out of the playbook of the Broncos, who beat the Chiefs 27-17 last week.
“With the man coverage opportunities we had, we knew there was going to be an opportunity for some big plays,” San Diego coach Mike McCoy said. “(Rivers) did a nice job of stepping up and finding guys underneath. When you have crossing routes, good players that separate in tight coverage, that’s what happens.”
Rookie receiver Keenan Allen was the biggest beneficiary of those routes. Often matched up against Cooper, Allen finished with nine catches for 124 yards, though cornerback Brandon Flowers was quick to defend Cooper, who has struggled of late after several strong performances to open the season.
“They were catching the ball all over the field today,” Flowers said. “We took this ‘L’ as a defense, as a team.”
The Chargers took a 34-31 lead in the fourth quarter when Rivers found 6-foot-6, 240-pound tight end Ladarius Green — who got a free release in the slot — wide open over the middle of the field. Green proceeded to outrun Flowers and safety Quintin Demps to the end zone for a 60-yard touchdown.
“Our staff did a heck of a job with the plan and creating some crossers, and our guys did a great job of running after the catch,” Rivers said. “We knew coming in, we had to take some shots down the field. Green’s big play, Royal’s big play … those players were huge in us making those scoring drives.”
To be sure, teams will certainly look at the film and continue to hit the Chiefs with crossing routes. However, not everyone has Rivers, a quarterback with a proven track record in the midst of one of his best seasons, someone his coach had full faith in when they got the ball back down 38-34 with 1 minute, 22 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
“There was no doubt in my mind that at the end of the game we were going in and scoring,” McCoy said. “He deserves all the credit he gets.”
Particularly on Sunday, when Rivers made sure he saved his best for last.
“It’s one of those you never forget, that’s for sure,” Rivers said of the comeback.