Travis Kelce had done this against the Chargers before.
But never against Derwin James Jr. — until Sunday night.
The Kansas City tight end beat James on a drag route for a 17-yard touchdown with 31 seconds remaining, lifting the Chiefs to a 30-27 victory at SoFi Stadium.
“It was just a tough situation,” James said. “He made a play.”
Kelce scored a touchdown late in regulation and then again early in overtime in Week 15 last year in this same venue as Kansas City triumphed in a similarly dramatic way.
That night, James had been injured early in the game and was not available to defend Kelce.
On Sunday, the two were matched up throughout the Chiefs’ game-winning drive. Kansas City moved 75 yards in six plays, including an 18-yard pass (to Marquez Valdes-Scantling) and a 16-yard scramble by Patrick Mahomes.
James also was called for holding Kelce on one play, the Chiefs converting on third and four.
On the final play, James got caught up in the middle of the field while chasing Kelce by another crossing wide receiver, Justin Watson.
“They ran a good play, executed it …” James said. “The dude kind of got in my way, but I gotta make that play.”
Entering Sunday, James and Kelce had shared the field six times. When paired in coverage, Kelce had only five receptions on six targets for 32 yards and no touchdowns, according to Pro Football Focus.
The touchdown was Kelce’s third of the game. He finished with six catches for 115 yards.
The final scoring play also marked a bit of revenge for the veteran tight end. When these teams played at Arrowhead Stadium in September, James tackled Kelce once by picking him up and body slamming him in a highlight that has been shown repeatedly since.
“They made a few plays,” Chargers coach Brandon Staley of the Chiefs on their final possession. “They were contested the whole series. We just didn’t rush or cover well enough to finish it.”
Kansas City went those 75 yards Sunday in 1 minute 15 seconds, spoiling what looked briefly like another fourth-quarter comeback victory for Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert.
The Chargers went 64 yards in 10 plays to take a 27-23 lead with 1:46 remaining. The big play was a Herbert completion to Keenan Allen for 46 yards to convert on third and 18.
Allen returned to the lineup after being limited to 45 snaps all season because of a hamstring issue. He finished with five receptions for 94 yards, his big catch late making up for a fumble he lost on the Chargers’ previous possession.
“I felt like I owed them,” Allen said of his teammates. “Fumble in the fourth quarter against a team like that, it can go down way harder than it did.”
Herbert finished the series by hitting Joshua Palmer for a six-yard touchdown, Palmer’s second of the game. He ended up with eight receptions for 106 yards.
Along with Allen returning, the Chargers also welcomed back wide receiver Mike Williams — but only briefly.
Williams had missed the previous two games because of a high ankle sprain. He tweaked the same ankle on his only reception, a 15-yarder in the first quarter. Williams left the game and did not return.
After the Chargers opened a 20-13 halftime lead, the Chiefs closed to within 20-16 on Harrison Butker’s 30-yard field goal, the only points of the third quarter.
The Chargers (5-5) amassed 240 yards of total offense in the first two quarters but managed only 23 yards and one first down on eight plays in the third quarter.
Kansas City (8-2) seized on its defense’s performance by scoring on the opening play of the fourth quarter to take a 23-20 lead.
The Chiefs went 86 yards in 10 plays, with Mahomes hitting Kelce for a 32-yard catch-and-run for the touchdown.
The drive included Kansas City converting on third and 17 and third and seven before Kelce’s score came on third and four.
Kelce beat cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. on the route and eluded the tackling attempt of safety Nasir Adderley en route to the end zone.
With his receiving corps back intact, Herbert opened the game explosively with a 50-yard touchdown toss on his team’s first series.
He faked a handoff to Austin Ekeler, dropped to the far hash and unleashed the ball 55 yards in the air to Palmer, who made the reception just inside Kansas City’s five-yard line before lunging into the end zone.
The play marked Herbert’s longest touchdown pass since Week 14 of last year when he connected with Jaylen Guyton for a 59-yarder against the New York Giants. Palmer’s longest career touchdown catch before the play had been 24 yards.
Herbert finished 23 for 30 for 280 yards and two touchdowns. His final, desperation pass of the night was intercepted by Kansas City’s Nick Bolton off a deflection to seal the game.
The Chargers’ fate, though, was mostly determined by Kansas City’s two biggest stars.
“They always find a way to win the game,” Allen said. “Travis Kelce. Pat Mahomes. They’re magicians. They always find a way.”