KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The San Diego Chargers were staring down their fourth straight loss when Philip Rivers stepped under center, peered across the line at the Kansas City defense and called for the snap.
Less than a minute later, the entire narrative had flipped.
Rivers had deftly guided San Diego downfield against the previous impenetrable Chiefs, and his 26-yard touchdown pass to Seyi Ajirotutu with 24 seconds remaining on Sunday not only gave his team a dramatic 41-38 victory but also kept the Chargers' season alive.
"It's one of those you'll never forget, that's for sure," Rivers said. "It's kind of what our season's been about. Can you drive and score at the end in 2 minutes?"
The Chargers (5-6) have been on the other side of that ledger so often this season, losing three straight by a combined 18 points. Another defeat in Kansas City would almost certainly have ended any hopes of squeezing into the playoffs.
Even now, they have a long way to go.
"It's the kind of win that can save the season," said Rivers, who threw for 392 yards and three touchdowns. "That doesn't mean it saved it, but it certainly kept it alive."
It was the second straight loss for the Chiefs (9-2), and a deflating one at that. They had just taken the lead with 1:22 remaining when Alex Smith hit Dwayne Bowe in tight coverage. It was the seventh lead change in a game that would feature one more.
"I mean, you'd like to take positives away from games, but right now, it wasn't enough," said Smith, who had 292 yards and three TDs of his own. "We didn't do enough to come out on top."
Not only that but the Chiefs also lost top pass rushers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston to injuries. Hali has a sprained right ankle and Houston a sprained left elbow, and both are due for MRI exams Monday. Their status for next week's game against Denver is in question.
"It's big," Chiefs safety Kendrick Lewis said. "Those guys have done so much for our defense this whole season. We'll see how that works out. Hopefully those guys aren't too bad."
It was a thrilling victory by the Chargers that buoyed their hopes and a damaging defeat for the Chiefs that could have long-range repercussions. Those are the two biggest takeaways from their thrilling game on Sunday. Here are five more:
CHARGERS GROUNDED: The Chargers aired it out in part because running back Ryan Mathews left with a hamstring injury. Chargers coach Mike McCoy did not disclose the severity of the injury, but it appears that he could be out for a while. Danny Woodhead filled in admirably, and McCoy called him "the definition of a football player. Just shows up every day, does his job, doesn't ask too many questions. He just knows what to do."
CHARLES ON THE RUN: Jamaal Charles ran for 115 yards and two touchdowns for the Chiefs, but his true value wasn't just in his stats. He also forced San Diego to load up the box, and that created chances downfield. Donnie Avery had four catches for 91 yards and Bowe had five grabs for 51 yards. "We got some things moving," Smith said. "We just didn't do it enough."
AJIRO-WHO? Ajirotutu figured he had run about six routes all game before he hauled in the winning touchdown pass. He suspected it was coming his way, too. "Philip said, 'Fly on the boundary,' so I knew that's a little code word that he usually says that the ball's coming to you," Ajirotutu said. It was just his third catch of the season, and his first TD since 2010.
SACK STRUGGLES: The Chiefs were on pace to set all kinds of sack records early in the season, and now they can't seem to lay a hand on the quarterback. Safety Eric Berry had their only sack of Rivers on Sunday, just before his TD pass to Ajirotutu, and the loss of Hali and Houston only serves to compound the problem. "Guys need to step up," Chiefs coach Andy Reid said.
ROOKIE WATCH: The Chargers' Keenan Allen had nine catches for 124 yards, shredding the Kansas City secondary in the first half. It was the fourth 100-yard receiving game of the season for the third-round pick. "We get a lot of confidence from this," Allen said. "It's one we needed."
Online: http://pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.