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No one is going to suggest the crown has come off the head of Patrick Mahomes and is now worn by Justin Herbert. No one who saw Herbert outplay Mahomes in a Los Angeles Chargers victory at Kansas City on Sunday is going to actually go that far.
It was, after all, just one afternoon.
But make no mistake, Herbert did something quite significant this game. He sent a message. He made a mark. He let it be known to everyone paying attention that Mahomes finally has a rival in the AFC West.
Herbert made it plain that another team in the division has a quarterback who can match perhaps the NFL’s best quarterback throw for throw, drive for drive, touchdown for touchdown.
The Chargers beat the Chiefs, 30-24. And even though the victory keeps the Chargers a game behind the undefeated Denver Broncos and Las Vegas Raiders, it’s where they are in relation to the Chiefs that matters most.
Because the Chiefs have Mahomes. And the only way to win that division is to outplay Mahomes.
Teddy Bridgewater in Denver isn’t going to do that. Derek Carr in Las Vegas probably won’t.
But Herbert showed he could.
He threw four touchdown passes to three by Mahomes. He threw for 281 yards compared to 260 by Mahomes. Herbert didn’t make mistakes, which is what Mahomes did when he threw two interceptions.
And when the game was being decided, Herbert was simply the better quarterback. That’s why the Chargers scored on each of their final three possessions, all of them in the fourth quarter, to beat the favored Chiefs.
“I felt like Justin was the best player on the field, and I think Mike Williams was right there
with him,” Chargers coach Brandon Staley said. “I thought that those two guys really stood out to me.
“Justin had four touchdowns, no interceptions. There was a fierce rush out there. I felt like he really played the position how you need to. I felt like he was patient when he needed to be. We had a couple play-action shots that didn’t quite express themselves. I felt like he was awesome in the check down game getting the ball underneath.
“They played a lot more two-deep zone coverage with some of their corner situation. He just played the position at a high level. He showed high-level toughness and then certainly in a two minute drill, the big throw to Keenan Allen and then finishing off with Mike was excellent.”
Before Staley’s press conference was over, the rookie head coach called Herbert “a gangster quarterback.”
Safety Derwin James Jr. spoke of how he “loves” Herbert. And Williams, who had seven catches for 122 yards and two touchdowns, said Herbert “balled out.”
“Well, I appreciate the kind words,” Herbert said with trademark humility “They all say it in their different ways, but it’s awesome.”
Herbert’s final TD pass was only a 4-yard throw, but the distance it covered belied the amount of work the quarterback did during the week to get it. Because that play was originally supposed to be a run, which Herbert changed to a pass after studying the situation much of last week.
“Yeah, it’s one of those plays where we’ve got a designed run, but we’ve got a pass tagged
onto it,” Herbert said. “If we get the look, one-on-one with Mike Williams, all week we talked about taking advantage of those matchups.”
Herbert also linked up with Williams on a 20-yard score. The receiver was supposed to run one route but changed up at the line of scrimmage and signaled his quarterback he was doing something else.
Herbert saw the signal and delivered a good throw to finish a good play, even though he didn’t see the result.
“It was supposed to be a slant, but Mike has such a great feel for leverage of the defender so he put his hand up. I saw it and got the ball off quick enough,” Herbert said. “I didn’t actually get to see him catch the ball because I was on the ground (after getting hit by Kansas City pass rushers) but he makes plays out there.
“For him to do that, we definitely have to talk about it, but it was good to see from him.”
Interesting how Herbert deflects praise and instead redirects to teammates. That is modesty, of course, but his teammates see it as leadership.
And that’s something some teams didn’t think Herbert had enough of before the 2020 NFL draft. Big mistake.
But Herbert is doing a great job so far of making people realize how large that mistake really is. Because with each passing week, he’s looking more and more like a franchise quarterback.
On Sunday, Herbert became only the fifth player in the Super Bowl era to record five games with at least three touchdown passes and zero interceptions in his first two seasons, joining Lamar Jackson (six games), Dan Marino (six), Mahomes (five) and Dak Prescott (five).
That type of play even got Mahomes’ attention.
Mahomes, you’ll recall, is the guy who was enjoying a round of celebrity golf in Lake Tahoe in the offseason when someone in the gallery warned him Herbert is on his way after a stellar rookie season.
“Watch out for Justin Herbert next year,” the fan yelled out.
“I’ll see it when I believe it,” the former Super Bowl MVP answered.
Yeah, not exactly the right phrase but you get the drift.
Mahomes was asked about that Sunday.
“I guess I believe it,” a humbled Mahomes responded. “That’s all you can say.”