KANSAS CITY — When Rolf Benirschke lined up to try a 35-yard field goal with 28 seconds to play, the odds were decidedly in his favor.
After all, the Charger place kicker had entered the season with a .710 career percentage, third best in National Football League history. He had made seven of eight this year, including 2 for 2 earlier in Sunday's game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
In his nine-year career, Benirschke had missed only one kick that cost the Chargers a game--a 46-yarder two years ago against Denver. He had made 32 of 48 kicks (66%) from a range of 30 to 39 yards.
Inexplicably, and against these seemingly favorable odds, Benirschke's kick went wide left, leaving the Chiefs with a 42-41 victory.
The odds on Kansas City's winning seemed less favorable than Benirschke's chances of making an intermediate-range field goal from the right hash mark.
The Chiefs (4-3) were outgained by the Chargers (1-6), 512 yards to 222. The Chargers had the ball nearly twice as long, 39 minutes to 21, and ran 95 plays to 50. The Chargers enjoyed a 35-13 edge in first downs. No team had ever run as many plays or had as many first downs against the Chiefs.
So how did the Chargers get their sixth straight loss and fall out of contention in the AFC West?
They did it in part by surrendering three touchdowns on turnovers, two on interception returns of 56 and 47 yards by Lloyd Burruss, and another on a 21-yard fumbled kickoff return by Kevin Ross.
The Chargers lost in spite of getting explosive Gary Anderson more involved in the offense (36 yards rushing, 92 yards receiving, 111 yards on kick returns). They lost in spite of unexpected production from two receivers, aging Charlie Joiner (7 catches, 90 yards) and young Trumaine Johnson (8 catches, 91 yards).
The Chargers lost in spite of a gritty effort that balanced the loss of five injured players, Dan Fouts, Wes Chandler, Lionel James, Eric Sievers and Ken Dallafior.
If anything, the offense functioned more smoothly than it has all season when Mark Herrmann replaced Fouts in the second half.
Fouts, who had played a quarter and a half with a headache and nausea brought on by a mild concussion, turned in an uneven performance. He completed 19 of 33 throws for 200 yards and a touchdown but was intercepted three times, with two of them returned for touchdowns.
Herrmann, after replacing Fouts for one play in the first quarter, was given notice at halftime that he would play the second half. He stepped in and completed 18 of 32 attempts for 181 yards. He threw a touchdown pass was intercepted once.
Herrmann's 12-yard scoring pass to Anderson brought the Chargers within a point of the Chiefs with 3:42 left.
The Chiefs, after failing to run out the clock, were forced to punt. Anderson returned Lewis Colbert's kick 31 yards to the Kansas City 47 with 55 seconds left.
The Chargers then moved into position for Benirschke's field goal try as Herrmann threw to Anderson for eight yards, then ran for six. The Chiefs were called for pass interference as Herrmann attempted to hit Johnson.
Then, with a first down at the 17-yard line and 28 seconds left, the Chargers sent in Benirschke. They had no timeouts and didn't want to risk a turnover or time expiring if they tried another play, according to Coach Don Coryell.
"It would have been too hairy to try to get out of bounds and then get lined up for a kick," Coryell said. "We made the right decision."
None of the Chargers questioned the decision. A check of Benirschke's history indicates he has a 90% success rate from a range of 20 to 29 yards (47 for 52), versus 66% from 30 to 39 yards.
"He's the man I'd want out there," tight end Kellen Winslow said. "I thought he'd go out there, chip it in and we'd have a nice, pleasant plane ride home."
There was more to it, however.
"It's the most unbelievable pressure situation on the field, and one man has it all on his shoulders," said center Dennis McKnight, who snapped the ball to holder Ralf Mojsiejenko.
The Chiefs did their part to add some pressure.
"I'm sure Benirschke had to be feeling us coming," said the Chiefs' Albert Lewis, who already had blocked a Mojsiejenko punt. "We've got people in there like Pete Koch, who've blocked 'em before. You've got to know he was thinking about us being there."
The snap and the hold seemed nearly flawless, and none of the Chiefs penetrated the protection.
"We were both calm and collected, but nothing is ever automatic," Mojsiejenko said. "He just didn't hit it solid. I thought it had enough power where it wouldn't hook left, but it did."
Benirschke, sounding like a golfer lining up a putt, said he didn't want to leave the ball right as he kicked from the right hash mark.
"I should have put it right in the middle, but it tailed away to the left at the end," Benirschke said.
"The tough thing is, we had so many guys injured and we played so hard. I feel like I let everyone down. We deserved to win this game."
The Chiefs didn't agree.