The Kansas City Chiefs saw their bandwagon empty during a midseason swoon, fans jumping ship almost as quickly as Kareem Hunt hitting a hole or Tyreek Hill speeding to the end zone.
They never lost faith in each other, though.
The Chiefs instead rallied to beat the Oakland Raiders last week, setting up a crucial AFC West showdown with the Los Angeles Chargers. And in a dominant performance reminiscent of earlier this season, the Chiefs rolled to a 30-13 victory Saturday night to seize control of the divisional race.
"It feels good to be back in this position," said Chiefs safety Ron Parker, who had one of the three interceptions thrown by the Chargers' Philip Rivers. "We stuck it out as a family the last couple weeks, did a good job of staying together. It would have been easy to fall apart."
U.S. & World
The only way the Chiefs can squander the division and automatic playoff berth is by losing their last two games and the Chargers or Oakland Raiders winning out.
"It felt like a playoff game," Parker said. "This is the closest thing it gets to a playoff game."
The Chiefs (8-6) got production from their biggest stars: Alex Smith threw for 231 yards and two touchdowns, Kareem Hunt ran for 155 yards and accounted for two touchdowns, Tyreek Hill hauled in a 64-yard touchdown pass and Marcus Peters had a hand in forcing three turnovers.
It all added up to an eighth straight win over the Chargers.
"I didn't think we played our best. We have to look at ourselves and ask why," Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said. "We missed tackles. We didn't execute well on offense. We went back to some dumb penalties we had early in the year. We made this game bigger than it really was."
The Chargers (7-7) led 13-10 early in the second half, but Rivers threw three interceptions — two of them to Peters — and Austin Ekeler coughed up a fumble down the stretch.
That ended their four-game win streak and quite possibly their playoff hopes.
Rivers finished with 221 yards passing and a touchdown, but has thrown 13 interceptions during the Chargers' losing streak to the Chiefs. Melvin Gordon added 78 yards rushing and a score.
"We took a step back today," Lynn said.
The game shaped up as a matchup of teams going in opposite directions: The Chiefs were 5-0 before watching their division lead waste away, while the Chargers started out 0-4 but won seven of their next nine to forge a near-winner-take-all divisional showdown at Arrowhead Stadium.
Instead, the Chiefs looked like they did in their Week 3 win over the Chargers.
So did the Chargers, for that matter.
The Chiefs' defense, which played so salty last week against Oakland, was buoyed by the return of Peters from a one-game disciplinary suspension in helping to build a 10-6 halftime lead.
Rivers eventually got on track, going 5 for 5 for 88 yards on his first drive of the second half, and his 10-yard touchdown pass to trusty tight end Antonio Gates gave Los Angeles its only lead.
One that didn't last very long.
The Chiefs answered with a methodical, 69-yard scoring drive of their own. Hunt supplied most of the work, and he capped the drive by catching Smith's short TD toss to give the Chiefs a 17-13 lead.
"He's such a well-rounded football player," Smith said. "He's so good in the passing game, has such a good feel, which is so important for a running back."
Two plays later, Rivers floated a pass downfield and Peters leaped up to make an easy interception, and his long return set up first-and-goal at the Chargers 6. The Chiefs nearly turned it into another TD when Smith found Hunt again, but the tip of the ball hit the turf for an incompletion.
The Chiefs' challenge failed and Harrison Butker knocked through a field goal for a 20-13 lead.
The Chargers' offense, which had committed just six giveaways over the last nine games, coughed it up again three plays later. Peters helped to pry loose the ball from Ekeler, and Butker tacked on a 51-yard field goal a short while for a comfortable cushion.
Rivers threw two more picks in the fourth quarter, giving him six in two games against Kansas City this season, and ending any hopes of Los Angeles mounting a comeback.
"We definitely wanted to put pressure on Philip. We know he's a gunslinger," Chiefs cornerback Darrelle Revis said. "He does take risks in the passing game. We just happened to put pressure on him in the front seven, guys did a great job and we came out with a lot of turnovers."
The Chiefs came out with a crucial victory, too.