KANSAS CITY // Up and down the sideline, the Kansas City Chiefs were telling each other the game was not over. It did not matter that Philip Rivers was under centre with less than a minute left, and that Nick Novak was poised to kick the winning field goal for San Diego.
The Chiefs have had their backs against the wall enough this season. They certainly were not going to just quit.
With first down at the Kansas City 15, Rivers called for the snap — and the ball never got into his hands. It squirted loose on the field, bounced under a scrum, and finally emerged in the hands of the Chiefs linebacker Andy Studebaker, who was running to the sideline in joy.
The game headed for overtime, and Ryan Succop eventually knocked through a 30-yard field goal to give the Chiefs a dramatic 23-20 victory over the Chargers.
"Our guys were saying, 'It ain't over 'till it's over. Keep playing, and digging'," Todd Haley, the Chiefs coach, said. "You never know what will happen."
Kansas City (4-3) became the first team in NFL history to lose their first three games and share at least part of a division lead after four more. The Chiefs are also the first team since the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2000 to win four straight games after losing their first three.
Rivers could have prevented all of it from happening.
"I haven't had one in years," Rivers said of the fumbled snap. "It's unfortunate. I dropped it. This one is rough. You blow it on a play that never should have happened."
Kansas City had their own chance to win in regulation, but Matt Cassel overthrew his wide receiver in Chargers territory and Eric Weddle's second interception sent the game to overtime.
San Diego won the toss but failed to pick up a first down, and Cassel calmly led Kansas City down field. Succop's field goal with 5:16 remaining gave the Chiefs their fourth straight win and moved them into a tie with San Diego (4-3) and the Oakland Raiders (4-3) in the division.
"We were saying, 'Don't quit'," Studebaker said. "You never quit, even if it looks ugly. If you quit every time something looks ugly, you miss an opportunity to do something special."
Rivers wound up throwing for 369 yards, but he also had two interceptions and the big fumble.
The teams combined for eight turnovers, matching the most in an NFL game this season. The Chargers were called for 12 penalties worth 105 yards in a gruesome game.
One that looked pretty in the end to Kansas City.
The Chiefs got off to an abysmal start this season, losing their first two games by a combined 89-10 and then dropping their third game on the road, at San Diego. Along the way, the Chiefs lost their Pro Bowl running back Jamaal Charles, safety Eric Berry and tight end Tony Moeaki for the season.
They started moving in the right direction against the division's doormats Minnesota and Indianapolis, and then romped to a 28-0 win over Oakland last week.
Now, they are tied for the lead in the AFC West.
"It's everybody," Haley said of which players stood out in the win. "And I hate to mention one without mentioning them all, because everybody fought their tail ends off to make that result what it was."
The Chiefs had things going early, getting a 36-yard field goal from Succop in the first quarter and then capitalising on Rivers' second interception in the first few minutes.
With the ball at the Chargers 39, Cassel dropped back to pass and saw Jonathan Baldwin streaking for the end zone. The wide receiver outjumped fellow rookie Marcus Gilchrist for his first career touchdown catch, giving the Chiefs a 10-0 lead.
Novak kicked a field goal midway through the second quarter for San Diego, but he missed another late in the second quarter, and Succop hit one with just a few seconds on the clock for a 13-3 half time lead.
The Chargers defence kept them in the game in the third quarter, holding the Chiefs to two three-and-outs and picking off Cassel for the second time. Kansas City only managed 44 yards of offence in the second and third quarters combined.
Novak kicked three field goals in the third quarter, drawing the Chargers within 13-12, but their inability to get into the end zone cost them dearly.
Kansas City finally got their offence in gear, marching 74 yards in 10 plays early in the fourth quarter. Jackie Battle finished off the drive by leaping over the scrum from a yard out, giving the Chiefs a 20-12 lead with 12:01 left.
It did not last long.
Rivers completed four straight passes covering 74 yards - one for 27 yards to Vincent Jackson on third-and-13 - before Curtis Brinkley leapt in from two yards out for the Chargers' first touchdown.
Going for the two-point conversion and the tie, Rivers floated a pass to Brinkley in the flat and he was thrown back by cornerback Brandon Carr. The officials ruled that Brinkley nudged the ball over the goal-line, though, and the decision was upheld by video review.
It was the fourth replay call that went against the Chiefs.
Rivers' butterfingers made that a moot point.
"They had no timeouts. We were in position to go kick the game-winning field goal," Norv Turner, the Chargers coach, said. "It didn't happen. It looked to me like Philip got a little anxious and came out early. That's a very unusual way to not win a game."