By Matt Derrick
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — After returning a kickoff 104 yards for a touchdown in a 31-21 win over the Los Angeles Chargers that Chiefs rookie Mecole Hardman pulled on a No. 32 Tyrann Mathieu jersey as he finished getting dressed.
“You all got to let me pull my Honey Badger jersey on,” Hardman said. He couldn’t explain what motivated him to wear he’s teammate’s jersey.
“I just felt like I should wear it for the last game,” Hardman. “He’s been playing well. I’ve been watching him since I was little, so it’s only right.”
Hardman and his Chiefs teammates watched Mathieu and the Kansas City defense power the team through a five-game winning streak entering Sunday’s season finale, but the sixth-straight win came by virtue of big plays from the offense and special teams.
Arguably no play loomed larger than Hardman’s touchdown return. On the second play of the second half, Tyreek Hill didn’t run the route Patrick Mahomes expected, and the quarterback fired an incompletion into the hands of Chargers cornerback Michael Davis. Three plays later Melvin Gordon romped into the end zone giving Los Angeles a 14-10 lead.
Hardman was champing at the bit on the ensuing kickoff. The Chargers had been kicking away from him through the first half.
“I couldn’t get a chance to get it earlier and I was getting kind of mad because it was like, ‘Man I know I can get these,” Hardman said. “I just wanted to get one out.”
This kick didn’t go to the back of the end zone, but it did send Hardman 4 yards deep. Special teams coordinator Dave Toub gives his returners such as Hardman and Tyreek Hill wide latitude when choosing to bring kicks out of the end zone.
“If you want to take it out, you just be smart with it,” Hardman said. “At the end of the day, it’s kind of up to me. But he trusts me with whatever I want to do, and today I felt it.”
Hardman brought the ball out of the end zone and angled toward the left side line.
“On that last one, I saw the hole, I saw the crease and once I hit it, I was like, ‘Ain’t nobody here, so let me go ahead and go,'” Hardman explained.
— NFL (@NFL) December 29, 2019
Hardman accelerated down the left sideline before cutting back to the inside and outracing Chargers cornerback Brandon Facyson to the end zone, putting Kansas City back in front 17-14. He ran right past head coach Andy Reid on his way to the end zone.
“You see why he was elected to the Pro Bowl as a specialist,” Reid said. “He did a great job staying in bounds. I had a perfect view of it there and it was a heck of a job being able to do that.”
The rookie has said all season long he felt close to breaking one, mostly due to his teammates on the return team.
“It feels so good to do it and to reward the guys in front of me,” Hardman said. “They’ve been working hard all season. They’ve been blocking their ass off all season. Just for me to reward them, it is a great thing. Hopefully, I can get them some more. I think it goes unnoticed what they do.”
Hardman’s return wasn’t the only big play of the third quarter for Kansas City. On the team’s next possession, running back Damien Williams took a handoff on the opening play and raced 84 yards for a touchdown that extended the lead to 24-14.
Damien Williams refuses to go down.
84 yards to the house! #ChiefsKingdom
— NFL (@NFL) December 29, 2019
The win coupled with Miami’s upset over New England Sunday boosted the Chiefs to the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs and a first-round bye. The Chiefs will begin their bid for the Super Bowl hosting the highest ranked winner from next weekend’s Wild Card games at 2:05 p.m. on Jan. 12.
The Chiefs enter the playoffs on a six-game winning streak, the second-longest active streak in the league behind Baltimore, who are winners of their last 12 games. But Hill believes no team enters the playoff on a better run that the Chiefs.
“Yeah man, we are the hottest team,” Hill said. “We have the most swag in the AFC. I know the Ravens got Lamar (Jackson). The Patriots have Tom (Brady), but we’ve got Patrick Mahomes, baby.”
Matt Derrick is the lead beat writer for ChiefsDigest.com and a contributor for Sports Radio 810 WHB. Follow him on Twitter @mattderrick.